Monday, July 10, 2017

Where Criticism is an “Act of Terror”

Saudi Arabia Uncovered.
Documentary Review by Michael Isenberg.

“There is a state which beheads and even crucifies its citizens. Where those who question its authority are lashed and locked up for years. A state where woman lack many basic rights. Patrolled by religious police. Where children are indoctrinated. But this is not the Islamic State. This is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A close ally which buys billions of pounds’ worth of British [and American] arms, whose security forces we equip and train, even though they’re in conflict with many of their own people. Whose oil we buy, and whose royals get the red-carpet treatment.”

So begins Saudi Arabia Uncovered, a documentary which bills itself as “a rare revealing look inside the Saudi Kingdom.” Produced by Britain’s ITV network, and directed by veteran filmmaker James Jones, the (approximately) hour-long exposé aired last year on Frontline and lives on in cyberspace.

The picture it paints is of a rigid, authoritarian theocracy, under the thumb of King Salman. It’s a regime where the religious police—the so-called Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—has the power to enforce hours of prayer, smash bottles of alcohol, eject men from malls where women are shopping, shame women for wearing make-up, and break up gatherings of public lute playing. Imams in the mosques and textbooks in the schools preach hatred of Jews, Christians, and Shiites (The filmmakers note that there has been some reform in the area of textbooks, but old textbooks linger). “In Saudi Arabia,” says women’s rights activist Hala al-Dosari, “criticizing the government, criticizing religious people, are considered as acts of terror. And people are reporting on each other, targeting their fellow citizens, so everyone becomes, you know, more religious than ever, everybody becomes more pro-government than ever. So we’re going into a fascist society.”

The heart of the documentary are the brave men and women who put their lives and their freedom on the line to stand up to that fascist society. Their activism subjects them to brutal prison conditions, public flogging, and sometimes beheading. Above all, Saudi Arabia Uncovered is their story. For example,

  • Yasser, whose undercover camera work, and that of his “network,” provide much of the material on which Saudi Arabia Uncovered is based. Filming in Saudi Arabia is illegal, so he and his team took a great risk. “What will be, will be,” he says, philosophically. “Yes, there is a danger. But the world needs to see how we have been living under persecution and slavery for decades.”
  • Raif Badawi, a blogger who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes (he’s received 50 so far) for “insulting Islam.” It’s been over a year since his wife had any news from him.

  • Loujain Hathloul, “Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s activist. A constant thorn in the side of the regime.” For attempting to drive into the country, where women are banned from driving, and uploading video of herself doing so, she was arrested and held without charge for almost two and a half months. In 2015, she applied to run in municipal elections, but was prohibited from appearing on the ballot.
  • Ali Nimr. As a teenager, he participated in Arab Spring protests. Now in his early twenties, he waits on death row as punishment for “treason,” amid worldwide outrage. His uncle, Nimr al-Nimr wasn't as “fortunate.” A prominent Shiite activist, in January 2016 he was executed with 46 others in “the largest mass execution since 1980.” Some were terrorists. Some were just called terrorists.

    But the Saudi regime is not content merely to subject its own citizens to the terrors of Islamism. It exports them. The ties between Saudi-funded Islamic charities and terror groups are well-known and reviewed in the documentary (which also notes there is no evidence that senior Saudi officials were complicit in them). However, thoughtful observers consider that the kingdom’s embrace of the Wahhabi form of Islam—the country has spent $70 billion promoting it worldwide—is even more insidious than direct support of terror. In the words of former CIA officer Emile Nakhleh, “The ideology of ISIS is not much different from the ideology that Wahhabi Salafi Islam in Saudi Arabia adheres to. Unless the Saudis deal with this issue, we are going to constantly fight yesterday’s war and even if we defeat ISIS, there’ll be another terrorist organization, perhaps with a different name, as long as they have this ideology that emanates from Saudi Arabia.”

    In view of Saudi Arabia’s persecution of its own citizens and its promotion of Islamist ideology, many in the US and Britain question the wisdom of supporting the kingdom. Throughout the documentary, current and former government officials tell us that we have no choice. While Saudi Arabia isn’t perfect, they say, it’s a crucial ally in the War on Terror, especially in the intelligence department. “Welcome to the real world,” former CIA Director David Petraeus intones piously. Hey, I get realpolitik. I get that we can’t always choose our allies. I don't ask for perfection. But is it too much to ask that our allies be marginally distinguishable from our enemies?

    The Saudi government has responded to the filmmakers' work. In a statement, which was included in the film, it said it “utterly rejects the partisan nature and sensationalist tone of this documentary, which sets out to portray the country in a negative an unbalanced light. The Kingdom’s legal system is based on the due process of Islamic shari’a law.”

    In my humble opinion, that’s the problem.

    Saudi Arabia Uncovered may be watched on and Netflix.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

    Photo credit(s): Huffington Post

  • 1 comment:

    1. Shari'a might be a problem. Or, more exactly, the fact that those who want to impose it on their fellow citizens derive the authority to do so from the Quran.
      Basically the same process through which the Inquisition had been imposed over the Catholic Europe...
      An even bigger problem is how individual people choose to act inside the space defined by shari'a.
      Time will tell.
      I'm under the impression that the House of Saoud had brought Damocles' sword over their own head. They had encouraged radical Islamism as a means to get and preserve secular power and have now reached a cul-de-sack.
      More and more of their subjects would like to live under a reasonable form of Islam but the Imams won't budge - simply because they don't want to loose their power...
      Not very unlikely to what was going on in France, before the Revolution.