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Monday, February 2, 2015

Calling it justice doesn't make it just

Barack Obama shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's new king Salman
Credit: Jim Bourg/Reuters
Apparently in the uproar over beheadings committed by ISIS, some have noticed that America's ally Saudi Arabia has committed quite a few of them as well:
The escalation of the war against the Islamic State was triggered by widespread revulsion at the gruesome beheading of two American journalists, relayed on YouTube. Since then, two British aid workers have met a similar grisly fate. And another American has been named as next in line by his terrorist captors. 
Yet, for all the outrage these executions have engendered the world over, decapitations are routine in Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Arab ally, for crimes including political dissent—and the international press hardly seems to notice. In fact, since January, 59 people have had their heads lopped off in the kingdom, where “punishment by the sword” has been practiced for centuries. 
In an article published today, a representative of Saudi government actually attempted a defense of this:
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told NBC News that Saudi criminal punishments were legitimate because they were based on "a decision made by a court" rather than ISIS' "arbitrary" killings. . . 
"When we do it in Saudi Arabia we do it as a decision made by a court," he said. "The killing is a decision, I mean it is not based on arbitrary choices, to kill this and not to kill this."

ISIS regularly hands down brutal sentences based on Shariah law.

Al-Turki said that "ISIS has no legitimate way to decide to decide to kill people," adding that "the difference is clear."

 "When you kill somebody without legitimate basis, without justice system, without court, that is still a crime whether you behead them or kill [them] with a gun," al-Turki said, referring to ISIS' killings.
"Arbitrary" means "random, without reason." If ISIS "regularly hands down brutal sentences based on Shariah law," then ISIS's killing are not arbitrary-- they are based on Shariah law. When the Islamic State murdered French mountaineer Herve Gourdel in the mountains of Algeria, it was to threaten the French into ceasing airstrikes on the area. That is not arbitrary. When they beheaded beheaded Raad al-Azzawi, a TV Salaheddin cameraman, east of Tikrit in Iraq, it was claimed to be in retaliation for the TV station "distorting the image of Iraq's Sunni community." That is not arbitrary.

Is it legitimate? Is it just? No, of course not. It's barbaric and inhuman. But is that because it doesn't take place within a "justice system"? Within a court?

Saudi Arabia's "justice system," as it happens, is also based on Shariah law. As it happens, it also hands down brutal sentences.

Now, Mansour al-Turki does have a point-- when you kill someone without legitimate basis, it's still a crime regardless of how you kill them. Although in Saudi Arabia, it's not at all uncommon for people to be killed by the "justice system" without legitimate basis. But for just a moment, let's look at a case where someone wasn't killed:
A Saudi Arabian man suspects his five year old daughter of losing her virginity. He forces her to get an examination, then brings her home, where he repeatedly rapes her, and beats her to death with a cane and cables. He crushed her skull, broke her back, ribs and left arm, and burned her in several places. The Saudi royal family prevents him from being released after only a few months in jail and a fine, and a court eventually sentences him to 8 years in prison and 800 lashes. However, he pays her mother blood money ($270,000 – a boy would have been worth double that price), and is released after only a couple of years.
This case is intended to be in contrast to another case of another person who wasn't killed-- at least, not yet-- but has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes with a whip, for the "crime" of apostasy. Raif Badawi. According to Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme,
Badawi – who founded “Saudi Arabian Liberals”, a website for political and social debate – has been in detention since June 2012 on charges including “setting up a website that undermines general security” and ridiculing Islamic religious figures. . . 
“Raif Badawi’s trial for ‘apostasy’ is a clear case of intimidation against him and others who seek to engage in open debates about the issues that Saudi Arabians face in their daily lives. He is a prisoner of conscience who must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
Barbaric? Yes. Inhuman? Absolutely. Exceptional in any way to Saudi Arabia's "justice system"? Nope.
Whatever the reason for the timing, the wave of executions at the same time as jihadis in Iraq and Syria were beheading captives has brought new scrutiny to the practices of a country whose values are so different from those of its Western allies. 
While Saudi Arabia has joined U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State in Syria and has deployed its senior clergy to denounce militant ideology, its public beheading of convicts, particularly for non-violent or victimless crimes like adultery, apostasy and witchcraft, is anathema to Western allies. 
“Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling or sorcery that result in no loss of life are particularly egregious,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
So if ISIS were to establish its own courts, and refer to the proceedings of those courts as "justice," and claim that this makes their own barbarism "legitimate," could we expect the Major General Mansour al-Turki to agree?  I suspect not.

I suspect that even he knows that.

Maybe somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knows that barbarism is in how you kill someone and what you kill them for.

That torture is barbaric regardless, but especially in judgment of the content of a person's speech.

That legality is not morality, and just because an appointed group of human beings in a particular society says that something is wrong, doesn't mean that it is. That appointed groups of people are not, all things being equal, necessarily any better arbiters of morality than any individual human being on his/her own-- and in fact, sometimes they're worse.

That enforcing religious rules as laws may not inexorably lead to barbarism, but it will always punish apostasy over immorality, and therefore the enemies of that faith rather than those of the state.

Okay, yes, he wouldn't agree to that. But nevertheless, the contradiction is clear. Don't even try to defend it, Mansour al-Turki. You cannot.

And neither can we Americans. If Saudi Arabia is our ally, we will be judged by the company we keep.

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