Sunday, January 3. 2016
I've missed doing this the last couple of weeks. I've had other things
to focus on, and figured I'd wind up writing pretty much the same things
about the same outrages when I returned as I would have written before.
So Saudi Arabia's mass execution of 47 mostly political prisoners came
as a bit of a shock. Not a complete shock, mind you. Since King Abdullah's
death last year, the Saudi monarchy has been increasingly aggressive about
throwing its power around, most obviously in its entry and escalation of
Yemen's civil war: one of the most blatant war crimes of the last decade,
one that practically every day generates reports of atrocities. But Saudi
Arabia has been meddling in the affairs of other countries since 1980 --
partly in response to the twin shocks of the Iranian Revolution and the
siege at Mecca's Grand Mosque, both in 1979, but largely because the
Reagan administration, following Kissinger's 1970s strategy of promoting
regional powers as proxies for American mischief, encouraged the Saudis
to help finance the Holy War in Afghanistan against the infidel Russians.
The Saudis not only ponied up the money, they understood that to recruit
Mujahideen they needed to promote their state-linked Salafist doctrine
throughout the Islamic world. In doing so, the Saudis (and their fellow
aristocrats among the former British cronies of the Persian Gulf states)
built the financial and human infrastructure that promotes reactionary
terror throughout the Middle East -- one that has taken on a life and
logic of its own, turning on its former masters as surely as the Terror
devoured the Jacobins.
America's role in all of this can has resulted in one blunder after
another, the root cause two beliefs we picked up from the British who
got there (and got out) first. One is the conviction that all those who
(however temporarily) stand with us are advancing civilization (basically
a mental framework we have for admiring ourselves). The second is blind
faith that any problem can be solved by force, so long as it is so swift
and brutal that no one will dare repeat the offense. The first is little
more than a invitation for sycophancy and corruption, one that attracts
the worst possible allies, but which wears thin on anyone with integrity
or principles. While the latter is so blatantly unjust that that it only
breeds resentment and subversion, including those asymmetric acts of
sudden violence we dub "terror" -- terminology oblivious to what real
machines of war, like B-1 bombers and C-5 gunships, routinely wreak.
Of course, the British only made matters worse, except for a few oil
company owners, but they trained the Israelis in their methods -- in
some cases personally, as with Ronald Wingate and Moshe Dayan; often
by example, as with their suppression of the 1937-39 Arab Revolt; and
ultimately well enough that the Israelis preserved the whole of British
colonial law for selective application to the Palestinians. With such
methods, the Israelis have managed to destabilize their dominance and
extend their conflict for many generations. America followed in those
footsteps not because the approach seemed to work as out of arrogance,
figuring that the self-appointed rulers of the free world were destined
Of course, they haven't. Nearly fifteen years of active US military
intervention in the region has cycled tragedy and farce in an ever
more irresistible whorl -- among the casualties we find the brains
of all current presidential candidates (even Rand Paul; even Bernie
Sanders). Isn't one of those textbook definitions of insanity the
belief that repeating the same act will produce a different result?
The most immediate threat we face comes from the neocons, refreshed
by a brief respite from an Iraq fiasco that they're now convinced
they had won (until the lily-livered Obama sold them out), anxious
to send American troops back into the fray. To accomplish this, they
not only peddle flattering self-delucions, they never waste a chance
to paint ISIS as the gravest threat to civilization, like, ever. And
they've been so successful that hardly any "very serious" political
pundit dispute the urgent need to "smash ISIS" (that seems to be the
favored phrase, as if several million people living on their land
are mere cockroaches).
Their propaganda campaign has worked is largely because we seem to
have this primordial fear of an Islamic State -- presumably dating to
the downfall of Constantinople in 1454 if not the Battle of Tours in
732, although who knows about either? (More likely this is some sort
of mirror reflection where we fear that others should do to us as we
did to them; e.g., in the Crusades from 1092 and the Inquisition from
1492. Islam was almost never spread by the sword after the 8th century --
the exceptions were converts with a history of raiding, like the Turks
and Mughals, and most people under the early Caliphs retained their
pre-Islamic religions and legal systems without compulsion.) But while
we're geing goaded into war with an "Islamic State" centered in Raqaa,
we hear nothing about the more/less equally brutal Islamic State in
Riyadh -- Saudi Arabia -- which represses Shi'a, bans all non-Muslims,
punishes people they consider criminals with beheadings, which even
practices the ancient art of crucifixion. Last week's mass executions,
on top of the bombing and invasion of Yemen, should offer us a wake
up call. Saudi Arabia gets a free pass from the neocons because they
are rich, both selling the West oil and reinvesting their profits in
Western banks. The only reason the Raqaa IS seems more brutal is that
they are engaged in a life-and-death struggle, whereas the Riyadh IS
is sitting high, directing most of its brutality abroad -- but not
all, as we should see clearly now.
