Friday, December 18, 2015

Allies and Enemies: How America's Saudi Arabian Double Standard Mocks the Fight Against ISIS

by Nomad

There's no question that ISIS is an embodiment of barbarity and a perversion of Islam. However, some critics of Western foreign policy in the Middle East might ask: Is Saudi Arabia- an ally- really all that much better?

One of the most perplexing and exasperating problems for anybody trying to create a sensible approach to the Middle East has been determining who your foe and who your friend actually is.. at any given moment.  

For Western policy makers, absolute impartiality is not an option. Attempting to please implacable enemies, like Israel and Iran, is an exercise in futility. And this, in turn, forces countries to choose based on criteria that seems as unstable as the shifting desert sand.

Concessions have to be made to keep everybody happy but with the rise of the brutality of the ISIS caliphate, the US and the West, in general, are forced to confront its irreconcible double standard. Does being a Western ally entail nothing more than shared self-interests?  What happened to shared core values and principles that defines "us" from "them"? 

To Be An Ally
Take one oft-cited example of Western- and in particular, America's- hypocrisy-the state of Israel
Israel is our ally, we have been told for ages. It has become de rigueur for any Republican presidential candidate to obtain- through some pretty elaborate fawning exercises and obsequious and often embarrassing display of servitude- Israel's blessing before a run for the White House.
Mainly that's because, most people suspect, the Jews are not Muslim. That fact implies that we share, in some way, not just political interests, but core values, such as a respect for human rights.
And yet how accurate is that premise? 

To call Israel an ally of the West would mean that, at least in some way, we give our tacit approval to the treatment of Palestinians living in the West Bank or in Gaza. It requires us ignore decades of human rights abuses, including the "indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, caused the vast majority of civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure."

There's only so much that can be ignored. After all, is there any other cultural value that is more important than a basic respect for human rights? If we do not uphold those core principles across the board then what do we stand for, except that might makes right?
But Israel is not the only offender in the region. Saudi Arabia, we have been told constantly, is also an ally. That, cynics tell us, has always had much more to do with the black gold than with Western values.
It's the murky stuff that allows you to overlook a lot of faults.

As America becomes more and more energy independent, it might be assumed that US foreign policy will reflect these core values, as opposed to what is politically expedient or what is mandated by a flawed energy policy.
That's not happened yet.

At present, we face a tragic hypocrisy when claim ISIS is evil and barbaric and an enemy to all humanity- and clearly they are- while ignoring the gross human rights abuses of Saudi Arabia, a nation we claim to be our ally.

The Case of the Palestinian Poet
Here's a story I recently read about Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet and artist living in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to death.
His crime? Did he rape or murder somebody?

No, his only crime was renouncing Islam. Technically, he was accused of promoting "atheism and spreading some destructive thoughts into society."
His lawyer, Raji Sourani, said that throughout the trial, he had no access to Fayadh.
“Our only contact is through his sister and mother in Saudi Arabia..His other sister is here [in Gaza]. She’s the one who asked for my assistance.”
Sourani suggested that the true reason for the miscarriage of justice is that his client has made enemies with powerful people and the legal system in Saudi Arabia is a perfect venue for a vendetta.This was, in fact, his second attempt at a fair trial. He was originally sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes. Upon his appeal, the court decided to impose the maximum punishment. Presumably by beheading.
(Click here for more details about Fayadh's case and the poor excuse for justice the courts delivered.)

If that were the only example, you might find a way to write it off as a horrible injustice. But this kind of barbarity- is there really a better word?- is not exceptional at all.

An unnamed man from Hafar Al-Batin in the northeastern area of the kingdom was this year also sentenced to beheading for insulting Islam. Authorities produced a videotape of him "insulting Allah and Mohammed, and tearing up a Koran and hitting it with his shoe.”

According to the US army manuals, terror is "the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain political or religious ideological goals through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear." 
Yet, isn't general intimidation to oppress and instilling fear to attain religious ideological goals exactly what Saudi Arabia is doing when it threatens to behead poets?

