Everyone knows it isn’t strictly true, but in understanding the U.S. role in the world there’s an underlying fairy story that our country is the leader of the good guy nations of the world against the bad guys, and that good-guy-ness has a lot to do with freedom and democracy.
On balance, there’s a certain tendency in that direction. But there have been, and continue be, many awkward exceptions. The close alliance, dating back to the 1940s, between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is one of the most awkward. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy rooted in a harsh sect of Islam that makes little pretense of respect for democracy or many freedoms that the West holds dear.
In the current, post-Charlie-Hebdo moment, it’s particularly awkward that the Saudi authorities have sentenced a 30-year-old blogger to floggings and imprisonment from the crime of scoffing at the Saudi governments official efforts to promote virtue and prevent vice.
That last vice and virtue phrase is extremely literal. The Saudi government maintains a special police force to enforce morality run by the “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.” Officers from this corps do things like hit, with sticks, unmarried couples who are seen in public holding hands. The blogger, Raif Badawi, has mocked the vice/virtue squad and has now been sentenced to a jail term which is to be interrupted 20 times by being taken from his cell and publicly flogged.
Awkwardly, the first 20 lashes were administered last Friday while much of the civilized world was busy expressing its solidarity with the French cartoonists who had disrespected the Prophet Mohammed. The disrespect of Badawi pales in comparison to Charlie’s cartoons.
I rely here on Robin Wright’s short New Yorker piece on the blogger’s case. She gives an example of the kind of blasphemy for which Badawi was sentenced. Noting that Saudi law bans the advocacy, on Saudi soil, of any religion other than the strict Wahabbi brand of Islam, Badawi wrote:
“We have not asked ourselves how it is that America allows Islamic missionaries on its territory, and how it is that we reject under all circumstances the freedom to proselytize within our Kingdom’s land. We can no longer hide our heads like an ostrich and say that no one can see us or that no one cares. Whether we like it or not, we, being a part of humanity, have the same duties that others have as well as the same rights.”
The judge in Badawi’s case originally recommended that he be charged with “apostasy,” which carries the death penalty. But he got off on a lesser charge that could include a punishment of ten years in prison and a fine that exceeds a quarter of a million dollars.