I shouldn't need to say this, but I am not advocating US military
intervention to right the wrongs of Saudi Arabia. I don't think the
US can or should do that, but we should stop helping the Saudis commit
those wrongs -- every bomb they drop in Yemen is, after all, made in
America -- and we should realize our limits in Syria and Iraq (among
other things, that we can't really distinguish friend from foe, that
we don't really have anything to offer the people there other than
death and destruction, and that we have no business doing that).
Maybe you think I'm one of those awful isolationists? I have two
answers to that. One is that if you have to choose between being a
serial murderer and a hermit, I'd much prefer that you opt for the
latter. The other is that it is possible to interact with the Middle
East (or anyplace else) without becoming one or the other. You can,
for instance, trade, invest, exchange students and tourists -- all
you need for that is stability and security and mutual respect,
which pacts, meddling, an arms race, and intervention obliterates.
In fact, aside from a tempest over piracy (the Barbary Wars, 1801-05)
the US pretty much did just that, all the way up through 1945: after
that Israel, the Cold War, and oil greed and fear distorted things,
but also the US forgot its founding principles, starting with
appreciation of freedom from foreign dominance and entanglements,
an aversion to maintaining a standing army, and at least a nominal
belief that "all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator
with certain inalienable rights" -- you know, life, liberty, the
pursuit of happiness. Ironically, the same time Americans were losing
their principles the UN was adopting them as basic human rights. One
could have built a foreign policy around those ideals, but Truman and
Eisenhower didn't, and later presidents -- especially Nixon, Reagan,
and the Bushes, but also fatefully the Democrats as well -- only got
Here are some links on the Saudi mass executions:
Saudi Arabia: Mass Execution Largest Sine 1980:
The mass execution to begin 2016 follows a 20-year high of 158 executions
in 2015. [ . . . ]
Human Rights Watch has documented longstanding due process violations
in Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system that make it difficult for a
defendant to get a fair trial even in capital cases. A Human Rights Watch
analysis in September revealed serious due process concerns during four
trials of Shia protesters before the Specialized Criminal Court. They
include broadly framed charges that do not resemble recognizable crimes,
denial of access to lawyers at arrest and during pretrial detention,
quick dismissal of allegations of torture without investigation, and
admission of confessions that defendants claimed were coerced.
Angus McDowall: Saudi mass execution driven by fear of Sunni militancy:
Most of the negative reaction has focused on Shiites who were killed for
"crimes" we would view as free speech, but also on the list were dozens of
people we would call "Sunni militants" and probably put on our own kill lists:
The Al Saud ruling family regard the expansion of Shi'ite Iran's influence
in the Middle East as a threat to their security and to their ambition of
playing the leading role among Arab states.
Inside the kingdom, however, it is the threat of a rebellion by the
majority Sunnis that most alarms a dynasty whose rule is based on
conservative support at home and an alliance with the West.
All past threats to the Al Saud, from a 1920s tribal rebellion to
riots in the 1960s, a siege at Mecca's Grand Mosque in 1979 and protests
in the 1990s, were caused by conservative Sunni anger at modernisation
or ties with the West.
That was why the al Qaeda uprising that began in 2003, and attacked
the Al Saud by turning its own conservative Salafi brand of Sunni Islam
against it, was such a danger. It is why the jihadist movement's latest
iteration, Islamic State, is also a problem.
While Islamic State seems to lack real support among Saudis, some
may sympathise with its broader goals, approving of its rhetoric against
Shi'ites and the West and its criticism of corruption among the Al Saud.
By executing al Qaeda ideologues and attackers, Riyadh was showing its
determination to crush support for the militant cause. By also killing
four Shi'ites, angering Iran in the process, it was telling conservative
Sunnis it was still on their side.
In other words, the Saudis seek to solve all their problems by killing
anyone who questions the right of the ruling family to usurp all of the
nation's vast wealth.
Adam Withnall: How Saudi Arabia's own media reported on the execution
of 47 people:
The Saudi press, regulated by the government and required by the country's
constitution-like charter to "strengthen national unity," exists under a
perpetual state of self-censorship.
In an editorial entitled "Law took its course," the major Riyadh-based
English language news outlet Arab News portrays the executions in the
context of prominent terror attacks on foreigners in the kingdom and
"proceedings that took years in the courts."
I believe KSA means Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Ben Hubbard: Iranian Protesters Ransack Saudi Embassy After Execution
of Shiite Cleric
Simon Tisdall: Saudi executions put ball of regional tension in Iran's
Nimr's merciless dispatch will thus be seen as deliberate Saudi defiance
of western opinion and international human rights concerns and, possibly,
as a direct challenge to Tehran. Iran's leadership may now feel duty bound
to pick up the gauntlet. This is why the outrage and condemnation currently
being expressed by Iraqi, Lebanese and Yemeni Shia politicians is essentially
background noise. Likewise the limited, spontaneous street protests in
Bahrain that followed the executions. Shias in Saudi Arabia and across
the region will wait to see what Iran decides. They will take their lead
At the very least, Iran can be expected to exploit these events
diplomatically, stepping up its propaganda campaign against what it
habitually terms the illegitimate and irresponsible Saudi regime.
