I recently raised concerns on PBS Newshour about a lawsuit by Israelis who are suing in the United States to force Facebook to take down violent, anti-Jewish sites. While I believe Facebook can and should take down the sites, the use of the government to close such sites raise serious free speech questions in where to draw the line on such censorship or regulation of speech. I noted that such lawsuits like the recent successful action against Twitter by Jewish students are part of a comprehensive attack on free speech that uses such civil actions as a form of speech regulation or retaliation. Saudi Arabia has again stepped forward to make this point more powerfully that I could ever hope to. The Saudi justice ministry has announced that it will sue a Twitter user who compared the death sentence handed down on Friday to a Palestinian poet to the punishments meted out by Islamic State. I have drawn the same obvious comparison in the case of Ashraf Fayadh as have readers on this site and other sites. Rather than stop acting like ISIS (which would require a greater recognition of due process and human rights in the Kingdom), Saudi Arabia is seeking to threaten people to stop them from making the analogy. However, the beheadings of nonbelievers will continue. For many, the Saudi Foreign Ministry sounds like it is putting out the word “if you say we are like ISIS again, we will behead you.”
Of course, most defamation actions allow truth as a defense but truth is highly relative in the Kingdom.
Seemingly clueless to the fact that pursuing critics is . . . well . . . ISIS-like, an official announced “the justice ministry will sue the person who described … the sentencing of a man to death for apostasy as being `ISIS-like’.”
Fayadh was sentenced to death for apostasy – a favorite crime of ISIS and a legal abomination of any nation that seeks to call itself part of the civilized world. Saudi Arabia bans other religions from having places of worship in their territory and routinely sentences people to flogging and death for morality crimes under its medieval Sharia legal system. What Saudi Arabia called “courts” and “judges” are really absurd Sharia tribunals headed by clerics following the harsh Wahhabi traditions of the country.
In this twisted legal system, it all makes perfect sense to seek to punish those who criticize the lack of justice by denying them any notion of justice: “Questioning the fairness of the courts is to question the justice of the Kingdom and its judicial system based on Islamic law, which guarantees rights and ensures human dignity.”
The case is interesting because for years I have been critical of the effort during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State to support efforts making blasphemy a crime. For many years, I have been writing about the threat of an international blasphemy standard and the continuing rollback on free speech in the West. For recent columns, click here and here and here.
Much of this writing has focused on the effort of the Obama Administration to reach an accommodation with allies like Saudi Arabia to develop a standard for criminalizing anti-religious speech. We have been following the rise of anti-blasphemy laws around the world, including the increase in prosecutions in the West and the support of the Obama Administration for the prosecution of some anti-religious speech under the controversial Brandenburg standard. Now that effort has come to a head with the new President of Egypt President Mohamed Mursi calling for enactment of an anti-blasphemy law at the United Nations. Mursi is also demanding legal action against the filmmaker by the United States despite the fact that the film is clearly protected by the first amendment.
This case shows how the Saudis treat exercises of a wide variety of free speech as threatening social order. The obvious intent is to chill others by hoisting some poor wretch who will be forced to confess his sins before some kangaroo court. The distinction with beheading non-believers in Saudi Arabia as opposed to beheading non-believers by ISIS can be hard for sane people to discern. Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki defended the use of capital punishments on NBC such as beheadings in the kingdom by saying the country’s Shariah-based legal system guarantees fairness since it is based on Islamic Sharia law” “ISIS has no legitimate way to decide to decide to kill people.”
Clearly the Saudis remain enemies of ISIS despite their shared Sunni traditions. It is not the fight against extremism that I question (though we can debate the means), it is the selective measure that we apply between different countries. It is certainly true that Saudi Arabia is not viewed as a sponsor of terrorism, has attempted some marginal reforms, and has committed itself to fighting ISIS. I see the difference with ISIS even with Saudi Arabia beheading people in public squares and sentencing people to death for apostasy. However, it remains a country that refuses a single non-Mosque to be built on its territory, widespread denial of free speech, denial of basis rights for women, denial of the free press, and a host of other rights considered core human rights. The comparison however to ISIS is inescapable when you are killing people for apostasy after giving them laughable trials before clerics applying Sharia law.