It took Western diplomats only three days to attack Saudi Arabia’s human rights record once the Kingdom took a strongly principled stand at the UN and rejected a seat on the organization’s Security Council. It is an old story, this talk about human rights in the Kingdom, and one that displays little, if any, understanding of the culture, history and religion that lie at the heart of Saudi Arabia.
Western diplomats have an appetite for using their high-profile jobs to excoriate Saudi Arabia’s “bill of rights,” a concept that is steeped in Islamic law and local traditions. It accounts for universal and egalitarian human rights that include the rights to education, health care, welfare, a fair trial, a free market, access to information, fair labor treatment and individual freedoms that pose no threats to the security, integrity and morality of the national fabric.
Local legal experts are attuned to the public pulse when they say that Saudi Arabia should support and extend the scope of human rights based on cultural specifics, i.e, Shariah law, the inspiration of the very foundation of Saudi Arabia, and the traditional heritage of the Arabian peninsula. These two bases do not always correspond to the Western definition of human rights, but does that give carte blanche to Western diplomats to rip into local concepts and beliefs regarding such rights? Who are they to put themselves on a moral pedestal vis-à-vis the Kingdom?
Linguists maintain that the word “right” did not exist in European languages before 1400 AD while it appeared in Islamic writings as early as 650 AD. The Western concept of human rights developed with the secularization of Judeo-Christian beliefs as opposed to the long-held concept of human rights in Saudi Arabia, which comes from Islamic teachings.
The Western trend to impose “universal” human rights on Saudi Arabia shows no sensitivity to or respect for cultural relativism and could very well be a pretext for concocting a European Convention on Human Rights for the entire world or, even worse, a world government.
The Western approach to human rights in Saudi Arabia is based on Western values such as women’s right to drive, an aversion to our male guardianship laws, freedom of speech and popular participation in the political process. Again, however, demands for such rights show a lack of understanding of the Saudi context.
It has been said numerous times that there is nothing in Islam that would prohibit women from driving. It is, instead, all about a social consensus and there is no such consensus. Why is that an issue for the West?
Women have the right to manage their daily lives as they please enjoying full citizenship rights that include membership in the Shoura Council and the right to vote in municipal council elections without direct interference of a male guardian. Male guardianship really only comes into play in certain cases proscribed by Shariah such as marriage contracts or travel abroad, all for reasons Saudis understand very well.
There has never been a better time than now for freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia. People are openly speaking their minds with no repercussions as long as the speech does not pose a threat to public security or prompt violence or hostility toward any group of people.
As for participation in the political process, there are rules of governance in Saudi Arabia that ensure the freedom of citizens to petition the monarch and define the process of succession, just like in the British Bill of Rights.
This is all based on a cultural mindset opposed to a political one. And it raises the question of whether Saudi Arabia should simply turn a blind eye to its own cultural relativism as a means of making noisy grasshoppers talk less. Cultural relativism gives the right answers to relevant questions about human rights and it should be promoted.
It is all about context and Saudi Arabia’s version of human rights should be considered in the local context, i.e., the context of Islam and the social contract that was forged by those who established modern Saudi Arabia. Any breach of that contract would be an affront to the concept of sovereignty and the upholding of values that the original culture-specific rights are meant to confirm.
Local human rights in Saudi Arabia cannot be understood in isolation from their own inspiration, i.e., Islamic law and local traditions. To adopt a Western version of human rights, this country would have to diverge from its faith and the social contract it upholds.
Saudi Arabia has not attempted to impress a universal concept of human rights on its own society nor has it attempted to impose its own concept of human rights on the rest of the world. It has taken a very simple yet profound tack: “Thou shalt keep thy local human rights to thyself.”
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