By Dylan Sahlin
In this confusing and often disorientating age, one can often forget a simple maxim. Oppressive cultural norms, no matter their political or racial origins, must remain open to free and vigorous criticism.
Cultural relativism has slipped beyond the realm of intelligent cultural critique into the deep, dark ditch of moral relativism. Increasingly, it has become a byword for de-facto cultural acceptance, no matter the degradation, subjugation or exploitation involved in that culture’s practices.
No longer confined to academic discourse, this trend has seeped into global institutions.
The United Nation’s 2016 election of Saudi Arabia to a seat on the UN Human Rights Council is a beacon of this valueless and cowardly pandering. The blatant irony of this move is almost too much to stomach. Reconciling the council’s mission to “strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and address situations of human rights violations” with the Saudi kingdom’s brutalistic autocracy is not just a stretch – it is an impossible mission.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and dictatorial theocracy. It is without political parties or national elections, and its constitution is derived entirely from the Qur’an and the Sunnah. This strict state of affairs is mediated by the Saudi royal family – who clarify their national governance through a literalist understanding of Islam, Wahhabism, a form of Salafism found across the Arabian peninsula.
Wahhabism is a strict and puritanical form of Sunni Islam. Brutally misogynistic and proudly conservative, the denomination promotes a literalist understanding of the Qur’an. Despite persistent international condemnation, Saudi Arabia has maintained an adherence to Wahhabi philosophy and constructed a dense history of subjugating women and outcasting dissidents.
The Saudi royal family has enforced their oppressive brand of Islamism with an iron fist.
2011 saw the Saudi Interior Ministry issue an executive order outlawing public gatherings by threat of arrest and prosecution.
2012 saw the arrest and detention of Saudi teenager Dawoud al-Marhoon for participating in an anti-government rally, and a trial that saw the state prosecutor call for his beheading and crucifixion.
2013 saw the arrest and imprisonment of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr for his participation in Arab Spring protests.
2014 saw a government declaration that Saudi Arabia has deported over 370,000 foreign migrants and detained another 18,000 over the past decade.
Year on year the Saudi government has fought tooth and nail to prevent free expression in the nation. Perhaps nothing crystallises this flagrant disregard for political freedom more than the Raif Badawi case.
Creator of the website FreeSaudiLiberals, Badawi was arrested in 2012 on the charge of “insulting Islam through electronic channels”. Convicted in 2013 and sentenced to a ten year prison sentence and 1000 lashes, the Saudi royal family has ignored international protests against his treatment, administering the first 50 lashes in 2015 despite concerns over Badawi’s health.
In addition to ‘insulting Islam’ Badawi was also charged with apostasy. Apostasy. Consider this situation for a second. A regime expressly outlawing a citizen’s right to religious freedom has been labelled by the UN an important contributor to global human rights discourse. Far from dystopian fiction, this is today’s political reality. Not just an affront to aims of the human rights council, this is an affront to the goals of the United Nations, an affront to the values of democracy and an affront to basic logic.
However, liberals aren’t alone in the Saudi’s aggressive marginalisation campaign. The Saudi royal family’s tenure has been characterised by a repeated campaign against the empowerment of women in the nation. Subscribing to a literalist reading of Qur’anic scripture, the Saudis have maintained women as second class citizens, proudly remaining blind to decades of global progression in gender politics.
Although the rights of women have been incrementally extended in recent years as a nod to international pressure, limitations are everywhere one looks. The nation maintains a guardianship system that prevents women from doing vital tasks without an accompanying male. Women are unable to open a bank account, unable to drive, unable to swim and unable to freely interact with men.
A strict dress code is also maintained in the Saudi kingdom. Having moved miles beyond voluntary religious modesty, the state appoints specially-tasked religious police to tell women what constitutes ‘proper’ and ‘improper’ garb and makeup.
Unsurprisingly, this mistreatment of women and brutal silencing of dissidents saw Saudi Arabia named among the ‘least free’ global nations by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. And yet the UN deems this nation a key player in the development of global human rights discourse.
This isn’t the maintenance of a moral standard agreed upon by a nation and its citizens. This is institutionalized oppression. Oppression justified by an unrealistically political interpretation of Islam.
For the UN to effectively endorse this behaviour flies in the face of the values of the human rights council and the very institution itself. It is a moral sacrifice. A sacrifice made to cosy up to the interests of the oil-rich Saudi nation, and a sacrifice that will unquestionably slow the progress of human rights, democracy and personal freedom across the Levant and across the world.