While the Obama Administration struggles to restore good relations with Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom continues to lead the effort among Arab nations to deny most rights of free exercise, free expression, and free association. Saudi Arabia has fought for the creation of an international blasphemy standard (with the support of the Obama Administration) and has continued to deny basic rights of worship to religious minorities. Now, the the Kingdom has introduced new criminal provisions that makes atheism not only blasphemy but terrorism.
Article 1 of the new regulations state that “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.” The ultimate “thought crime.” Merely discussing atheism in the Kingdom is not a crime.
What is most striking about the regulations is the low quality of the provisions which are poorly written and vague. Article 2 states “Anyone who throws away their loyalty to the country’s rulers, or who swears allegiance to any party, organization, current [of thought], group, or individual inside or outside [the kingdom].” Of course, “throwing away their loyalty” would likely include ideas on religion that do not comport with the Wahhabi beliefs of the ruling family.
Then there is Article 4: “Anyone who aids [“terrorist”] organizations, groups, currents [of thought], associations, or parties, or demonstrates affiliation with them, or sympathy with them, or promotes them, or holds meetings under their umbrella, either inside or outside the kingdom; this includes participation in audio, written, or visual media; social media in its audio, written, or visual forms; internet websites; or circulating their contents in any form, or using slogans of these groups and currents [of thought], or any symbols which point to support or sympathy with them.”
Thus, like other countries recently, Saudi Arabia is criminalizing conduct that occurs outside of the country and would encompass atheistic writings or statements. Now you can be arrested for “participating in hostilities outside the kingdom” and those hostilities under the new provisions include thought and speech crimes. According to Human Rights Watch, the new regulations were issued in January of this year. They are part of the Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing. The new crimes make clear that “terrorism” can be non-violent – consisting of “any act” intended to, among other things, “insult the reputation of the state,” “harm public order,” or “shake the security of society.”
The rest of the regulations makes clear that even participating in a conference or sharing work on democratic reforms would now be potentially criminalized:
Article 6: “Contact or correspondence with any groups, currents [of thought], or individuals hostile to the kingdom.”
Article 8: “Seeking to shake the social fabric or national cohesion, or calling, participating, promoting, or inciting sit-ins, protests, meetings, or group statements in any form, or anyone who harms the unity or stability of the kingdom by any means.”
Article 9: “Attending conferences, seminars, or meetings inside or outside [the kingdom] targeting the security of society, or sowing discord in society.”
Article 11: “Inciting or making countries, committees, or international organizations antagonistic to the kingdom.”
The government has clearly written the provisions to allow the greatest possible ambiguity to both chill speech and to allow the greatest leeway in enforcement.
The law reaffirms the criticism of some of us of the Obama Administration in its work on an international blasphemy standard. The Administration always justified its reversal of earlier administration in its working on such a standard as an effort to moderate the Arab views on free speech. Instead, the Arab countries heralded the U.S. as supporting in principle the criminalization of speech. The level of hostility of the Kingdom toward free speech is evident in these draconian new laws.
We continue to court Saudi Arabia as our major ally despite its rejection of a litany of basic civil liberties from speech to religion to assembly to press. Women continue to be denied the most basic human rights in the Kingdom. At the same time, the country continues to be a font for terrorists as shown by the national origin of many of the 9-11 hijackers. Now it wants to broader the definition of terrorism to allow it to jail atheists and democratic reformers. It seems that it is far more important to incarcerate those who are viewed as “seeking to shake the social fabric or national cohesion.”