A program of the Center for Inquiry
Imagine the scene: a small group of opinion writers from major newspapers in the United States sit in a meeting room in Riyadh with robed and keffiyeh-wearing officials from Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education. The subject is intolerance. As a syndicated columnist and editorial writer, I am among those journalists. Our questions focus on textbooks used to educate millions of Saudi children in public schools.
Why, we ask, are the books so full of intolerance toward people of other faiths? They reek of degrading and insulting descriptions of Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the Saudis’ strict brand of Islam. The textbooks condone—nay encourage—violence against people of other faiths, claiming it is necessary to protect the integrity of Wahhabism. We ask: Aren’t you planting seeds of hate and setting up the conditions for young people to be more easily recruited by terrorist organizations?
Relevant questions. The year was 2002.
We’d heard a lot of Orwellian thinking during that trip to the Kingdom of the House of Saud. Veiling women is a form of freedom. Mossad was behind the events of September 11, 2001. Islam is a religion of peace. But what we heard at the education ministry was right up there on the delusion-meter.
We were the intolerant ones, they said. Our impertinent questions were proof. How dare we question their cultural and religious traditions? Any suggestion that their textbooks smacked of bigotry was an affront to their sovereignty and a form of religious intolerance.
We were being intolerant of their intolerance.
You can see how this distorted view can happen in a theocratic monarchy such as Saudi Arabia’s. The Saudis have a lot riding on trying to convince the West to keep quiet about the ugly attitudes and backward rules that shape their country—a system built around religious pronouncements that women are less than men in law, commerce, and the domestic sphere and that anyone non-Muslim is worthy of persecution and, in many cases, death.
You would think that the best Saudi Arabia could hope for would be to keep its head down while asking the West to ignore its peculiar institutions. But that’s not Saudi Arabia’s MO. With preachy sanctimony, the Saudis proclaim that any criticism of their system violates international norms of human rights.
Last year, at an international summit in France, Saudi Arabia lashed out at the media and countries that value free speech for allowing religious criticism, according to the Saudi Gazette. “We have made it clear that freedom of expression without limits or restrictions would lead to violation and abuse of religious and ideological rights,” said Abdulmajeed Al-Omari, director for external relations at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. “This requires everyone to intensify efforts to criminalize insulting heavenly religions, prophets, holy books, religious symbols, and places of worship.”
This from a country that doesn’t allow Christmas trees, teaches the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as historical fact, and in 2005 sentenced a schoolteacher to 750 lashes and three and a half years in prison for praising Jews and discussing the Gospels. (The teacher was pardoned after protests.)
In Saudi Arabia today, atheism is legally designated as terrorism. Earlier this year, a man who tweeted on atheism was sentenced to ten years in prison and two thousand lashes. The Center for Inquiry (CFI) has been advocating on behalf of Saudi poet Ashraf Fayadh, who was sentenced to death in 2015 for apostasy, then resentenced on appeal earlier this year to eight years in prison and eight hundred lashes. CFI sent a letter to President Barack Obama to urge him to push for Fayadh’s release during his visit to Saudi Arabia in April. And CFI has been drawing international attention to the case of imprisoned Saudi human rights activist Raif Badawi, sentenced to ten years and one thousand lashes for insulting Islam. The charges stemmed from articles Badawi wrote criticizing religious figures on his website devoted to free expression of ideas.
When, in 2014, CFI representative Josephine Macintosh spoke before the United Nation’s Human Rights Council, drawing attention to the desert kingdom’s brutal and repressive treatment of religious dissenters in general and of Badawi in particular, the representative from Saudi Arabia interrupted Macintosh three times. This attempt to shut down Macintosh’s critique was unsuccessful after other member states, including the United States, Ireland, Canada, and France, expressed their support for the right of Macintosh, CFI, and other nongovernmental organizations to speak.
And the Saudis claim we are the human rights violators.
This pity party would be a party of one were it not for a borderline-pathological alliance some on the political Left have made with this way of thinking. Bizarrely, a subset of progressives has bought into the idea that any criticism of the tenets of Islam is an attack on Muslim people. The two are not the same, of course. Discriminatory ideas found in the Qur’an and practiced as part of Sharia law—such as that women’s testimony is worth only half that of men’s—should be open to criticism. And the critic is not a bigot for saying so.
Perhaps the most famous example of this conflation was the attack on Sam Harris by actor Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time. Affleck’s apoplectic reaction to Harris’s criticisms of Islam as “gross and racist” reinforced the point of the conversation, which was that the Left cares about women’s equality and homosexual rights except when Islamists are the ones oppressing women and gays—then the oppression is excused out of hyper-cultural sensitivity.
Consider what happened last December to the courageous feminist crusader and Islamic critic Maryam Namazie. During Namazie’s talk on blasphemy and apostasy at Goldsmiths University in the United Kingdom, a group of young men from the school’s Islamic Society entered the room with the intention of making it impossible for her to continue. They laughed, heckled, and generally disrupted the talk, at one point turning off her projector when a slide depicting a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad was shown.
Rather than defend Namazie, the Goldsmiths Feminist Society issued a statement standing “in solidarity” with the Islamic Society and condemning the student group of atheists, secularists, and humanists who invited Namazie to their campus. “Hosting known islamophobes [sic] at our university creates a climate of hatred,” the statement read.
I’d like to take these Goldsmiths feminists on a tour of Saudi Arabia to see what they are fighting for. The gleaming office towers of that country don’t have ladies’ rooms. There’s no need, since women are not permitted to work alongside men.
Blasphemy laws are the legal extension of this Goldsmiths no-one-should-ever-be-offended attitude. Used as tools of repression to keep the faithful in line, minority faiths small and quiet, and nonbelievers in the closet, blasphemy laws are a menace to enlightenment values. CFI is helping to lead the international effort to vanquish them.
Defenders of Islam’s untenable dictates on women, gays, atheists, and members of other faiths have only one arrow in their quiver, which is to try and silence their critics because they have no valid responses to them. As much as they would like to convince us that our intolerance of their intolerance is a form of cultural hegemony, we’re not buying it.
Robyn E. Blumner is the CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the CEO and president of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. She was a nationally syndicated columnist and editorial writer for the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) for sixteen years.