With Friends Like These

Ophelia Benson

The new year got off to a shatteringly horrible start with the massacre at Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, January 7. Only two days later, after Friday prayers, the liberal blogger Raif Badawi was given fifty blows with a stick on his naked back in front of the al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The two events are not radically different. Both were violent and brutal; both were in revenge for perceived outrages against religion; both were aimed at dissident intellectuals; both were done in the name of Allah. The flogging in Jeddah had a veneer of legality, but only according to theocratic laws that violate several clauses of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The flogging in Jeddah didn’t kill its target outright, but it could have.

Badawi’s crime was criticizing Saudi clerics and advocating liberalization on his blog. In 2013 he was sentenced to seven years in prison and six hundred lashes. Last year the punishment was appealed, and in a turn worthy of a bleak Alice in Wonderland, it was increased to ten years in prison and one thousand lashes, along with a fine of one million riyals (about US$300,000).

Badawi was scheduled to receive fifty blows per week for twenty weeks, but the second flogging was postponed on the advice of the doctors who examined him. At the same time, protests against his punishment were spreading: on my blog I posted photos via Twitter from protests in Washington, London, Dublin, Belfast, Ottawa, Berlin, Frankfurt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Houston. I was starting to have real hope that all the protesting would become so annoying to the Saudis that they would free Badawi and let him leave the country just to be rid of it. There were conflicting reports that the second round of flogging would be postponed again or that it would go ahead . . . and then, while we were anxiously waiting to learn if Badawi would be beaten again or not, the absolute monarch of Saudi Arabia died.

The flogging was postponed for the second week because Badawi’s wounds hadn’t fully healed. At the same time, heads of state and officials told the world what a fabulous guy King Abdullah had been. Secretary of State John Kerry, for instance, said on Twitter that “King Abdullah was a man of wisdom & vision. US has lost a friend & Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Middle East, and world has lost a revered leader.” King Abdullah was the absolute monarch of a country that punishes the mildest of dissent with torture and keeps women under what amounts to house arrest. I don’t see the wisdom.

Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, even said that “In a very discreet way, he was a strong advocate of women.” So very discreet that it was undetectable. The day after the king died, Ishaan Tharoor wrote in the Washington Post about reports that four of his daughters have been held prisoner in the royal compound for thirteen years. “[Their mother] Fayez claims her daughters’ supposed incarceration, which has gone on for some 13 years, was both a mark of Abdullah’s vindictive streak and intolerance of his daughters’ modern, independent upbringing. She says the four have been locked away for more than a decade, subject to abuse and deprivation.” Why? For essentially the same reason Badawi was sentenced to a thousand lashes: “In another interview with an Arabic channel, the princesses described how they were being punished for championing women’s rights and resisting the kingdom’s strict rules mandating male guardianship over women.” Abdullah does not sound like a strong advocate of women to me, not even discreetly.

There was outrage in the United Kingdom when government flags were flown at half-staff as a mark of respect for King Abdullah. Andrew Sparrow at the Guardian remarked on the bad timing: “The houses of parliament and Westminster Abbey are among the buildings in London where the government guidance has been followed after King Abdullah’s death early on Friday. The tribute was paid even though the sentencing of a Saudi blogger to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam has thrust Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record into the spotlight in recent weeks.”

Many scholars have pointed out the role of Saudi Arabia in lavishing billions of dollars on exporting Wahhabism around the world; for instance, Yousaf Butt wrote in the Huffington Post on January 20: “It would be troublesome but perhaps acceptable for the House of Saud to promote the intolerant and extremist Wahhabi creed just domestically. But, unfortunately, for decades the Saudis have also lavishly financed its propagation abroad. Exact numbers are not known, but it is thought that more than $100 billion have been spent on exporting fanatical Wahhabism to various much poorer Muslim nations worldwide over the past three decades. It might well be twice that number.”

How then do we manage to see the Charlie Hebdo murderers as murderers but the absolute monarch of Saudi Arabia as a valued ally and a man of wisdom and vision? How is it that the Kouachi brothers are terrorists but the Saudi government is our ally?

I understand about realpolitik, and oil, and stability, and military bases, and reasons for wanting some sort of ally in the region. I get that in practical terms it would be worse to have Saudi Arabia as an enemy than as an ally. At least I suppose I “get” it, in some nauseated unwilling sense . . . but I don’t really. It revolts me. We see al-Qaeda as bad, we see the Islamic State as bad, we see Boko Haram as bad, but we call the king of Saudi Arabia a man of wisdom and vision.

Saudi Arabia is what you get once al-Qaeda and ISIS and Boko Haram win and there is no more resistance. That’s their goal, minus the American bases and the American presence. You get a world where women are obliterated from public life, dissent is ferociously punished, the religious police harass the population at will, school textbooks demonize Jews, and apostasy is death.

I’m writing this at the beginning of February, wondering if Raif Badawi’s second round of flogging will happen next Friday, or be postponed again, or be canceled entirely along with the other nine hundred lashes. I’m hoping he will not only be safe from further blows of a stick but also out of jail and out of that hellhole of a country—safe in Sherbrooke, Quebec, with his wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children. I’m hoping, but given the nature of our relationship with the great Oil Kingdom, I’m not optimistic.


Ophelia Benson is the editor of the website Butterflies and Wheels. Her books include Does God Hate Women? (with Jeremy Stangroom, Continuum, 2009).

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).


Condemning the Charlie Hebdo assassins while praising Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah makes no sense—they’re on the same side.

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