Countries such as Britain and the US, closely allied to Riyadh, are
already embarrassed by Saudi human rights abuses. Public disgust will
increase their discomfort, though they will not abandon their strategic
Saudi alliance for one dead Shia cleric.
Saudi Arabia breaks off ties with Iran after al-Nimr execution
Caroline Mortimer: David Cameron criticised for turning 'blind eye' to
mass executions in Saudi Arabia
Jessica Schulberg: Fiorina and Carson Defend Saudi Government, Which
Cites Sharia Law to Execute 47 People. You could probably get
similar statements from most other candidates.
Maajid Nawaz: Saudi Arabis's ISIS-Like Justice:
Among those killed today was Ayatollah Nimr al-Nimr. He was a vocal
Saudi-Shia opposition cleric who publicly criticized the ruling al-Saud
family and called for elections. In 2011 Nimr said that he favored
protest over violence, "The weapon of the word is stronger than bullets,
because authorities will profit from a battle of weapons." The Saudi
interior ministry however, accused him of being behind attacks on
police and allying with another regional theocracy, Shia Iran.
In fact, Saudi Arabia's regional tension with Iran has reached such
levels that it is prepared to countenance the execution of minors.
A 17 year old relation of al-Nimr has been sentenced to crucifixion --
his headless corpse to be displayed in public for several days. And
Abdullah al-Zaher, who was 15 when he was arrested, also awaits
beheading. This makes him the youngest person so far to be sentenced
Beyond executions, Nobel Prize nominee Raif Badawi, a blogger who
started the "Free Saudi Liberals" forum in 2008, has been convicted
of "insulting Islam" and given a 10-year prison term with 1,000 lashes.
And as Lujain al-Hathloul's and Maysa Al Amour's imprisonment shows,
women still can't drive in Saudi Arabia. Nor, apparently, can they
use social media to complain about being unable to drive. Meanwhile,
neighboring Yemen has been carpet-bombed to oblivion by the House of
Rami G Khouri: 2015's Dark Legacy in the Middle East:
Applying this principle to the last year in the Middle East reveals
several troubling trends that have made life difficult for hundreds
of millions of people. One in particular stands out, and strikes me
as a root cause of many other negative trends that plague our region.
This is the tendency of governments to use increasingly harsh measures
to restrict the freedoms of their citizens to express themselves and
meaningfully to participate politically and hold power accountable.
Several aspects of this behavior make it especially onerous. It is
practiced by all states in the region -- Arab, Israeli, Iranian, and
Turkish -- leaving few people in this part of the world who can live
as fully free and dignified human beings. It is justified on the basis
of existing constitutional powers, so governments can jail tens of
thousands of their citizens, rescind their nationality, or torture and
kill them in the worst cases, simply because of the views they express,
without any recourse to legal or political challenge. It shows no signs
of abating, and indeed may be worsening in lands like Egypt, Turkey,
and others. And, it is most often practiced as part of a "war on terror"
that seeks to quell criminal terror attacks, but in practice achieves
the opposite; the curtailment of citizen rights and freedoms exacerbates
the indignities and humiliations that citizens feel against their
government, which usually amplifies, rather than reduces, the threat
of political violence.
Capital punishment by country: Lots of statistics: 102 nations have
completely abolished capital punishment, it's fallen into disuse but hasn't
been outlawed in 57 more, leaving 37 nations who actively make a habit of
killing their own people. In 2014, China killed the most, but 2nd place
Iran killed the most per million (aside from a statistical blip in Equatorial
Guinea), followed by Saudi Arabia. With Saudi Arabia's body count growing
from 90 in 2014 to 158 in 2015 (or 205 in 2015 + 2 days), there's little
doubt that Saudi Arabia is the most execution-prone state. United States
is ranked fifth at 35, but that vastly underestimates the number of death
sentences handed out here. Egypt is listed 8th with 15, but last year
Egypt handed out hundreds of death sentences in a single day/trial.
Israel is not listed because all of their executions are extrajudicial.
We also don't have statistics for people shot and killed by police, but
those are significant factors in the US and Israel. Nor for people
killed by governments in military actions -- a statistic that Syria
and Iraq excel in, although Saudi Arabia has been racking up a high
score in Yemen recently, and I calculated that during Israel's recent
51-day assault on Gaza their kill rate per capita was higher than
If I could whisper into the ear of Ayatollah Khamanei, I'd suggest
he should review the relevant books and conclude that capital punishment,
at least under circumstances today, is contrary to the laws and spirit
of Islam. Abolishing the institution in Iran would do wonders for that
nation's international respect, and would instantly give it moral high
ground to criticize Saudi Arabia. As it is, Iran is nearly as bad as
Saudi Arabia, and the pair, with their deep conceits and pretensions
are embarrassments to Islam. This is because the belief that it is just
for the state to execute criminals opens the door for all kinds of
state-directed violence. We see this even in the US, which until
recently could point to a strong legacy of due process.
Ran out of time to comment on anything more, but here are some
single-line links I had opened up: