Sweden’s foreign minister dares to criticise Saudi Arabia over its domestic policies and no one cares

in most Western countries, many are really, really quick when it comes to pointing out actual or purported sexism at home while remaining silent on the situation in countries like Saudi Arabia. One word of caution: Obviously, these situations need to be looked at seperately. Sexism in the West is sexism in the West, regardless of what is taking place in other countries—the often heard „but other countries are far worse“ phrase is not an argument but a distraction. That being said, the silence of the otherwise active civil society in Western counties regarding the human rights situation in Middle Eastern countries is still disturbing; in the human rights Utopia, human rights know no borders.

Many just don’t care or know since Saudi Arabia is far away; sometimes they don’t seem to believe because it sounds surreal or fail to grasp the whole extent of the situation there; and sometimes they are afraid of being accused of racism or Islamophobia. In this connection, many also don’t want to be associated with radical opponents of Islam and thus prefer to remain silent. Also, power politics obviously play a role since Saudi Arabias has been one of the most reliable partners in the Middle East for decades. Lastly, one of the principal reasons for this silence could be found in cultural relativism, defined by Jack Donnelly as

Strong cultural relativism holds that culture is the principal source of the validity of a moral right or rule. In other words, the presumption is that rights (and other social practices, values, and moral rules) are culturally determined, but the universality of human nature and rights serves as a check on the potential excesses of relativism. At its furthest extreme, just short of radical relativism, strong cultural relativism would accept a few basic rights with virtually universal application, but allow such a wide range of variation for most rightst hat two entirely justifiable sets might overlap only slightly. (Jack Donnelly, ‚Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights‘ (1984) 6/4 Human Rights Quarterly 400, 401)

Notwithstanding these considerations, Sweden’s foreign minister dared to critisice Saudi Arabia for its domestic policies towards women and also critical voices like blogger Raif Badawi. Chapeau. The problem is, however, that no one seems to bother about the political and diplomatic quagmire that followed.

„A few weeks ago Margot Wallström, the Swedish foreign minister, denounced the subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia. As the theocratic kingdom prevents women from travelling, conducting official business or marrying without the permission of male guardians, and as girls can be forced into child marriages where they are effectively raped by old men, she was telling no more than the truth. Wallström went on to condemn the Saudi courts for ordering that Raif Badawi receive ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website that championed secularism and free speech. These were ‘mediaeval methods’, she said, and a ‘cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression’. And once again, who can argue with that?

The backlash followed the pattern set by Rushdie, the Danish cartoons and Hebdo. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador and stopped issuing visas to Swedish businessmen. The United Arab Emirates joined it. The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, which represents 56 Muslim-majority states, accused Sweden of failing to respect the world’s ‘rich and varied ethical standards’ — standards so rich and varied, apparently, they include the flogging of bloggers and encouragement of paedophiles. Meanwhile, the Gulf Co-operation Council condemned her ‘unaccept-able interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’, and I wouldn’t bet against anti-Swedish riots following soon.

Yet there is no ‘Wallström affair’. Outside Sweden, the western media has barely covered the story, and Sweden’s EU allies have shown no inclination whatsoever to support her. A small Scandinavian nation faces sanctions, accusations of Islamophobia and maybe worse to come, and everyone stays silent. As so often, the scandal is that there isn’t a scandal.“


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