When I heard about the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud on 22 January at age 90, I wondered how the leaders of Western liberal democracies would respond. What sort of tributes would they pay to the late Saudi king? How does one praise the deceased monarch of a country where people are still publicly beheaded and flogged; where all religions except for the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam are officially banned; where Jews are denied entry; where women are not allowed to get behind the wheel of a car? Here are a few of the things that were said. In his tribute to the late Saudi king, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that “[h]e will be remembered for his long years of service to the Kingdom, for his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths.” Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair called him “a staunch advocate of interfaith relations.” Queen Elizabeth cited the late king’s work for “peace and understanding between nations and faiths.”
He worked for “understanding between faiths”? Tell that to the two million Christian foreign workers in Saudi Arabia where all churches are banned, where Christians have to meet in private homes, secretly. But even there they are not out of the reach of the Saudi religious police. A home church was raided a while ago. Bibles were seized, musical instruments were confiscated, and 27 people, including women and children, were arrested. Their offence: holding a Christian prayer meeting in a private home.
When David Cameron, Tony Blair, and Queen Elizabeth praised the late Saudi king’s commitment to interfaith relations, they weren’ t talking about interfaith relations in Saudi Arabia. No, they were no doubt referring to the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural dialogue (KAICIID), brainchild of the late Saudi king (I discuss KAICIID in my June 2013 blog.) The centre was founded jointly in 2011 by Saudi Arabia, Austria, and Spain, with oil-rich Saudi Arabia “picking up the bill” and agreeing to finance the centre for the first three years. The Holy See joined at that time as a founding observer. KAICIID is headquartered in Vienna, not Saudi Arabia. The late Saudi king was an advocate for interfaith relations, true, just not on his ‘home turf’.
I can understand why Western leaders paid tribute to the late Saudi monarch: It was a political necessity. The West needs Saudi oil and continued Saudi participation in the military coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS, or ISIL). What I can’t accept, however, was the response by Westminster Abbey which flew its flag at half-mast as a “mark of respect” for the late Saudi king. Even more reprehensible, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, gave his approval to the flag flying at half-mast, citing King Abdullah’s role in helping to bring faiths together. He said this, knowing that Christian churches are not allowed to be built in Saudi Arabia, and that leaving Islam and converting to Christianity is a capital offence. Building an expensive interfaith centre in some distant European country, even while denying religious rights to those in one’s own country, makes his advocacy for interfaith relations a sham.
World leaders may find it harder to ‘turn a blind eye’ to the lack of fundamental human rights in the Kingdom, however, now that the appalling treatment of liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has come to the world’s attention. Badawi’s offence: He maintained a blog, “Free Saudi Liberals,” that encouraged debate about religion and politics. He was arrested in 2012 for posting articles on his blog critical of senior religious figures in Saudi Arabia. Badawi was charged with setting up a website that “undermined general security, of ridiculing Islamic religious figures, and of going beyond the realm of obedience.” And for this, the blogger was sentenced to ten years in jail, a fine of $260,000, and 1000 lashes, with 50 lashes to be given at one-week intervals. It is the idea of 1000 lashes for simply maintaining a blog site that has so incensed people worldwide.
The barbaric practice of flogging as punishment–long given up by civilized countries–continues in many parts of the Islamic world. In Saudi Arabia, flogging is almost always a component of any sentencing. Moreover, no part of the court-ordered flogging is left to chance. At the sentencing, the judge specifies the number of lashes to be meted out; the location of the flogging, whether in the prison or in some public place; and what portions of the lashes are to be administered at one time. Women are usually given 10 – 30 lashes a week; men, 50 – 60. Usually, floggings take place at intervals of 1 – 2 weeks. A doctor examines the prisoner beforehand to determine whether or not he or she is able to withstand the scourging. A police officer administers the lashes with a bamboo whip about seven feet long. The one administering the flogging will often hold a copy of the Qur’an under one arm to regulate the power with which he wields the whip. (I wonder: Does anything happen to him personally if the Qur’an happens to slip from underneath his arm?) The victim is often allowed to wear one layer of light clothing. Anyone caught taking pictures of the flogging is himself punished.
On 9 January Badawi received the first 50 lashes before hundreds of spectators in front of a mosque after Friday prayers in the port city of Jeddah. The lashings he was to receive on the 16th and 23rd have not taken place, however, because his wounds from the first lashing haven’t healed adequately yet, doctors claim. (Badawi is a diabetic, which may explain the slowness to heal.) Or could the delay be that–stung by world criticism–the Saudis are reconsidering the blogger’s punishment? Badawi’s lawyer Waleed Abu al-Kair has also been charged and sentenced to 15 years in prison for setting up a human rights organization.
One wonders what King Abdullah’s successor, King Salman, will do–if anything–about Badawi, now that the eyes of the world are on the Kingdom. The new king, like his predecessor, is unfortunately constrained from making substantive changes by the fact that Saudi Arabia’s legal code is shariah -based. Punishment by lashing, moreover, is commanded in the Qur’an (Surah 24)–for adultery, however, not blogging. I suspect that, whenever and however Badawi’s case is resolved, or when the blogger’s case is no longer ‘centre-stage’, things will go on in the Wahhabi Kingdom much as they have for centuries. After all, why change things, when you can be regarded as a staunch advocate for interfaith relations simply by financing the creation of an interreligious centre somewhere, preferably nowhere near Saudi Arabia.