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Friday, June 19, 2015

From Raif Badawi to Charlie Hebdo - The noxious influence of Saudi Wahhabism

I spent the first 10 years of my life in Saudi Arabia - watching the current cruel treatment of Raif Badawi brings a lot of memories into focus. In this blogpost, I wanted to talk not only about the case, but Wahhabism, the odious strain of Islamic puritanism which fuels untold hatred, and to touch on why the mantra that "beliefs must be respected" is fundamentally misguided... 

Saudi Arabia is a a paradox difficult for an outsider to fathom– an oil rich nation with gleaming modern cities and comforts that  yet maintains a religious orthodoxy which makes medieval Europe look enlightened by contrast; The shocking on-going treatment of blogger Raif Badawi is a gruesome  illustration of this very point - Badawi’s sole  crime has been to eloquently express his thoughts on secularism, stating on his blog that “Secularism respects everyone and does not offend anyone ...” .

For these thoughtful words, Badawi lies physically and mentally broken by cruel lashings. Hopes this week for a quashing of his sentence in the face of global pressure have been dashed by an unrepentent Saudi, standing firm despite the pleas of other nations for leniency. This is unsurprising - Saudi Law is notoriously harsh on critics of religion, even those as eloquent and inoffensive as Badawi, with the penalty for apostasy carrying an automatic death sentence by beheading or cruxifiction  . As the Badawi case focues world attention on Saudi’s atrocious human rights record, it’s worth examining the how the distinctly Saudi strain of puritanism has deep implications far beyond the kingdom; whether it’s the horrendous massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris or horrific actions by ISIS.

Such extremist actions have prompted much conversation about religious sensibility – despite much of these awful events being carried out ostensibly in Islam’s name,  the vast majority of Muslims worldwide condemn the attacks in Paris and beyond. But what fuels such furiousity by a persistent fringe? As other commentators have already stated eloquently, it is absolutely ridiculous to place blame for such attacks on Muslims collectively – this is akin to the blood libel that Jews have persistently been subjected to.  But having made this vital observation, it is important to look at factors driving such extremism – In a recent piece for the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole points to the odious influence of Saudi Arabia on the propagation of Islamic fundamentalism; having grown up in Riyadh, this is something I can attest to. Saudi is the cradle of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative puritanical strain of Islam that simply does not tolerate the existence of other beliefs; it is strictly mandated, and worship of other religions forbidden with terrifying penalties for those who would dare defy that ruling. Wahhabism’s petulant intolerance extends beyond conflicting faiths; it declares even other Muslims as takfirs (apostates) – a crime punishable by death.

This this not merely idle posturing; it is rigidly observed. There are few things as terrifying as an encounter with the Muttawa, aggressive enforcers dispatched by Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a somewhat Orwellian moniker. Their brief is to stalk the streets, looking for breaches of Sharia law and meting out whatever punishment they deem sufficient. These infractions might include not correctly wearing the Abaya (covering) or being out in public without a male relative if female, behaving contrary to Islamic morals, or even just socialising. To describe women are second-class citizens would be an understatement: They are banned from most jobs, driving , and even being out in public without male guardians, and these restrictions are aggressively maintained. In response to these archaic decrees, Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari sadly observed that Saudi women will never go to hell, because "it's impossible to go there twice" . Torture and capital punishment are frequently doled out on the flimsy of evidence , in the grim spectacle of public execution. Unsurprisingly perhaps, human rights in Saudi consistently rank among the “worst of the worst” . 

Nor are Foreigners somehow exempt from the whims and rule of the Mutaween; Ali Hussain Sibat, a Lebanese television presenter of a supernaturally themed show was detained and sentenced to death for sorcery, and only spared after relentless pressure from the Lebanese government and human rights groups . Foreigners account for roughly half of all executions in the Kingdom - Religious freedom does not exist; it is expressly banned, even in private dwellings, and this is aggressively enforced- In 2011, Christians in Jeddah were raided whilst praying in a private dwelling, where they were beaten and threatened with death. Many Westerners ex-patriates can easily cite instances where they’d been accosted or abused by the exceptionally zealous and often frightening Muttawa over some perceived transgression– I have a vivid and frightening childhood memory of a Muttawa berating and man-handling my mother in a shopping centre because one of her ankles were visible, his face contorted with unadulterated malice – a horrifying spectacle mercifully shattered by my father physically intervening. 

