Any day now, our Saudi Arabian allies may behead and crucify a young man named Ali al-Nimr.
His appeals following his court sentence for this grisly execution have been exhausted, so guards may lead al-Nimr to a public square and hack off his head with a sword as onlookers jeer. Then, following Saudi protocol for crucifixion, they would hang his body on a cross as a warning to others.
Al-Nimr’s offense? He was arrested at age 17 for participating in anti-government protests. The government has said he attacked police officers and rioted, but the only known evidence is a confession apparently extracted under torture that left him a bloody mess.
“When I visited my son for the first time I didn’t recognize him,” his mother, Nusra al-Ahmed, told The Guardian. “I didn’t know whether this really was my son Ali or not.”
Al-Nimr was recently moved to solitary confinement in preparation for execution. In Britain, where the sentence has received attention, the foreign secretary says he does “not expect” it to be carried out. But al-Nimr’s family fears execution could come any day.
Saudi Arabia’s medieval criminal justice system also executes “witches” and flogs and imprisons gay people.
It’s time for a frank discussion about our ally Saudi Arabia and its role legitimizing fundamentalism and intolerance in the Islamic world. Western governments have tended to bite their tongues because they see Saudi Arabia as a pillar of stability in a turbulent region – but I’m not sure that’s right.
Saudi Arabia has supported Wahhabi madrassas in poor countries in Africa and Asia, exporting extremism and intolerance. Saudi Arabia also exports instability with its brutal war in Yemen, intended to check what it sees as Iranian influence. Saudi airstrikes have killed thousands, and the blockading of ports has been even more devastating. Some Yemeni children are starving, and 80 percent of Yemenis need assistance.
There’s also an underlying hypocrisy in Saudi behavior. This is a country that sentenced a 74-year-old British man to 350 lashes for possessing alcohol (some British reports say he may be allowed to leave Saudi Arabia following international outrage), yet I’ve rarely seen as much hard liquor as at Riyadh parties attended by government officials.
A Saudi prince, Majed Abdulaziz al-Saud, was just arrested in Los Angeles in a $37 million mansion he had rented, after allegedly drinking heavily, hiring escorts, using cocaine, terrorizing women and threatening to kill people.
“I am a prince,” he declared, according to an account in the Los Angeles Times. “And I do what I want.”
Saudi Arabia isn’t the enemy, but it is a problem. It could make so much positive difference in the Islamic world if it used its status to soothe Sunni-Shiite tensions and encourage tolerance. For a time, under King Abdullah, it seemed that the country was trying to reform, but now under King Salman it has stalled.
In effect, Saudi Arabia legitimizes fundamentalism, religious discrimination, intolerance and the oppression of women. Saudi women not only can’t drive but are also told by some clerics that they mustn’t wear seat belts for fear of showing the outlines of their bodies. Saudi Arabia inflames the Sunni-Shiite divide and sets a pernicious example of intolerance by banning churches.
Even Iran lately has mocked Saudi Arabia for mistreating women – and when misogynistic Iranian hard-liners can claim the high ground on women’s rights, you’ve got a problem.
I’ve defended Islam from critics like Bill Maher who, as I see it, demonize a diverse faith of 1.6 billion Muslims because a small percentage are violent extremists. But it’s incumbent on those of us who object to this demonization to speak up against genuine extremism. Sadly, Saudi Arabia is a gift to Islamophobes; it does far more damage to the reputation of Islam than any blaspheming cartoonists.
Granted, many Saudis are pushing for reform. One bright young writer, Raif Badawi, 31, called eloquently for women’s rights, education reform and freedom of thought, and Saudi Arabia has sentenced him to 10 years in prison, a $267,000 fine and a flogging of 1,000 lashes (50 at a time, with one session administered so far). His wife, Ensaf Haidar, tells me that his flogging is to resume soon after a long suspension and that she fears he will not survive the entire lashing.
The U.S. government has largely averted its eyes from all this, at least in public, merely expressing deep concern about the crucifixion sentence even as it provides weaponry to enable the Saudi assault on Yemen.
That’s realpolitik. Saudi Arabia has oil and influence, and the Obama administration needed to cuddle with Saudi Arabia to win the Iranian nuclear deal. But now that that deal has been achieved, should we still be silent?
We do neither ourselves nor the Saudi people any favors when we wink at an ally that crucifies its people.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.