ISIS or Saudi Arabia?
Cruelty and Inequality
The US still retains its right to capital punishment, so that is perhaps a shared value. (That is yet another hypocrisy for a superpower that claims to hold the high moral ground.)

The Constitutional prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment" is something that, at the very least,  the US can call a core value.  (Even though Dick Cheney didn't think it was so important when it came to fighting terrorists.)
In Saudi Arabia, there are no Eighth Amendment protections at all. The country does not recognize Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or Article 16 of the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The kingdom follows an absolute interpretation of Sharia law and nothing else.
Much like ISIS, actually. 

Last summer, a Burmese woman was publicly beheaded in Mecca for the  sexual abuse and murder of her seven-year-old step-daughter. An inexcusable crime to be sure. Yet the execution was, even more, horrific and equally inexcusable.

Protesting her ignorance to the last moment, the prisoner was dragged through the street and held down by four police officers. It took three blows of the sword to fully decapitate the woman. (Like execution videos posted by ISIS, the  Youtube video of the Saudi execution was so appalling that it had to be taken down.)

There are also questions about the quality of justice in Saudi Arabia.
Earlier this year, a Pakistani national, Iftikhar Ahmed Mohammed Anayat, was executed for drug smuggling in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. As a Muslim, Anayat should have known better. Under Shari'ah law, drug smuggling in the kingdom is a capital offense and foreigners convicted of this crime (especially those from the developing world) are routinely executed.

However, in October, a member of the Saudi royal family was arrested for an alleged attempt to smuggle drugs out of Lebanon and into Saudi Arabia on a private plane. Whereas the Pakistani "mule" was found to be carrying balloons with heroin, in the case of the prince, the contraband was the amphetamine, Captagon
Two tons of it. 

Some have speculated that the shipment was ultimately destined for ISIS soldiers. However, the official position of the Saudi Arabian government has been to condemn unequivocally the "actions of Isis and its members." Furthermore, the Kingdom says that it has taken steps to "discourage any private funding or support for Isis or other extremists by Saudi citizens for ISIS."

Business Insider reported recently how a Turkish raid netted nearly 11 million pills of Captagon. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime say that amphetamines are the most prevalent type of drug used in Saudi Arabia. There's also a political dimension to the drug smuggling.
Experts say the highly addictive drug, production of which has been discontinued, is fueling the conflict in Syria, as both ISIS militants and Syrian rebels are using the stimulant on the battlefield. (It was also reportedly used by the Paris attackers.) 

In any event, despite the similarities of the crime, nobody expects this member of the royal family to face the same extreme punishment- Sharia or not- that was delivered to the Pakistani. This kind of flawed justice is indemic in Saudi Arabia- and in the Middle East in general. Not just for the royal family but for anybody with enough political influence.
Human Rights Watch reports:
Saudi Arabia has no penal code, which gives prosecutors and judges wide discretion to define criminal offenses. Lawyers are not generally allowed to assist suspects during interrogation, and face obstacles to examining witnesses or presenting evidence at trial. 

When Freedom of Speech is a Criminal Offense
What happens when the only crime is advocating the most fundamental principles of all liberal democracies?
Take the example of Raif Badawi. This blogger was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website that championed free speech and secularism.
Badawi offended the sensibilities of the Saudi authorities when he wrote:
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.
It's hardly the stuff of a revolutionary calling for the overthrow of the royal family. It's nothing that Thomas Jefferson- or a dozen other founding fathers- wouldn't have applauded.
It is certainly not an incitement to violence. 

"My commitment is," wrote Badawi "to reject any repression in the name of religion... a goal that we will reach in a peaceful and law-abiding way."
(Here's a link to examples of the writings of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.)

