Saudi Arabia persecutes religious minorities, dissidents, bloggers, and journalists.
The horrific assassination and dismemberment of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents has shocked the community of nations and focused international attention on the brutal authoritarian regime that rules the desert kingdom.
That Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and murdered is yet another example of the House of Saud attempting to apply its laws beyond Saudi Arabia's borders and impose its extremist values on the wider world.
The extra-territorial execution of Khashoggi is deeply troubling, because it means that dissidents and journalists in other countries may be not safe from Saudi assassins. Indeed, the gruesome murder of the journalist is tantamount to state terrorism.
Canada should be especially concerned about the extra-territorial application of Saudi Arabia's barbaric laws, because journalists and dissidents in this country routinely take the Saudi regime to task for its human rights abuses.
Many Canadians are familiar with the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger and dissident, who was arrested by the Saudi regime and sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for allegedly insulting Islam. After his arrest, the human rights blogger’s family fled to Canada, where they were warmly welcomed and recently granted Canadian citizenship.
Ensaf Haidar, the wife of Raif Badawi, tirelessly campaigns for her husband’s release, using Twitter to keep his case front and centre in the public consciousness. Ms. Haidar is also a vocal critic of the Saudi regime and of the Islamic fundamentalism promoted by the regime.
Are Ms. Haidar and her children safe from the bloodthirsty Saudi regime? Will the regime attempt to harm them in Canada?
It is time for Canada and the rest of the community of nations to make it clear to the Saudi regime that extra-territorial killings of dissidents and journalists will not be tolerated.
For many years, Saudi Arabia has attempted to silence critics on a much broader stage. Starting in 1999, Saudi Arabia launched successive campaigns at the United Nations to internationalize its blasphemy laws, putting forward non-binding resolutions at the UN to outlaw criticism of religion, especially Islam. Canada and the United States have always voted against such resolutions and should continue to do so, opposing every Saudi attempt to silence free speech.
As the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the imprisonment of Raif Badawi demonstrate, the Saudi regime does not tolerate diversity of opinion, and that intolerance extends to religion.
Under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to freedom of religion, belief and/or conscience is a basic human right that cannot be denied to anyone—regardless of where they live. But Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the Universal Declaration, and it does not feel bound by the human rights covenant. While the regime actively promotes the spread of its fundamentalist brand of Islam around the globe, it refuses to allow non-Muslims and minority sect Muslims to freely exercise their faiths within the fragile kingdom.
The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom of religion, belief and/or conscience.
According to a report from Open Doors USA, a human rights organization that advocates on behalf of persecuted Christians around the globe, Saudi Arabia is dangerous place for the followers of Jesus Christ. The report--World Watch List 2018: The 50 countries where it’s most dangerous to follow Jesus—ranks the Muslim-majority country as the 12th most dangerous place in the world for Christians. North Korea tops the list, followed closely by Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Pakistan.
“Christian persecution is an ongoing and serious problem in Saudi Arabia,” the Open Doors website alleges. In a nutshell, the kingdom is an Islamic society that demonizes, persecutes, and oppresses anyone who does not follow its radical ways.
Saudi Arabia adheres to Wahhabism, which Open Doors USA describes as “a purist and strict interpretation of Islam.” And the nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports that “public sentiment in the country is generally quite negative, and the government maintains a tightly knit Islamic system that treats Christians as second-class citizens.”
In its annual report for 2018, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) designates Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), because the right to religious freedom is systematically denied across the country.
“Saudi Arabia is officially an Islamic state governed by a Basic Law of Governance issued by royal decree in 1992,” states the USCIRF report. This means that the Quran and the sunna—traditions of the Muslim prophet—form Saudi Arabia’s constitution. Moreover, the commission explains that the Saudi judicial system is governed by Islamic or Sharia law “as interpreted by judges trained as religious scholars in the Hanbali Sunni school of jurisprudence.”
The Saudi king is the one who appoints the Shura Council, which is a legislative advisory body. The king has the power to dissolve the council and appoint a new one. “The current monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, took the throne in 2015, and in 2017 appointed his son Mohammed bin Salman Al-Saud as crown prince,” notes the USCIRF report.
Saudi Arabia attempts to impose it strict interpretation of Islam on everyone in the country, including converts to Christianity. “Ordinary citizens pressure converts as well, given that the majority of the population vehemently opposes any faith other than Islam,” Open Doors USA reports.
