No, Ambassador: It’s Not ‘Meddling’ to Call for Free Speech in Saudi Arabia

Vigil outside the Saudi Embassy, London

First posted yesterday on Huffington Post UK.

Today is the third anniversary of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi’s arrest, and thousands of activists around the world are demanding the reversal of his conviction on charges of blasphemy and ‘setting up a liberal website’. Many gathered at Downing Street today as a letter signed by hundreds of writers and politicians was delivered to Prime Minister David Cameron.

But the Royal Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in London is not amused. Last week, it issued an indignant response to the ongoing campaign for Badawi’s release.

‘…the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia wishes to state that it has no tolerance for foreign entities meddling in the Kingdom’s internal affairs,’ said the statement. ‘The Kingdom will not tolerate such outrageous, ridiculous interference in its sovereign criminal justice system.’

The charge of ‘meddling’ and ‘interference’ is well known to organisations like PEN, which campaigns for free speech all over the world, intended to shore up support at homeand undermine the impact of international protests.

As the Badawi case has shown, dissent in Saudi Arabia, as in many countries in the Middle East, is brutally suppressed. Yet Saudi Arabia is in fact a signatory to the Arab Charter on Human Rights in 2009, a document that guarantees the right to freedom of expression (Article 32). Campaigners are asking Saudi Arabia to adhere to the standards it has set for itself. To call the protests for Raif Badawi ‘outrageous, ridiculous interference’ is itself absurd.

The Embassy’s statement also emphasises that Raif Badawi is a Saudi Arabian citizen.

Badawi is advocating the development of democracy and human rights in his country. Many others share his opinions. Their ideas and their expression in writing are as much a part of Saudi culture as anything approved by the King, and to suppress such writing is to suppress authentic Saudi Arabian voices.

At the Riyadh International Book Fair last year, the government banned 420 books, including works by Iraqi poets Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Abdul-Wahab al-Bayati and the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. In 2012, the Saudi authorities pursued the poet Hamza Kashgari all the way to Malaysia, from where he was extradited, because a poem he put on Twitter was considered blasphemous.

So when it comes to Saudi Arabian cultural development, it is clear that the biggest meddler of them all is the Saudi government itself. Book banning and the suppression of radical voices can only stunt the development of Arabic and Islamic literature. If defending the right of writers in Saudi Arabia to express themselves freely is what it takes to be branded a meddler, then perhaps it is a label we should all accept with pride.

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