Over the past week, news organizations have given substantial coverage to the relationship between Islam and politics in the wake of the Paris attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher grocery. Less attention has been paid to another story involving Islam and politics regarding the prosecution of Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi for “insulting Islam.” Among the accusations leveled against him, Badawi was charged with criticizing Saudi clerics and their relationship with the royal family on his blog. He was convicted and sentenced to a fine, 10 years in prison and flogging. The first 50 lashes were delivered in front of a mosque in the western Saudi city of Jiddah on Jan. 9 after Friday prayers. He is scheduled to receive 50 lashes once a week for 20 weeks until his sentence is fulfilled, though a doctor postponed the second installment of lashes because his prior wounds had not yet healed.
Badawi’s case is a reminder that it is not only extremist groups such as Boko Haram, the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that commit atrocities in the name of protecting Islam. Saudi Arabia is only one case of a state that perpetrates acts of violence based on religious justifications under the guise of upholding the rule of law. My recent book, “The Varieties of Religious Repression: Why Governments Restrict Religion,” shows that this often has little to do with religion per se. Instead, certain types of non-democratic countries commonly use religious repression as an instrument of their rule.
Saudi Arabia has an interest in regulating all aspects of religious practice and expression, and the means to do so. Because it is a hereditary monarchy lacking elected officials, the ruling regime creates and enforces laws without any direct mechanism for representing the preferences of its citizens. However, being insulated from the populace does not insulate the regime from politics. Saudi leaders perpetually must take into account the interests of one key constituency: the conservative Islamic establishment that helped to found the regime and continues to give political legitimacy to the royal family. By virtue of the country’s absolutist regime type and a ruling interest in upholding the religious preferences of a particularly conservative segment of society, Saudi leaders have the motivation and means, including violence, to repress the country’s citizens. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the mutawwain) and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Pious Endowments, Mission, and Guidance (MOIA), as well as other state institutions were established to create and enforce laws regarding Islamic dress code and behavior between men and women, manage the religious curriculum in schools and religious media programming, and monitor mosques and prayer leaders around the country.
The Saudi regime uses its authority to repress not only religious minorities (including about 2 million Shiites), but also Sunni Muslims who dare to publicly criticize the official interpretation of Islam or who are critical of the religious leadership. It is under this guise that Badawi was sentenced for publishing a liberal blog that challenged the religious establishment, advocated for secularism and criticized groups such as Hamas that seek to build a religious state in the Palestinian territories. They also, when needed, punish those they consider “extremists,” including individuals who fight for groups such as the Islamic State.
The acts carried out in order to appease that Islamic establishment are not costless. They run counter to Saudi efforts at home and abroad to present King Abdullah as a reformer. The publicity surrounding shocking acts such as the flogging of Badawi hurts Saudi Arabia’s image internationally. Last week, for instance, a bipartisan group of eight high profile U.S. senators condemned Badawi’s flogging and The Washington Post editorial board called for an international commission of inquiry on Saudi human rights. But, in spite of recent reports indicating that King Abdullah may be bowing to international pressure to cease using flogging as a form of punishment, those costs have evidently been considered worth paying because of the domestic regime survival interests at stake.
Saudi Arabia’s pattern of repression is typical of religiously divided societies that lack political competition. Low competition gives politicians more power to impose repressive measures against groups without fear of retribution at the polls. The presence of religious divisions – in terms of demographics and struggles between secular and religious actors who seek to change the nature of politics – increases the chance of a state imposing religious repression as a means of suppressing potential opposition. In non-democratic countries with greater political competition (in the form of unfree elections) or without societal religious divisions, the payoff for targeting religion as a policy area meriting repression is low, and thus politicians have less of an incentive to do so.
Around the world, religious repression is often targeted at religious minorities by regimes that are either anti-religion in general (for example, China) or allied with their country’s particular religious majority (for example, Russia). But even regimes claiming to support religion can engage in religious repression. When states such as Saudi Arabia (and Iran, for example) mandate that all laws should have a basis in religious doctrine, it constitutes religious repression, even if the state’s favored religion is the one practiced by a majority of the country’s adherents. By placing itself in control of the institutions that interpret religious doctrine, such states take the power to enforce that doctrine, in the process making it impossible for the majority to engage in the free practice of religion or exercise the right to self-government.
When states enforce a particular interpretation of religious law, citizens are forced to abide by it rather than their own conscience. And when states retain the ability to hire and train clerical staff, manage the construction of religious buildings and even approve sermons, they hinder the ability of individuals and groups to function as independent social actors. Through policy mechanisms, religion becomes a tool of the state, ready to be wielded to advance its interests. That tool can even be used to justify acts of physical coercion and even violence: Raif Badawi is feeling the state repression of religion 50 lashes at a time, once each week for the next five months.
Ani Sarkissian is an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University. She is the author of “The Varieties of Religious Repression: Why Governments Restrict Religion” (Oxford University Press, 2015).