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Saudi Arabia’s history of hypocrisy we choose to ignore – Robert Fisk


web-saudi-flogging-2 Raif Badawi has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes for ‘insulting Islam’ on his liberal website


Sir William Hunter was a senior British civil servant and in 1871 published a book which warned of “fanatic swarms” of Sunni Muslims who had “murdered our subjects”, financed by “men of ample fortune”, while a majority of Muslims were being forced to decide “once and for all, whether [they] should play the part of a devoted follower of Islam” or a “peaceable subject”.

Hunter identified a “hate preacher” as the cause of this “terror”, a man inspired on a visit to Arabia by an ascetic Muslim called Abdul Wahab whose violent “Wahabi” followers had formed an alliance with – you guessed it – the House of Saud. Hunter’s 140-year-old volume The Indian Musalmans – given a dusting of internet race hatred, murderous attacks by individual Sunni Deobandi and Wahabi Muslims, cruel Wahabi-style punishments and all-too familiar proof of second-class citizenship for Muslims in a European-run state – might have been written today.

Even before Hunter’s day, the Wahabis captured the holy cities of Arabia and – Isis-style – massacred their inhabitants. Like Isis, they even overran Syria. Their punishments, and those of their Saudi military supporters, make the public lashing of today’s Saudi blogger Raif Badawi appear a minor misdemeanour. Hypocrisy was a theme of Arabian as well as European history.
In those days, of course, oil had no meaning. The Saudi ruler was dispatched to Constantinople in 1818 to have his head chopped off by the local superpower – the Ottoman Empire – and the European states made no complaint. A young British army captain later surveyed the destroyed Saudi capital of Diriya – close to modern-day Riyadh – with satisfaction. But successive campaigns of Saudi-Wahabi conquest, and then the swift transition of oil from the vile black naphtha, in which Arabian sheep regularly drowned, into the blood vessels of the Western world, meant that the purist Wahabi violence – which included the desecration of mosques, the destruction of ancient Muslim tombs and the murder of “infidels” – was conveniently separated from the House of Saud and ignored by Europeans and Americans alike.

Erased, too, is history; including the fact that Mohamed Ibn Saud, the leader of the Nejd, even married Abdul Wahab’s daughter.

Our disregard of present-day Saudi-Wahabi cruelties and venality might astonish Sir William Hunter; the Wahabi Indian Muslims in his British Empire were led by an insurrectionist prelate called Sayyid Ahmed whose followers regarded him as the next Prophet and whose own pilgrimage to Arabia turned him into a life-long purger of promiscuity. His believers came from Afghanistan as well as India where his power lay in what is now Pakistan. In fact, he was proclaimed “Commander of the Faithful” in Peshawar. His men might have been the Taliban.

Britain’s wars against the Wahabis were as ferocious as Europe’s today, though far more costly in lives. And if Hunter rightly identified the second-class status, lack of employment and poor education of the Sunni Muslims of India as a cause of insurrection – France, please take note – he also understood that India’s Muslims were being asked to choose between pure Islam and Queen Victoria. The Hindus of India and the British rulers were at war with those whom Hunter, mindful of medieval Christian missions to Jerusalem, caricatured as the “Crescentaders”.

Ensaf Haidar, centre, wife of the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, holds a vigil in Montreal, Quebec, urging Saudi Arabia to free her husband Ensaf Haidar, centre, wife of the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, holds a vigil in Montreal, Quebec, urging Saudi Arabia to free her husband (Getty)

Today, the Americans and Europeans – and of course, our own Prime Minister – like to draw a line between the “moderate”, friendly, pro-Western, oil-wealthy Saudi Arabians who are praised for denouncing the “cowardly terrorist attack” in Paris, and their Crescentader Wahabi friends who behead thieves and drug dealers after grossly unfair trials, torture their Shia Muslim minorities and lash their own recalcitrant journalists. The Wahabi Saudis – for they are, of course, the same – cry crocodile tears over the murder of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who lampoon their religion, while sympathising with the purists in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan who slaughter journalists and aid workers, destroy ancient monuments and enslave women.