Open Doors USA ranks Saudi Arabia as the 12th most dangerous country in the world for Christians.
Similarly, USCIRF reports that the Saudi regime restricts religious freedom and denies rights to members of faith groups whose religions are not consistent with those of Sunni Islam. According to the United Nations, approximately 37% of Saudi Arabia’s population is composed of expatriate workers.
The USCIRF document states that “at least two million of these expatriates are non-Muslim, including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, practitioners of folk religions, and the religiously unaffiliated.”
Christian converts who refuse to renounce their Christian faith face mortal danger. According to Open Doors, “apostasy is punishable by death for those who refuse to recant” and return to Islam.
Despite religious persecution and other human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime, USCIRF reports that “an unknown but growing number of Saudi citizens identify as atheists or Christians but avoid public recognition given harsh social and legal consequences for leaving Islam.”
As Christianity quietly takes hold in Saudi Arabia, human rights oppression intensifies. “As the small number of Saudi Christians grows and they become bolder in sharing their faith, the pressure and persecution they face from families and authorities increases,” Open Doors reports.
Rape and sexual harassment
According to Open Doors USA, expatriate Christians compose most of the Christian community in Saudi Arabia. However, they are not free to worship in public. And even gathering in private to worship Christ can be “extremely risky.”
If a foreigner is discovered attending a private worship service, or sharing their faith with a Muslim, they can be locked up or face immediate deportation.
“Saudi Christians from Muslim backgrounds face even greater pressure, and the consequences of discovery are worse,” Open Doors asserts. For example, Saudi Christians face the constant threat of extra-judicial killings.
Open Doors also reports that Christians in Saudi Arabia, whether foreign or Saudi, “risk imprisonment, physical abuse and threats on their lives.” In addition, the human rights group alleges that “the ongoing rape and sexual harassment of Christian women is particularly concerning.”
Even though the House of Saud funds mosque construction around the world, thereby spreading Wahhabism around the globe, Saudi Arabia forbids the construction of churches in the kingdom. For that reason, there is not a single church in Saudi Arabia.
According to the USCIRF report, the Saudi regime “has stated that non-Muslims who are not converts from Islam may practice their religion privately without harassment.” However, the report notes that “the policy allowing private worship has not been codified, and government officials have shown little interest in pursuing codification.”
The commission reports that the regime persecutes Christians and other non-Muslims who worship in private. According to the commission’s report, “in recent years, members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), which enforces government rules on public morality, have raided private non-Muslim religious gatherings organized by expatriate workers and arrested or deported participants, especially when the gatherings were loud or involved large numbers of people or symbols visible from outside the building.”
However, USCIRF notes that “in 2016 the powers of the CPVPV were sharply curtailed by royal decree, and both Muslims and non-Muslims have reported decreased harassment and raids.” But the commission stresses that “non-Muslims seeking to practice their religion privately operate in a climate of fear, especially outside of compounds populated largely by foreign workers.”
For example, expatriate workers who are not Muslim often worship in small numbers and in private to avoid detection by the authorities and/or Muslim neighbours who might report them. In addition, USCIRF reports that “Saudi Christian converts, in particular, report questioning and detention if neighbours or family members suspect their religion.”
Moreover, the regime arbitrarily arrests religious leaders and dissidents. For instance, in Sept. of 2017, more than 20 writers, journalists, academics, and religious leaders were detained by the regime. In response to the arrests, the United Nations issued a statement in Jan. 2018 that noted a pattern of arbitrary arrests for “peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association and belief.”
Open Doors USA reports that three house churches in Saudi Arabia were recently raided by police and shut down.
Sunni majority, Shia minority
Although Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim majority country, the kingdom has a significant Shia Muslim population. And the regime ruthlessly oppresses the Shia minority community. “For many years, Shia Muslims have experienced discrimination in education, employment, the judiciary, and access to positions in government and the military,” states the USCIRF report.
The USCIRF reports that the Saudi regime persecutes Christians and Shia Muslims.
The Saudi regime’s persecution of Shia Muslims cuts to the heart of Shia communities. For example, the commission reports that beyond the Shia dominated areas in the country’s Eastern Province, the regime “restricts the building of Shia mosques, broadcasts of Shia-specific calls to prayer, and establishment of Shia cemeteries.”