Nationals fare even worse; in 2002 a fire broke out in a girl’s school in Mecca; rather than assist, Muttawa actively impeded their safe evacuation on account of the girls being improperly covered and the belief of the Islamic police that this would result in sexual enticement. Doors were bolted and civil defence teams held back by the Mutaween, with both firefighters and school girls beaten. This positively medieval stance lead to the deaths of 15 girls. Despite convincing testimony from survivors, civil defence members and reporters, an inquiry absolved the religious police of any wrong-doing. This is not surprising, as the Mutaween are largely untouchable; in 2013, they rammed a car carrying brothers Saud and Nasser Al-Qaws off the road for playing patriotic songs; both brothers died, and footage of the ghastly event went viral. Despite this, a Sharia court dismissed any charges against those responsible. 

The extraordinary power of religious forces in Saudi are an artifact of its history, wrought in the uneasy alliance of the ruling house of Saud with the militant successors of 18th century puritan Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The immense complexity of this situation is far beyond the scope of this short post, but Robert Lacey’s works are especially illuminating regarding the labyrinth of hidden power struggles that shape modern Saudi. To many western observers, hearing recently deceased King Abdullah praised for being progressive seems absolutely bizarre, unless tempered with the realisation that progressive is an incredibly relative term in this case; the house of Saud’s ability to modernise is opposed clerics, who resist stubbornly any move to modernise and enjoy immense support. Abdullah’s predecessor, King Fahad, once opined privately that "If an election were held here tomorrow, Bin Baz [then Grand Mufti ]would beat us without leaving his house."  As an incredibly oil rich Nation, Saudi has spent billions on exporting its hard-line views, founding mosques and Islamic cultural centres across the world, preaching the same profoundly fundamentalist and often intolerant views. 

So how should we react, when confronted with a twisted spectacle of bare-faced hypocrisy by the Saudi Authorities, condemning the Charlie Hebdo massacre on one hand whilst torturing citizens for thought crimes with another? Worse, as O’Toole explains, the interpretation of Islam that led to the Charlie Hebdo massacre is not a “weird aberration” – it has sprung forth from the Draconian influence of Saudi Clerics, whose deep pockets have allowed their doctrine to creep, despite the tiny fraction of Wahabbists around the world. It is perhaps no coincidence that the most enthusiastic practitioners are the disenfranchised, like the Koucahi brothers – the core of the Saudi Mutaween is similarly composed. Whether it’s the horrors of attacks in New York or Paris, or the brutality of ISIS, the noxious influence of Wahhabism runs deep. 

Saudi also illustrates another fundamental problem we often glide over -  the persistent simplistic mantra that all beliefs should be respected. This is well-meaning but nonsensical at best and actively damaging at worst; people, not beliefs, deserve respect. This should be obvious, but it is frequently inverted; in the outpouring of shock and grief after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there were those who tried to rationalise the attack, implying or outright stating that while they decried the murders, the publication was racist and offensive. Charges of racism are poorly founded, based on out of context cherry-picking by Anglophones and has been dismantled comprehensively elsewhere. But more telling is the implicit victim-blaming, a rationalisation on the grounds that ‘muslims’ were offended. Not only does this reasoning elevate belief to some undue platform, it is staggeringly reductive and utterly vapid; Muslims are not some homogeneous bunch – there is a world of difference between a devout Wahhabi and a liberal Muslim, an Iranian Shia and a Berber immigrant. It is patronising and insulting to assume their various beliefs, stances and experiences can be unified as a single entity (Zineb el-Rhazoui, the French journalist of Berber origin has penned a wonderful piece skewering the reductive approach which is well worth a read) or that one’s beliefs can somehow justify the taking of human life. 

It is intellectually vapid to place a belief beyond criticism or ridicule solely because it is religious in nature, yet such entitled demands are common, and not solely from Islam by any means; earlier this year the Pope declared that "You cannot make fun of the faith of others." This strain of religious exceptionalism is precisely the problem; While people should be welcome to hold whichever belief they desire, unthinking deference to belief and fear of offending facilitates abuses, particularly when these beliefs place barriers on social integration and equality, or condones abuse or subrogation of others. The problem is that many beliefs are simply toxic, and religion cannot continue to shield for criticism. People have the right to hold them, but when these beliefs infringe on others, the fact that criticism may cause offense should not stop us from doing so. As the Saudi state tortures Raif Badawi, it is vital we remind ourselves that the consequences of respecting belief over respecting people cannot be entertained, and equally important that we recognise Saudi's ugly role in perpetuating  extremism at home and abroad. 

Raif Badawi - appeal here - https://www.amnesty.org.uk/giving/raif-badawi-eappeal 

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