In front of the busy Al-Jalafi Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a short, pixelated cellphone video captures the graphic scene of a man being mercilessly flogged in front of hundreds of onlookers. A policeman shouts at the crowd that no cellphones are allowed and recording is forbidden, but the mob’s rhythmic chants of “Allahu akbar” (God is the greatest) overpower the officer’s pleas. The man being flogged is Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who has been charged with “insulting Islam” by advocating secularism on his blog, Free Saudi Liberals, which was shut down earlier this year. He was flogged 50 times last January, but the 950 more he is sentenced to receive in portions have been postponed, supposedly for medical reasons. The grounds for the flogging and the severity of Saudi Arabia’s draconian measures have ignited international uproar and prompted further investigation into the country’s human rights abuses.
Badawi first began his activism in 2008 with the Liberal Saudi Network, an online forum for political and religious debate. Many of his articles advocate for secularism, while some explicitly criticize an “Islamist chauvinist arrogance” as the source of societal conflicts. Although he has been online for years, he was not arrested until 2012 for “insulting Islam through electronic channels,” which is likely because his political activism inside of Saudi Arabia did not grow into a tangible threat to the regime until after the 2011 Arab uprisings.
In light of Badawi’s prominent case, human rights advocacy groups have taken King Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz Al Saud’s death and the succession of his brother King Salman to the throne as an opportunity to raise awareness of the abuses taking place in Saudi Arabia. Still, advocacy groups remain skeptical about the potential for reforms. Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher on Saudi Arabia, told The Politic: “Given [King Salman’s] background and what he has said so far, it appears he will continue Abdullah’s cautious reforms on women’s rights, but I wouldn’t expect dramatic gains in other areas.” These other areas include political reforms and the decriminalization of secularism, which Badawi’s plight relies upon.
The recent media frenzy around the country’s human rights record calls for a more accurate understanding of Saudi Arabia’s legal system. The extremism of Saudi Arabia’s jurisprudence has its roots in the ruling Al Saud family’s politicization of the ultraconservative Wahhabi movement of Islam. The founder of the Saudi state, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, adopted Wahhabism as the ideology of his state and strategically used it to acquire power by forcing others to adopt it or face harsh punishments, a practice that continues in the country today. Ironically, Abd al-Latif al-Shaykh, a descendant of the Wahhabi movement’s founder, was a large reformer under the Abdullah regime as head of the religious police, but he was removed from that position under King Salman.
The origins of Saudi Arabia’s legal system lie in shari’a law, and the country lacks a written penal code. As a result, local judges have liberty in their punishments and verdicts based on their respective interpretations of shari’a, which comes from the Qur’an, Hadith, and other Islamic texts. The death penalty can be imposed for numerous offenses, including rape, murder, armed robbery, drug trafficking, and apostasy, which the Saudi government defines as the abandonment of Islam and of which it accuses Badawi.
Ultraconservative Wahhabism remains the dominant ideology in Saudi Arabia, but there have been recent reforms to the legal system standardizing the movement’s fundamentalist interpretation of shari’a. The late King Abdullah issued a series of decrees in 2007, including the establishment of a Supreme Court and specialized tribunals intended to wrest authority from the shari’a courts by limiting its jurisdiction. In 2008, the Specialized Criminal Court was created to charge suspected terrorists. However, it has mostly been used to charge human rights activists, like Waleed Abu al-Khair, Badawi’s lawyer, who criticized the lack of political freedoms in Saudi Arabia and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The terrorist court has recently expanded its definition of “terrorist” to include atheists, though a WIN-Gallup International poll finds 5 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population self-identifies with atheism, including Badawi. The role of these various judicial entities remains unclear, making speculation of future human rights cases all the more uncertain, but the use of the terrorism court against critics of the regime makes prospects of reform in the near-future less than optimistic. A different perspective is that the recent floggings could also just be a part of Saudi Arabia’s cyclical history in which there are harsh sentences followed by a pardon by the King, a move that accomplishes demonstrating his “mercy” along with his power.
Of course, Badawi is only one of many brutally punished by Saudi security forces. In November 2014, a man was fined and imprisoned for “immoral acts” because he sent nude photos to other men online. In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Saudi Arabia is a member, homosexual acts are criminalized. What sets Saudi Arabia apart from other GCC countries, however, is a pervasively institutionalized discrimination against women. This is based on the male guardianship system, which requires the consent of a male guardian for a woman to access many rights afforded to men, including access to higher education.
Another case was the beheading of Layla bint Abdul Mutaleb Bassim, who was accused of murdering and sexually abusing her daughter but pleaded her innocence up until the last moments of her life in January. Recently, execution rates have been on the rise in Saudi Arabia, with 87 total executions in 2014 (up from 79 in 2012). According to Amnesty International, Bassim has been one of 47 executed this year, a number continuously rising. In a 2014 press release, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme stated, “The use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia is so far removed from any kind of legal parameters that it is almost hard to believe.”
Coogle criticized the media coverage of these brutal “sensationalist issues,” for failing to address other important problems such as the “lack of due process in the criminal justice system, freedom of expression, or the abuses against non-Christian religious minorities.” One of the largest problems in Saudi Arabia is the mass incarceration of political dissidents and journalists. An Islamic Human Rights Commission report estimated as many as 30,000 people are under house arrest or jailed in the country.
The politicization of human rights and cases like Badawi’s is a large aspect of U.S.-Saudi relations, and continued U.S. support undermines the universality of these rights. Criticism of human rights abuses abroad must also include an acknowledgment of abuses domestically, whether that is gender inequality, LGBTQ rights, Guantanamo, or largely racialized mass incarceration. While Saudi Arabia makes it a public affair to impose the death penalty by beheading and flogging activists like Badawi, many countries, including and especially the U.S., still practice capital punishment. Substantially less time and resources are spent on these punishments by human rights organizations and Western media alike, which contributes to a narrative of Western exceptionalism on human rights abuses. In a talk at Yale last December, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power explained, “As a U.S. diplomat, I can’t tell you how often other governments point to Gitmo as a way of defending their oppressive practices.”
Although the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia are overwhelming, many Western governments are careful to espouse any form of criticism against their ally. Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, even went in the completely opposite direction and called King Abdullah a “strong advocate of women” when paying tribute to him at the 2015 Davos economic forum in Switzerland. Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Middle East and its importance as a massive oil-exporting state make it a vital partner to the U.S., but relations with both Saudi Arabia and Israel have recently been strained by U.S.-Iranian talks on nuclear nonproliferation, which could result in eased Iranian sanctions. Saudi Arabia has countered by accusing U.S. calls to stop Raif Badawi’s punishment and Canada’s appeal for his relocation to Quebec where his family currently resides to be an infringement of the country’s sovereignty.
Current U.S.-Saudi relations remain strong, but there are growing demands for the U.S. to take a stronger stance on human rights advocacy and condemn the punishments against Badawi. Disillusioned by Western complacency, some groups are taking Badawi’s case into their own hands and appealing directly to King Salman. The Lantos Foundation, a U.S.-based human rights organization, has a petition circulating on Change.org asking that the signees will take the remaining lashes instead of Badawi— the petition has more than 1000 signatures.
In light of the events continuing to unfold in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia asserts and expands its power in the region, human rights and the case of Raif Badawi will certainly be at the forefront of discussion.