All in all, a pretty pass. The Saudis are special, aren’t they? Fifteen of the 19 hijackers of 9/11 were Saudis – and George W Bush immediately arranged for leading Saudis (including some from the House of Bin Laden) to be freighted out of America to safety. Osama was himself a Saudi (later de-citizened). The Taliban were financed and armed by the Saudis; the Taliban’s Organisation for the “Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice” was identical to the Saudi-Wahabi religious police in Riyadh and Jeddah. So precious are the Saudis to us, that Tony Blair was able to close down a British police inquiry into Anglo-Saudi bribery. “National interest” was at stake. Ours, of course, not theirs.

And we ignore, amid all this tomfoolery, the spread of Saudi money through the institutions of Sunni Deobandi and Wahabi Islam in Asia, in the Balkans – take a look at the new Saudi-designed mosques that mock the wonderful old Ottoman institutions in Bosnia – and in Western Europe. Suggest that the Saudi authorities – not, of course, to be confused with their Wahabi fraternity – are supporting Isis, and journalists will be confronted not by sympathy for their oppressed colleagues, but by threatening letters from lawyers on behalf of the Saudi government. Even in the Levant, aid workers are frightened of the school-teaching in Saudi-funded refugee camps for Syrians.

As Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole pointed out this week, there are two words that must not be spoken in all the official rhetoric about Charlie Hebdo’s dead: Saudi Arabia. “A hundred billion dollars buys you a lot of silence,” he wrote. “The house of Saud runs a vicious tyranny that… while the Charlie Hebdo killers were going about their ultimate acts of censorship… was savagely lashing the blogger Raif Badawi for daring to promote public debate.”

The Wahabi grave smashers threaten to destroy the Prophet’s tomb as a religious duty – just as they have smashed the graves of “saints” in Africa and the Middle East – but a cartoon of the Prophet is a provocation that deserves death.

Sure, we all know the rubric. The Saudis stand in the forefront of the “war against terror”, arresting, torturing (though we’ll have to go softly on that one) and imprisoning “terrorists”, condemning Isis as “terrorists”, standing behind the French and the Europeans in their struggle against “terror”, along with the Egyptians and the Russians and the Pakistanis and all those other “democrats” in their “war against terror”.

Speak not a word about the Kingdom as a Wahabi-Saudi regime. It would be wrong to do so. After all, the Wahabis don’t call themselves Wahabis, since they are “true” Muslims. Which is what the Saudis are, aren’t they?



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  • The Guardian view on the public flogging of a Saudi liberal
    The lesson of this monstrous sentence: you can beat a man, but you cannot beat his ideas
    Share 335

    Guardian G logo
    The Guardian, Thursday 15 January 2015 19.39 GMT
    Jump to comments (209)
    Raif Badawi
    Raif Badawi. ‘The crime against Saudi law which he is supposed to expiate is simply that he ran a website, called with dreadful irony, ‘Free Saudi Liberals’.’
    When Raif Badawi is flogged tomorrow afternoon, the cane will not only fall on a brave man who has committed no crime in any rational understanding of law. It will also fall on the hopes, the dreams and the decency of those watching from afar, including humane Muslims everywhere. This barbarous punishment is aimed at us quite as much as it is aimed at the immediate victim. The dreadful theatre of a public flogging is an act of propaganda, with a simple, clear message: that the corrupt and frightened rulers of Saudi Arabia can still punish anyone who dares to talk or think freely in their kingdom.

    Mr Badawi is being flogged as a Muslim. Had he been a Christian or an atheist, he would have been killed for apostasy under Saudi law. He saved – or at least prolonged – his own life by reciting the Shahada, the Muslim confession of faith, in court in 2012. We can assume that a man so courageous and straightforward was being sincere in his profession. It is quite possible that he will anyway die during the infliction of the truly monstrous sentence of 1,000 lashes – doled out, 50 at a time, on Fridays – which was passed on him last year. Originally, he had been sentenced to 600 lashes, but a higher, or, on a moral scale, a lower court changed this to 1,000.

