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Desert wilderness of humanity

Desert wilderness of humanity
Sweden’s “magnificently undiplomatic foreign minister”, as The Guardian called Margot Wallstrom, spoke her beliefs bluntly a few short weeks ago and set the proverbial cat among the pigeons, setting nervous titters up and down political circles from Euro centre Brussels to faraway Washington. She spoke up for the truth in naming Saudi Arabia as a country that used “medieval” methods to subjugate all who do not follow their strict Wahabi brand of Islam. She decried the status of women in the theocratic country which is the flag flyer of the Islamic world, containing the holiest sites and shrines of the religion, saying that women are stopped from travelling or conducting business or even marrying without the consent of male members of her family whose gender gives them, most often, the sole right to act as the woman’s guardians. Child marriages are the norm and older men, in effect, rape girls young enough to be their granddaughters. Wallstorm’s direct condemnation was of the Saudi’s court’s sentence of ten years imprisonment for Raif Badawi and a thousand lashes for setting up a secular website championed free speech.

The response from Saudi Arabia and the Islamic world was immediate. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Sweden and stopped issuing visas to Swedish businessmen. The UAE did likewise. To cap it all, 56 Islamic countries which are represented by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation accused Sweden of showing disrespect to the ‘rich and varied ethical standards’ of the world. The Gulf Co-operation Council comprising six nations spewed their indignation on Wallstrom’s ‘unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’

Subsequently, the Saudi ambassador returned to Stockholm. But not before the Saudis claimed that the Swedes had apologised. Sweden’s King Carl Gustav had sent a special envoy to Arabia, a former defence minister, to King Salman. There was a much publicised photo, in the Gulf press, of the Swedish envoy bowing politely to the Saudi minister of defence, with the gratuitous caption, “Sweden says sorry”. The truth, of course, is that Margot Wallstorm had not apologised. The fact that a woman stood up against the laws of Saudi Arabia was perhaps even more offensive to male egos protected by pre-modern doctrine. However, the affair was not raised in the western media as it should have. The press and the governments played down the affair – because they, we, are all complicit in the appeasement and acceptance of Saudi Arabia.

Take the case of Sweden itself. The country of only 9 million people is doing more than a billion pounds sterling of business with Saudi Arabia. Its financial engagements with the other Muslim-majority nations would also add up to a sizeable figure every year. H&M, Ericsson, Ikea, Electrolux, Volvo and Scania would not like to see their markets in the Near East shrink and disappear. Sweden is also the world’s 12th largest arms exporter. Saab exports military equipment and is looking for further markets where it has not gone before and expanding existing bases where they are present. Therefore it is not difficult to imagine how uneasy Swedish industry would be about their foreign minister’s remarks and how they would want to distance themselves from her. It is amazing to note that other Western countries have not taken up on her lead and asked for better Human Rights legislation in Saudi Arabia. It is the money of several governments at stake here. The mighty US may disapprove of the methods Saudi justice takes but it does not want to let that upset relations.

America’s peculiar relationship with Saudi Arabia harks back to the end of the Second World War. In 1945, after restructuring the world into a form and shape that remained just so till the close of the Cold War, Roosevelt had a long unscheduled meeting with the Saudi king Ibn Saud. This took place on the USS Quincy which was moored in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake on the way back from Yalta. Onboard, on the deck of the warship, Ibn Saud, the father of 45 sons from numerous wives, slaughtered a goat – to seal a friendship with the United States. This made Saudi Arabia the oldest, continuous political ally of the US in the region. This relationship and all its troubles has to be seen from this historic perspective – from the point of view of both nations and what they stand to gain from this alliance.

When complicity covers up all voices of dissent, free thinking and open speech, perhaps it is time to turn to those who have been most outspoken against such muzzling of expression and the scandalous tolerance shown by the other countries of the world. In her book, Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian writer and activist who now lives in Holland writes, “This was Saudi Arabia, where Islam originated, governed strictly according to the scriptures and example of the Prophet Mohammad. And by law, all women in Saudi Arabia must be in the care of a man. My mother argued loudly with the Saudi immigration official, but he merely repeated in an ever louder voice that she could not leave the airport without a man in charge.”

The full extent of the blindness of faith and what it makes men and governments do can be understood from another passage from Chapter 3 of the same book: “On September 16, 1978, there was an eclipse of the moon in Riyadh. Late one afternoon it became visible: a dark shadow moving slowly across the face of the pale moon in the darkening blue sky. There was a frantic knocking on the door. When I opened it, our neighbour asked if we were safe. He said it was the Day of Judgement, when the Quran says the sun will rise from the west and the seas will flood, when all the dead will rise and Allah's angels will weigh our sins and virtue, expediting the good to Paradise and the bad to Hell. Though it was barely twilight, the muezzin suddenly called for prayer--not one mosque calling carefully after another, as they usually did, but all the mosques clamouring all at once, all over the city. There was shouting across the neighbourhood. When I looked outside I saw people praying in the street.”

No one is the wiser in a land of such darkness. Is it better to leave their worries with them? After all, in the words of a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Ford Fraker, “This is a society that has the government they want. They are comfortable with what they have.” And with those words all of us can give our conscience a rest. 
All we have to do, is look away.

BOX1: Take the case of Sweden itself. The country of only 9 million people is doing more than a billion pounds sterling of business with Saudi Arabia. Its financial engagements with the other Muslim-majority nations would also add up to a sizeable figure every year. H&M, Ericsson, Ikea, Electrolux, Volvo and Scania would not like to see their markets in the Near East shrink and disappear. Sweden is also the world’s 12th largest arms exporter.

BOX2: America’s peculiar relationship with Saudi Arabia harks back to the end of the Second World War. In 1945, after restructuring the world into a form and shape that remained just so till the close of the Cold War, Roosevelt had a long unscheduled meeting with the Saudi king Ibn Saud. This took place on the USS Quincy which was moored in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake on the way back from Yalta. Onboard, on the deck of the warship, Ibn Saud, the father of 45 sons from numerous wives, slaughtered a goat – to seal a friendship with the United States. This made Saudi Arabia the oldest, continuous political ally of the US in the region.
 
The author is a writer and documentary film-maker who lives both in Delhi and in Calcutta
Ankur Roy Chowdhury

Ankur Roy Chowdhury

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