Image credit: Roland Schlager/EPA
By Ani Sarkissian
Over the past week, news organizations have given substantial coverage to the relationship between Islam and politics in the wake of the Paris attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher grocery. Less attention has been paid to another story involving Islam and politics regarding the prosecution of Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi for “insulting Islam.” Among the accusations leveled against him, Badawi was charged with criticizing Saudi clerics and their relationship with the royal family on his blog. He was convicted and sentenced to a fine, 10 years in prison and flogging. The first 50 lashes were delivered in front of a mosque in the western Saudi city of Jiddah on Jan. 9 after Friday prayers. He is scheduled to receive 50 lashes once a week for 20 weeks until his sentence is fulfilled, though a doctor postponed the second installment of lashes because his prior wounds had not yet healed.
Badawi’s case is a reminder that it is not only extremist groups such as Boko Haram, the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that commit atrocities in the name of protecting Islam. Saudi Arabia is only one case of a state that perpetrates acts of violence based on religious justifications under the guise of upholding the rule of law. My recent book, “The Varieties of Religious Repression: Why Governments Restrict Religion,” shows that this often has little to do with religion per se. Instead, certain types of non-democratic countries commonly use religious repression as an instrument of their rule.
Saudi Arabia has an interest in regulating all aspects of religious practice and expression, and the means to do so. Because it is a hereditary monarchy lacking elected officials, the ruling regime creates and enforces laws without any direct mechanism for representing the preferences of its citizens. However, being insulated from the populace does not insulate the regime from politics. Saudi leaders perpetually must take into account the interests of one key constituency: the conservative Islamic establishment that helped to found the regime and continues to give political legitimacy to the royal family. By virtue of the country’s absolutist regime type and a ruling interest in upholding the religious preferences of a particularly conservative segment of society, Saudi leaders have the motivation and means, including violence, to repress the country’s citizens. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the mutawwain) and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Pious Endowments, Mission, and Guidance (MOIA), as well as other state institutions were established to create and enforce laws regarding Islamic dress code and behavior between men and women, manage the religious curriculum in schools and religious media programming, and monitor mosques and prayer leaders around the country.
The Saudi regime uses its authority to repress not only religious minorities (including about 2 million Shiites), but also Sunni Muslims who dare to publicly criticize the official interpretation of Islam or who are critical of the religious leadership. It is under this guise that Badawi was sentenced for publishing a liberal blog that challenged the religious establishment, advocated for secularism and criticized groups such as Hamas that seek to build a religious state in the Palestinian territories. They also, when needed, punish those they consider “extremists,” including individuals who fight for groups such as the Islamic State.
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