    The crime against Saudi law which he is supposed to expiate is simply that he ran a website called, with dreadful irony, Free Saudi Liberals. On this he discussed and advocated secularism, and mocked the cruel absurdities of the Saudi religious authorities, who denounce astrologers for peddling nonsense but themselves have people executed for “sorcery”. There is nothing he said which could be understood as an incitement to violence, and nothing which is not obviously true, and commonplace outside the squalid little dogma that suffocates the human spirit in Saudi. Beyond the barbarity of the trial, the sentence and the punishment itself, there are other lessons for the world, though not those which the Saudi authorities would wish us to draw.

    The first is a much-needed reminder of their bare-faced hypocrisy. Saudi is, so far as its rulers can make it, closed to all foreign ideas. They equate atheism with terrorism, and propose to apply the same punishments for both. At the same time it is a fountain of Islamist poison, of antisemitism, of narrow-minded and fanatical preachers, and of young men who leave to fight in other people’s countries and help to destroy them in the cause of Wahhabist Islam. Let us not forget that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis and that Saudi money has funded cruel and pointless wars all over the Middle East. If the kingdom now draws back in horror at the spectacle of Islamic State rampaging through the river valleys of Iraq and Syria, it is the horror of Dr Frankenstein seeing his monster walking.

    The second is the spineless hypocrisy of western governments, not least our own, who take their oil, and hope for their money. When the spokespeople for the British Foreign Office assure us, as they always do, that there are forces of reform within the kingdom, shame should make the words taste like soap in their mouths.

    In this country we have censored television programmes and cancelled a major bribery inquiry rather than disturb Saudi sensibilities, and those are just the cases that came to public knowledge. The punishment of Mr Badawi is a reminder to us all that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an enemy of free speech, of free thought, of honesty and of courage wherever they may be found in the world today. The British government should remember the slogan used against the mafia in Sicily: to be silent is to be complicit. Last week, many expressed their solidarity by saying we are all Charlie Hebdo: it is as true and just as necessary to remember and proclaim that we are all Raif Badawi.


  • A look at the writings of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – sentenced to 1,000 lashes
    Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website that championed free speech in the autocratic kingdom. His blog, the Saudi Free Liberals Forum, was shut down after his arrest in 2012.
    Ian Black analyses extracts from his key published Arabic writings that show a man who risked his freedom to question some of the basic tenets of life in Saudi Arabia – especially the central role of religion

    Saudi blogger faces next 50 lashes as Amnesty calls on UK government to act
    Raif Badawi
    Raif Badawi. Amnesty Photograph: Private/Amnesty
    Ian Black, Middle East editor
    Wednesday 14 January 2015 20.06 GMT
    Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email Share on LinkedIn Share on Google+
    Reflecting on the role of the Muslim religious establishment on 12 August 2010, Badawi warned about the stifling of creativity:

    As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas, you will find hundreds of fatwas that accused him of being an infidel just because he had the courage to discuss some sacred topics. I’m really worried that Arab thinkers will migrate in search of fresh air and to escape the sword of the religious authorities.

    Badawi argued on 28 September 2010 in favour of “secularism [as] the most important refuge for citizens of a country.” Urged by clerics not to attend “heretical” celebrations marking Saudi national day, he underlined the importance of separating religion from the state. Strikingly he does not attack the Saudi monarchy and even praises the liberal governor of Mecca, the intellectual and poet Khaled al-Faisal Al Saud.

    Secularism respects everyone and does not offend anyone … Secularism … is the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world and into the first world.

    Badawi linked Palestine, one of the touchstones of Arab solidarity, to the question of political Islam, attacking Hamas.

    I’m not in support of the Israeli occupation of any Arab country, but at the same time I do not want to replace Israel by a religious state … whose main concern would be spreading the culture of death and ignorance among its people when we need modernisation and hope. States based on religious ideology … have nothing except the fear of God and an inability to face up to life. Look at what had happened after the European peoples succeeded in removing the clergy from public life and restricting them to their churches. They built up human beings and (promoted) enlightenment, creativity and rebellion. States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.