Even discreetly practising their faith is enough to get Shia Muslims in trouble with Saudi authorities. “Shia Muslims have been detained and imprisoned for holding religious gatherings in private homes without permits, celebrating religious holidays in non-Shia-majority areas, and reading religious materials in husseiniyas (prayer halls),” the USCIRF alleges.
The Saudi regime justifies the repression on the Shia community on national security grounds, alleging that Shia Muslims are loyal to the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is run by an aggressive Shia theocratic regime that sponsors terrorism around the globe. “However, representatives of the Shia community assert that very few members of their community are sympathetic to Iran,” the USCIRF report notes.
Shia Muslims in Eastern Province have reportedly been protesting persecution since 2011. They are demanding reforms to religious freedom and education, the release of dissidents, as well as political and economic rights.
What started out as a peaceful protest movement has devolved into attacks on property and security forces. And USCIRF asserts that the town of Awamiya in Qatif governorate is the centre of the Shia unrest, “resulting in sporadic attacks targeting police and government officials.”
In a transparent attempt to quell the protests and displace the Shia residents, the Saudi regime launched a plan in 2016 to demolish the community of Awamiya and turn it into a commercial zone. In April of 2017, experts from the United Nations urged the regime not demolish the historic part of the town, which contains “historic” mosques and husseiniyas. But the regime began bulldozing the area the following month. According to USCIRF, thousands of residents were displaced.
The demolition led to violence, including gunfights between Shia insurgents and Saudi security forces. Predictably, the Saudi regime responded with disproportionate force in Awamiya, unleashing heavy artillery barrages on civilian areas, displacing an estimated 20,000 civilians.
According to USCIRF, Saudi forces blockaded the town, trapping civilians, “preventing residents from leaving or accessing humanitarian aid”. By August of 2017, Saudi security forces had regained control of most of the town. And the commission reports that as of the end of the reporting period, “much of the city reportedly remained under a heavy military presence.”
Given Saudi Arabia’s use of military force against civilians, the government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should cancel all sales of Canadian-made armaments to the kingdom.
Since the terror attacks on the United States of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has been pressuring the Saudi regime to remove intolerant content from official textbooks. “The reform process became more systematic after the attacks of September 11, 2001, which raised international concerns about the propagation of intolerance and violence in Saudi curricula,” notes the USCIRF report.
The commission found that the Saudi regime has made slow but incremental improvements in removing material intolerant of other religions that incites hate and violence. “However, a USCIRF analysis of 2017–2018 religion textbooks revealed the continued presence of some of the most egregious content promoting violence and intolerance, once thought to have been removed,” the report states.
According to USCIRF, Saudi textbooks contain "egregious content promoting violence and intolerance".
“This content included language permitting the execution of apostates and those who unrepentantly mock God or the Prophet; explaining jihad as a joined battle against disbelievers; characterizing Christians as liars and Jews as desiring to destroy Islam; and calling for Muslim leaders to fight protestors until they cease. The textbooks also contained disparaging references to Zoroastrians, Sufis, Shia Muslims, polytheists, non-Muslim proselytizers, homosexuals, and women who do not wear the hijab.”
In addition, the commission remains concerned about intolerant and hateful material in older textbooks, “especially following reports that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) used Saudi textbooks in 2015.” That ISIS used Saudi textbooks is a clear indication that the Saudi regime's religious ideology is radical and violent.
USCIRF warns that an unknown number of these older especially hateful textbooks remain in circulation around the globe.
The commission points out that a recent Saudi royal decree bans “financing outside Saudi Arabia of religious schools, mosques, hate literature, and other activities that support religious intolerance and violence.” However, banning the promotion of extremism is like shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped.
The hard fact is that the Saudi regime has disseminated hate literature around the globe, and funded mosque construction and Islamic schools in the West and in developing countries in order to spread its radical, violent strain of Islam. Moderate Muslim-majority countries, such as Indonesia, have fallen under the spell of radical Islam, leading to violence and the persecution of Christians.
Similarly, thanks to the pernicious poison of Wahhabism, Pakistan has been become a hotbed of religious radicalism, intolerance, persecution of Christians and Ahmadi Muslims and other groups, and a source of Islamist terrorism.
