Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The back side of the station in Saudi Arabia: Murder by the State

Tom Friedman has often referred to the Middle East as a fuel station for the Western world.  As long as they pump fuel we’re not concerned about what’s going on out in back of their station:  anything can go on there as long as we get what we want from the pump.  The problem is that what goes on “out back” is inimical to Western values, indeed, values of decency anywhere.  

This I feel confident in saying because it is evident that these regimes are embarrassed for the rest of the world to see what they are doing to their own people.  Syria is in the news these days for abusing its own citizens, its army shooting them down as if they were armed warriors when the people being killed are unarmed.  And Saudi Arabia has piously condemned the Syrians, all the while enforcing rules among it own citizenry that are blatantly unfair and unjust.  
The Nation (http://www.thenation.com) has published a report on the Saudi plan to execute a 23-year-old journalist who faces charges of apostasy for posting controversial views of the Prophet Muhammad on Twitter in early February.  The political reasons seem transparent and therefore the hypocrisy nauseating.  I copy the article here to emphasize the outrage that this case deserves.  I appreciate having the situation drawn to my attention; the person who sent it to me believes that Mr Kashgari will indeed be executed.  Kashgari, as his name implies, is not of Arab descent so he is an easier target, treated as an insidious influence among the purebred citizens.  Here is the article from the Nation.  [Click on the title able for a link to the source.]  
The Nation:  “The Price of Dissent in Saudi Arabia” February 15, 2012

Saudi Arabia appears determined to sacrifice one of its young on the  altar of domestic politics. At the center of a brewing storm is Hamza  Kashgari, a 23-year-old journalist who faces charges of apostasy and a  potential death sentence for posting controversial views of the Prophet  Muhammad on Twitter in early February. In three short messages, in which  he expressed a mix of devotion, frustration and uncertainty about his  faith, Kashgari has stirred rancor across Arabia. His greatest affront, it seems, was giving voice to doubt. Many in Saudi Arabia share his views, but it is a poisonous environment for those who harbor uncertainty. In a place that demands public conformity to a narrow interpretation of Islamic orthodoxy and servility to religion’s  gatekeepers, Kashgari said too much.

Tens of thousands of self-righteous Saudis responded venomously, including the country’s king, who allegedly personally ordered  Kashgari’s detention. Amid calls for his death, a desperate and  frightened Kashgari tried and failed to flee. An escape to New Zealand, where he hoped to press for political asylum, was interrupted after authorities in Malaysia deported him back to Saudi Arabia. Should Kashgari face formal criminal charges of apostasy, prosecutors will argue that he blasphemed Islam’s most important figure. It is an accusation fraught with peril. Angry clerics serve as gatekeepers of the law and, more important, as dispensers of cruelty masked as justice.

While the most vituperative responses to the Kashgari affair are no  doubt rooted in zealous conviction, the reality is that this episode,  and particularly the government’s support for the case against him, has  little to do with protecting the sanctity of Islam. Rather, the Saudi regime is playing a calculated political game, one that aims to oppress some critics, to outmaneuver others and to bolster its thin claims to religious legitimacy.

While his postings on Muhammad suggest contemplative self-reflection,  Kashgari subsequently confided that he was aware not only of the  potential risk but that by courting controversy he was deliberately testing the limits of his freedom. Before his deportation, he described  his actions  [1] as practicing “the most basic human rights—freedom of expression and  thought…there are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are  fighting for their rights.”

Kashgari was hardly a revolutionary, but his views most certainly were.  The kingdom’s government is intolerant of free speech, especially  anything that challenges political authority. Dissenting religious and  political views, including those expressed by Kashgari, are widely  shared inside the kingdom. Among the droves of death threats and the cries of angry critics, Kashgari also commands a sympathetic following.  Thousands have rallied in his support. And the regime in Riyadh is well aware, particularly in an era of revolutionary upheaval, that a  significant number of its subjects bristle against its authority. Such  sentiment is hard to quantify, and criticism is only safely asserted  anonymously. But the critics are there, most notably in the new social  media. And they have potential power, which the regime grudgingly  understands.