    The only article of Badawi’s hitherto translated from Arabic into English denounces the demand of Muslims in New York that a mosque and community centre be built on the site of the World Trade Centre, where 3,000 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaida. It goes against the official Saudi position by linking the terrorist group to the kingdom – and accuses Muslims of intolerance.

    What hurts me most as a citizen of the area which exported those terrorists … is the audacity of Muslims in New York that reaches the limits of insolence, not taking any regard of the thousands of victims who perished on that fateful day or their families. What increases my pain is this [Islamist] chauvinist arrogance which claims that innocent blood, shed by barbarian, brutal minds under the slogan “Allahu Akbar”, means nothing compared to the act of building an Islamic mosque whose mission will be to … spawn new terrorists … Suppose we put ourselves in the place of American citizens. Would we accept that a Christian or Jew assaults us in our own house and then build a church or synagogue in the same area of the attack? I doubt it. We reject the building of churches in Saudi Arabia, not having been assaulted by anyone. Then what would you think if those who wanted to build a church are the same people who stormed the sanctity of our land? Finally, we should not hide that fact that Muslims in Saudi Arabia not only disrespect the beliefs of others, but also charge them with infidelity to the extent that they consider anyone who is not Muslim an infidel, and, within their own narrow definitions, they consider non-Hanbali [the Saudi school of Islam] Muslims as apostates. How can we be such people and build … normal relations with six billion humans, four and a half billion of whom do not believe in Islam.

    In the first weeks of the Egyptian revolution in February 2011, Badawi hailed the drama in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as an example to the whole Arab world. The Saudi government, by contrast, was horrified by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and delighted when Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood veteran elected to succeed him, was ousted.

    It is a revolution, led by students and the marginalised, a revolution in every sense of the word … that is … a decisive turning point … not only in the history and geography of Egypt but everywhere that is governed by the Arab mentality of dictatorship and security. It is not yet clear whether is Egypt is about to change, but it is our hope that a new Egypt will emerge from the painful birth pangs its people are experiencing … after years of subservience and oppression.

    In Sepember 2011 Badawi launched a witheringly sarcastic attack on Saudi clerics after a TV preacher called for astronomers to be punished on the grounds that they encouraged scepticism about sharia law.

    Actually, this venerable preacher has drawn my attention to a truth that had been hidden from me and my dear readers – namely, the existence of the so-called “Sharia astronomer”. What a wonderful appellation! In my humble experience and in the course of my not inconsiderable research into the universe, its origins and the stars, I have never once come across this term. I advise NASA to abandon its telescopes and, instead, turn to our Sharia astronomers, whose keen vision and insight surpass the agency’s obsolete telescopes. Indeed, I advise all other scholars the world over, of whatever discipline, to abandon their studies, laboratories, research centres, places of experimentation, universities, institutes etc. and head at once to the study groups of our magnificent preachers to learn from them all about modern medicine, engineering, chemistry, microbiology, geology, nuclear physics, the science of the atom, marine sciences, the science of explosives, pharmacology, anthropology etc. – alongside astronomy, of course. God bless them! They have shown themselves to be the final authority with the decisive word in everything, which all mankind must accept, submit to and obey without hesitation or discussion.

    In May 2012, shortly before his arrest, Badawi addressed the nature of liberalism.

    For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live. This is a splendid slogan. However, the nature of liberalism – particularly the Saudi version – needs to be clarified. It is even more important to sketch the features and parameters of liberalism, to which the other faction, controlling and claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means. They have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet. But their hold over people’s minds and society shall vanish like dust carried off in the wind.

    His final thought quoted Albert Camus: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

    In another piece that month, Badawi invoked the Quran to support the importance of liberalism, the need to separate religion and state and implied that Islam itself has been distorted by the Saudi political establishment to promote illiberal and authoritarian ideals.

    No religion at all has any connection to mankind’s civic progress. This is not a failing on the part of religion but rather that all religions represent a particular, precise spiritual relationship between the individual and the Creator. ..However, positive law is an unavoidable human and social need because traffic regulations, employment law and the codes governing the administration of State can hardly be derived from religion.


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