The reaction of the US State Department to Badawi's treatment was typically understated:
We are greatly concerned by reports that human rights activist Raif Badawi will start facing the inhumane punishment of a 1,000 lashes, in addition to serving a 10-year sentence in prison for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and religion. The United States Government calls on Saudi authorities to cancel this brutal punishment and to review Badawi’s case and sentence. The United States strongly opposes laws, including apostasy laws, that restrict the exercise of these freedoms, and urges all countries to uphold these rights in practice.
That was back in January. The Saudi authorities simply ignored this statement and the following day, Badawi was given 50 lashes under the eyes of hundreds of spectators. This was first in a series of 1,000 lashes to be carried out in over twenty weeks. 

There were condemnations from Germany, the UK, South Africa and Sweden as well as many organizations around the world. Lip service was paid, in other words.

Apathy Only Money Can Buy
On March 3, 2015, 67 members of Congress sent a letter of condemnation to the King of Saudi Arabia and requested the release of all prisoners of conscience, including Badawi. There is a total of Congressional members, 435 Representatives, and 100 Senators and only 67 could be bothered to sign the letter.
Hardly a forceful, robust defense of American ideals.

And why not? It would seem to be an easy way to score political points. After all, wasn't America formed as a response to the excesses, the abuse of power and arbitrariness and injustice of kings?

However, this lack of interest in Congress and the White House perhaps reflects the full power of the Saudi Arabian lobby, a collection of lawyers, public relation firms and professional lobbyists under the direction of former Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan
Said one investigative reporter, "the Saudi lobby was so great that Bandar effectively joined the Bush administration as a virtual member of the cabinet."  

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that most of the big leaguers on K Street are working or have worked for the Saudi Arabian government or some other Gulf state. (For a list of D.C. firms that lobby, click here.)

According to a report in the Washington Post, Sunlight Foundation estimated that in 2013, the Saudi lobby spent something around $11.1 million to lobby Congress and was in the top five in foreign government lobbying efforts which helps to develop relationships within the United States with members of Congress, federal agencies, and even the media.

The reaction in the Kingdom was, therefore, predictable. The King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud,  did not respond, as far as we know. Why should he? He knows from experience that the West will never do anything more than talk and talk? 

The Saudi Supreme Court, otherwise known as Supreme Judicial Council, reviewed the Badawi conviction according to the Sharia law. The eleven-member council appointed by the King quickly upheld the sentence, shrugging off the international outcry.

As he awaits his next round of whippings, Badawi, according to his wife, is in poor physical and psychological health. She fears his sentence may be “a slow death.” 
*   *   *
The present war against ISIS reveals an indefensible double-standard. While Western governments seem to be horrified by the barbarity of ISIS, they continue to ignore the glaring fact that the same acts of state-sponsored cruelty and injustice (under the guise of a rarified interpretation of Islam) is practiced by Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Muslim word.

Is it really possible to wage war against barbaric rule but to befriend another without losing all credibility with the same young people who demanded change in the Islamic world in the Arab Spring protests? Why should any young person in this area of the world trust anything that Western leaders say under those circumstances?

A Litmus Test of Western Values
But the scope of the hypocrisy is even wider than international relations between nations. This summer it was revealed that Saudi Arabia was appointed to a panel at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The mission of the UNHRC is to strengthen "the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of violations and make recommendations on them." 

You might well ask: How could there be any justification for that appointment? The appointment of one of the worst offenders of human rights to this panel cruelly mocks UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's 2007 boast:
“All victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to the Human Rights Council as a forum and a springboard for action.”
Nevertheless, this same country has, since the start of the year, has beheaded a record number of prisoners. According to one report from last August, Western ally Saudi Arabia has carried out more beheadings than the terrorist organization ISIS. (As of August, the kingdom’s total number of executions in 2015 to 110 and ISIS was an estimated 65.)
An updated figure -as of this month- Saudi Arabia has beheaded some 151, a record year for such punishment.  On average, that's one person killed every two days, according to the human rights group, Amnesty International.  

With those Western double-standards and all that hypocrisy, it is no wonder that so many average citizens in the Middle East are deeply skeptical of crusades to bring freedom, fights against Islamic terrorists and lofty declaration by Western leaders.

And it is no wonder that so many young people in the Middle East are confused who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.