Posts Tagged ‘Ottomans’

Vox Political on Muted Tory Criticism of Saudi Arabia

January 7, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political posted up this piece yesterday, reporting David Cameron’s failure to express only muted criticism about Saudi Arabia’s disgusting human rights record, after the beheading of 47 people earlier this week: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/01/06/minister-defends-uks-approach-to-saudi-human-rights-record/

When pressed on the reasons the Tories hadn’t made stronger criticisms, the Tory foreign minister, Tobias Ellwood, said: “Founded just under 100 years ago, Saudi Arabia is a relatively young country and we recognise change cannot happen overnight. The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia reflects widely held conservative social values and as such needs to move at a pace that is acceptable to its society.”

This is risible nonsense. Nearly all of the countries in the Middle East, including modern Turkey, are young countries less than 100 or so years old. Turkey as it is now is the creation of Kemal Ataturk and The Young Turks, who strove to modernise the country following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. Yet Turkey, until Erdogan took power, strove to be a secular democracy. The country also has severe problems. It’s been under military rule several times, and political prisoners, especially Kurdish separatists, have been imprisoned. And there is a concerted campaign to stamp out Kurdish culture. Nevertheless, the country’s relative religious tolerance was show on Sunday, when ITV screened a new series in which Adrian Chiles, the former presenter of the One Show, travels round the Mediterranean looking for what Jews, Christians and Muslims have in common and what unites, rather than divides them. Chiles is a Roman Catholic. He’s a convert to Christianity, whose turn to the Church of Rome surprised his atheist parents. On Sunday’s programme, he talked to his Croatian mother, who told him why she became an atheist, before travelling to Turkey. There he had perfectly amicable discussions about religion with two very modern young women, a fisherman, and a Jewish bloke with a shop in Istanbul’s bazaar. Among the man’s wares was a chess set, where the two sides, white and black, had been made instead into Crusaders and Turkish warriors. I’ve no doubt that in some parts of the Middle East, this would provoke a riot, if not anything worse. But in Istanbul, no-one seemed remotely concerned or even much interested.

Syria also is a new country. It, Iraq and many of the countries Middle Eastern nations were previously Ottoman provinces. They were formed into independent states by the European imperial powers, Britain and France. Syria, while not remotely a democracy, was a secular regime, which included Christians as well as Muslims amongst its founders. Lebanon suffered a terrible civil war in the 1970s and 80s, driven by religious rivalry between Christians and Muslims. But it has a kind of democratic constitution, in which various governmental posts are held by members of particular sects and faiths, in order to secure a fair balance of power that will cancel out or at least partially counteract ethnic or religious tensions. It was also one of the leading centres of the modern Arabic rival, and many of the founders of modern Arabic letters were Christians.
As for Iraq, this was also a secular country, though Islam was still the dominant religion under the law. It was able to maintain a relatively secular constitution even though it contains several of the holiest sites in Shi’a Islam. A country’s youth or age is no excuse for it having an appalling human rights’ record.

And in fact, in terms of practices now seen as barbaric, the West and Islam weren’t so very different even as late as the 19th century. I can remember reading a history of the Balkans by an American historian over a decade ago, which pointed out that the taking of heads by soldiers in Ottoman Turkey was almost exactly the same as the practice of taking the heads of criminals by lawmen and bounty hunters on the American frontier. Until the invention of photography, and its adoption by the forces of law and order, the only way to prove a violent criminal had been killed was to bring his head into the local sheriff’s office, and display it to the authorities. And so they did. Now the American dispossession and genocide of the Indians was a great evil, but this didn’t stop America striving to become more liberal, more just and humane towards its citizens.

Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is still extraordinarily conservative. It was founded in the 1920s when the founders of the current ruling Ibn Sa’ud dynasty took power with the help of the Muslim Brotherhood. After the revolution, the new king had his opponents beheaded and their heads displayed on his palace walls. And change has been extremely slow. Ismail Pasha, the Sultan of Egypt, was genuinely trying to stamp out slavery in his country in the 19th century. The Saudis only got round to banning it in 1965. Some of this conservatism might be due to Saudi Arabia’s possession of two of the very holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina, the cities in which Mohammed lived and taught. But even this probably wouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle to the growth of human rights in that country.

The real cause of the lack of human rights in Saudi Arabia is the extreme intolerance of Wahhabi Islam, and the Saudis dominance of the oil industry. They showed just how powerful they were economically with the oil crisis in the 1970s. And as they are still a major market for British goods, like guns and armaments, Cameron and co are very reluctant to risk offending them. And so the Conservatives don’t dare to voice anything but the mildest criticism, even when the Saudis are killing political prisoners and funding terrorism. Far from it. They’re even held up as our most valued allies.

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