Just when you think the Middle East can’t get any more repressive, it sinks to new depths. Always a favorite target in the region, women seem to be steadily losing rights in countries like Afghanistan, Egypt, and Iran. Now another popular scapegoat is back on the chopping block in Saudi Arabia. The country has just decreed that atheists and anyone “calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion” are considered terrorists.
Now you might think this doesn’t make a lot of sense. You would be right. In an area where religious extremism fuels terrorism, why target those who disavow religion or criticize Islam? Because in this case it’s not actually about terrorism at all—just good old fashioned clamping down on potential political opposition. Terrorism is simply the catch all phrase used these days to rationalize authoritarian crackdowns: Russia maligned Ukraine’s interim government as fascist terrorists to help validate the annexation of Crimea; China uses it to go sick on its minority Uighur population; and misuse of this label is especially a government favorite in the Middle East.
So standard critics of the government get lumped in with actual terrorists. Yes indeed, the Saudi government cites the desire to bring down the hammer on all political dissent that could “harm public order.” Why are these decrees coming now? Cue the dragged-out Syrian conflict. The government is concerned with citizens who fight in Syria’s war, then come back with ideas about taking it to their own ruling class.
A representative of Human Rights Watch stated, "These regulations dash any hope that King Abdullah intends to open a space for peaceful dissent or independent groups.” Looks like I just lost my bet that 2014 would be the year of unfettered democracy and secularism in Saudi Arabia. Really thought I had this one in the bag. Along with the end of body dysmorphia in Latin America, and rampant disease in Africa.