In a bid to modernize the Saudi economy and society, Crown Prince Salman has launched the Vision 2030 strategy. As part of his plan, Salman has enacted cosmetic reforms, including allowing women to obtain drivers’ licenses and movie theatres to open.
Issued months before the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the USCIRF report strikes an optimistic tone regarding Salman’s Vision 2030 scheme. “If fully implemented,” states the report, “these plans, though primarily social and economic, could lead to greater civic space and respect for human rights and religious freedom in the Kingdom.”
The Saudi regime has offered contradictory statements about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But foreshadowing the current controversy swirling around the brutal murder of Khashoggi, the report warns that “as of the end of the reporting period, however, many human rights activists who previously advocated for similar reforms remained imprisoned for their activities.”
Given that Crown Prince Salman, who now effectively runs the kingdom, may have ordered the assassination of the Washington Post journalist, it is clear that the USCIRF report is far too optimistic.
The report recommends that the U.S. government “use targeted tools against specific officials and agencies identified as having participated in or being responsible for human rights abuses, including particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
For example, the commission recommends using the list kept by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to deny visa to Saudi officials complicit in human rights abuses. This could be done by applying section 604(a) of the International Religious Freedom Act as well as the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. The American government could also freeze the assets of Saudi officials under the Global Magnitsky Act.
However, more needs to be done to punish Saudi Arabia. Even though Saudi Arabia has been designated a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. State Department since 2004, the kingdom has received “an indefinite waiver” since 2006. This frees the U.S. government from applying tough actions as “legislatively mandated action as a result of the designation.” It is time to remove the waiver and let the chips fall where they may. The Saudi regime must be taught a hard lesson by the United States, Saudi Arabia’s protector.
USCIRF vist to Riyadh
The week before a Saudi assassination squad murdered and dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a USCIRF delegation travelled to Saudi Arabia and met with regime officials. And for the first time ever, a U.S. delegation met with the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the “Religious Police”).
According to a press statement issued by USCIRF on Oct. 4th--two days after Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul never to be seen again—the U.S. delegation was encouraged by some of the reforms enacted by Crown Prince Salman.
Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom are considering applying their own versions of the Magnitsky Act to sanction Saudi Arabia.
However, Commissioner Maenza said that USCIRF would assess “whether this opening is extending to other parts of the country and the degree to which these reforms are impacting freedom of religion or belief in a country that still—for instance—officially bans public worship unless it is the state-sanctioned practice of Islam.” And she stated that USCIRF would also assess the impact of the reforms on religious minorities and prisoners of conscience.
The horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi on foreign soil should answer USCIRF’s questions about the commitment of the Saudi regime to reform. That the regime carried out an extra-territorial execution of a dissident demonstrates that the House of Saud cannot be reformed. In other words, the House of Saud is now and always will be a regime that abuses human rights, persecutes religious minorities, kills dissidents, and sees itself above international law.
Saudi Crown Prince Salman is also the architect of the deadly air war on and blockade of Yemen.
The Saudi intervention in the civil conflict has devastated the country. Air strikes have destroyed vital infrastructure, targeted schools, killed children, and caused massive human suffering. Yemen is on the brink of a huge famine and has already suffered the world’s worst outbreak of cholera, a water borne disease. The Crown Prince and his officials are clearly guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Yemen.
In response to the Khashoggi killing, Canada, the United States, and the European Parliament are considering applying their own versions of the Magnitsky Act to sanction specific Saudi officials involved in the murder. But the international community must send a stronger message.
Those countries should also punish the Saudi regime for persecuting religious minorities and for bombing and blockading Yemen.
In addition, the United Nations Security Council should immediately invoke the Canadian-inspired Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in the case of Yemen. R2P requires the community of nations to use whatever means necessary—diplomatic, humanitarian and/or military—to prevent mass civilian death.
The time has come to speak plainly and boldly. It is time to speak truth to power. It is time to tell the Saudi regime that the community of nations will no longer allow it to slaughter innocents, starve millions, bomb schools, persecute religious minorities, or assassinate journalists and dissidents.
It is time to label the House of Saud a terrorist regime.
Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian journalist who specializes in international relations, human rights, religious freedom, and humanitarian affairs. He has a Master’s Degree in political studies from Queen’s University. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston