Has Saudi Arabia bought world's silence on human rights abuses?

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Story highlights

  • Saudi Arabia condemned the attack on the Charlie Hebo offices in Paris as a "cowardly terrorist act"
  • But Ali A. Rizvi writes that days later the Kingdom flogged blogger Raif Badawi for crimes including "founding a liberal website"
  • Rizvi says the world turns a blind eye to this "hypocrisy" from a country where he says change needs to come from within

Ali A. Rizvi is a Pakistani-Canadian writer and friend of Raif Badawi. He grew up in Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, and is an advocate for secularism and reform in the Muslim world. He is currently writing his first book, "The Atheist Muslim." Follow @aliamjadrizvi. The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author's.

(CNN)"The Kingdom ... strongly condemns and denounces this cowardly terrorist act that is rejected by true Islamic religion as well as the rest of the religions and beliefs."

So reads the statement issued by Saudi Arabia, where I grew up, the day the offices of "Charlie Hebdo" came under attack, with the loss of 12 lives.
    Last Sunday, to show further solidarity with the victims, the Saudi ambassador to France joined other world leaders in Paris for a unity rally to celebrate free speech.
    Ali A. Rizvi
    This is consistent with the face Saudi Arabia presents to the outside world. Visitors to the website of the Saudi embassy in Washington are invited to "learn ... how the Kingdom's political system is rooted in Islam's traditions which call for peace, justice, equality, consultation and respect for the rights of the individual."
    Just two days before the Paris rally, my friend Raif Badawi was removed, in shackles, from a mini-bus outside the Al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah as a large crowd gathered around him after Friday prayers. According to eyewitnesses, he closed his eyes and raised his head skyward as a security officer approached him from behind with a large cane and started to beat him. Witnesses say Raif was lashed 50 times. Afterwards, he was taken back to prison where he is serving a 10-year sentence—for blogging.
    Raif's next flogging was set to take place today, but Saudi authorities postponed it due to medical advice, his wife said. She expects he will be flogged again next week—and every following week—until his sentence of 1,000 lashes is complete.
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    Raif is officially charged with "adopting liberal thought," "founding a liberal website," and "insulting Islam." He has become the latest symbol of the two-faced policy his country takes towards human rights.
    Saudi Arabia is a strong American ally that has enjoyed virtually unconditional support from the United States for decades. President Bush famously held hands with its monarch, King Abdullah, as the two strolled through his Crawford, Texas ranch during the King's 2005 state visit. President Obama was widely criticized for appearing to bow to Abdullah at a G-20 summit in London.
    In the same month that ISIS horrified the world with its brutal beheading of journalist James Foley, Saudi Arabia publicly beheaded 19 people, for crimes ranging from smuggling cannabis to sorcery. Limb amputations for theft are sanctioned by the state religion.
    In addition to oil, Saudi Arabia is the world's leading exporter of Salafism, an ultra-conservative strain of Islam. The country touts itself as the birthplace of the religion of peace—yet underlines the Islamic declaration of "Shahadah" on its flag with a sword. Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen, as were 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.
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    Why does a world outraged by the horrific actions of ISIS and the Taliban turn a blind eye to the way this country treats its own citizens?
    The first reason is obvious. It isn't just our governments. Every time we fill our cars with gas, we all bow to the Saudi king.
    The second is more complex.
    Online videos of Raif's flogging show worshipers from the mosque, including young children, running excitedly towards the square to watch the beating. Afterwards, the crowd erupts into cheers and applause, chanting "Allahu Akbar!" (God is Great!) in unison.
    This isn't surprising. The public likely considers Raif guilty of blasphemy and apostasy. A 2013 Pew Research poll found that large numbers in Muslim countries favor the death penalty for leaving Islam—including 88% of Egyptian and 62% of Pakistani Muslims, as well as majorities in Jordan, Malaysia, Palestine, and Afghanistan.
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    Of course, these views don't represent all Muslims. But contrary to what we're usually told, they aren't just held by a fringe minority either. Many of these countries don't have populations willing to rally en masse to support free speech and pluralism the way France did. The change has to first come from within.
    Raif has sacrificed a great deal to make this change happen. The world must support him and call Saudi Arabia out on its hypocrisy.
    Some time ago, just 50 miles east of where Raif is being held today, another dissident once spoke of change, of challenging the status quo, of radical new ideas that would ultimately transform his society. He was ostracized, persecuted, and eventually driven from his city by those wanting to kill him. He was Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam; his persecutors, the Quraysh tribe of Mecca.
    Muslims endeavor to emulate the life of Mohammed. Saudi Arabia has instead chosen to emulate the Quraysh.
    This week, Raif spent his 31st birthday imprisoned and wounded. With enough awareness, we can put enough international pressure on the Saudi government to ensure that he spends his next one with his wife and their three beautiful children.