But while Twitter and Facebook have opened avenues for dissent, there  are still significant dangers, something the Kashgari affair makes  painfully clear. The regime is notorious for filling its prisons with  political activists. In November the kingdom sentenced seventeen  activists [2] to long prison terms for daring to demand greater human and  political rights. And there are other pressures at work that inhibit any  public mobilization in support of Kashgari or against the regime. Many  who have called for his death demand   [3] exactly the same for the thousands who support him. Given the power accorded by the regime to extremists, it is enough to shock most into reticence.  Ultimately Kashgari proved vulnerable not because he is alone but because the regime has rendered the price of dissent unbearable. By arresting and threatening him under the cloak of Islamic law, the regime  has also sent a clear message to others like him.

Kashgari’s persecution also marks an effort by Saudi Arabia’s leaders to  shore up support from within the halls of religious authority. The royal  family has long leaned on the country’s senior clerics to stamp its  temporal power with the imprimatur of religious legitimacy. But many in  the kingdom see through the claim. Pious and agnostic alike consider the  royal family corrupt and irreverent. It is commonly held that Riyadh’s  assertion of Islamic authority is spurious, a fiction that the  government peddles as an excuse to protect its personal fortunes and  power. Whether genuine or not, the result has been the empowerment of a  class of religious scholars who are committed to protecting their own  authority.

The Saudi-scholar alliance has proven a devil’s bargain at times. Over  the past three decades these frustrations have generated significant  challenges to the regime, with outspoken clerics periodically targeting  the government for its infidelities. Mindful of this, the kingdom’s  leaders regularly seek opportunities to placate potential critics in the  mosques. In doing so, they have assured the rise of a clerical class  that is simultaneously a pillar of support and a potential threat. An  unfortunate consequence of this arrangement has been the de facto  encouragement of extreme figures at the expense of more reasoned voices.

As the drama surrounding Kashgari unfolded Nasser al-Omar, a  particularly odious scholar with a history of calumny, emerged as the  leading figure in his public persecution. Al-Omar’s radical credentials  are considerable. In the 1990s he was an advocate of an especially  shrill anti-Shiite sectarianism    [4], a sentiment that is deeply entrenched in Saudi society today. More  important, he is part of a generation of scholars that has openly  questioned the fitness of the Al Saud to rule. In a video commentary   [5] that quickly went  viral, al-Omar broke down in tears as he called for Kashgari’s  execution. Al-Omar tapped into widespread sentiment, but his visibility  and the government’s accommodation of figures like him speaks directly  to both the cravenness of the government’s agenda as well as royal  anxiety about the potential for the clergy to rally against the crown.

Hamza Kashgari, then, is a sacrifice the royal family is not just  willing to make, but that its continued power depends on. In the torrent  of invective and recrimination that has swept through Saudi Arabia in  recent weeks, the country’s rulers no doubt find comfort in pitting its  citizens against one another. Better to encourage culture wars than  allow critics to direct their ire toward the seat of power.

*Source URL:* http://www.thenation.com/article/166305/price-dissent-saudi-arabia
[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/13/saudi-writer-mohammad_n_1273081.html
[2] http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/22/saudi-activists-sentences-idUSL5E7MM3J820111122
[3] http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article574314.ece
[4]  http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/saudi-arabia%E2%80%99s-sectarian-ambivalence
[5] http://www.you

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mohammad would have been pissed had he been alive and seen what is going on in the Muslim world today - it is amazing to see what these despicable Arab leaders would not use to stay in power. And Friedman is right to say that as long as they give us (oil) what we want, we don't care about their outrageous and inhumane policies. It is not only the Arab world but the rest of the Muslim world that has also lost their ways and live in pure barbaric ways - by this I don't mean citizens in these countries are barbaric but their leaders - who have come to power not through legitimate elections but guns and bullets. Look at what is happening in Afghanistan: killing people over burning of the Koran - a sacred book who they "haven't even read." I oppose the burning of any holy book and I think we have to have respect and tolerance for one another, but there's no justification nor excuse for the kind of violence these people have resorted to. There's the issue of politics and Gen. John Keane rightly pointed out that Karzai and his crooks are supporting and inflaming this sort of violent protests in order to divert people's attention from the real problems. I'm convinced that the burning of the Koran by U.S. soldiers has been unintentional, but even if it is not, an action done by few cannot speak for all the US soldiers sacrificing their lives in Afghanistan.