RIYADH Jan 16 Saudi Arabia's ruling family is
coming under pressure from Western countries over its weekly
flogging of writer Raif Badawi for "insulting Islam", but it
appears more worried about the risk of offending domestic
conservatives if it lets him off.
The political stakes over the punishment of Badawi, who will
face 50 more lashes on Friday, have been heightened by the Paris
attack on Charlie Hebdo newspaper and its publication on
Wednesday of new cartoons lampooning Islam's Prophet Mohammad.
The kingdom is attempting to marshal conservative Muslims
behind a campaign against Islamist militants in al Qaeda and
Islamic State (IS), but has stirred anger among many of them for
what they see as its weak response to the cartoons.
Riyadh issued an unqualified statement of condemnation of
the attack, echoed by conservatives in the country, but it did
not strongly criticise the images and its ambassador took part
in a solidarity march in which protesters carried the cartoons.
"They're under pressure inside to punish people like him,
especially among Salafis. It is a question of the legitimacy of
the state. You have to remember those people are very
influential at a street level," said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi
security expert with close ties to the Saudi Interior Ministry.
Saudi officials were not available for comment.
Since the attacks in France, the United States and European
Union have criticised the punishment of Badawi, who had accused
clergy of extremism on his "Saudi Liberals" website and prompted
fury on social media. Overturning his conviction would look to
some Saudi Islamists like a betrayal of core Muslim values.
Against the background of regional turmoil, the authorities
have issued tougher penalties against all forms of dissent in
the past year, from women driving to social media comments
supporting Islamist militants, and have increased the use of the
death penalty - via public beheadings.
Moreover, it is the top clergy that controls the judiciary,
making it particularly uncomfortable for the ruling dynasty to
overturn its decisions given that it is unelected and depends on
clerical approval for part of its legitimacy.
In an example of the ire felt by conservatives, Islamist
activist Mohsen al-Awaji told Reuters he would not even speak
about Badawi's case because of his anger over the publication of
new cartoons depicting Mohammad in Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday.
"We don't have time these days to think of this guy Badawi
because of the hatred taken by the West towards all Muslims when
they publish these sorts of pictures against Mohammad. This is
on the mind of everyone," he said.
Badawi, who was flogged 50 times in public a week ago by an
Interior Ministry official is to face the same punishment every
Friday until he has received 1,000 lashes. He will then spend 10
years in prison.
There has been almost no discussion of Badawi's flogging in
Saudi press, underscoring official sensitivities over the
subject, but on social media there has been some debate over the
fairness of his punishment.
One person, Tweeting under the name Fattima, wrote: "Saudi
Arabia condemns Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in France and at
the same time it lashes Raif Badawi for freedom of speech, what
an ignorant government".
But the opinion of Ibrahim al-Zubaidi, another Twitter user,
that "anyone who will offend Islam deserves the same fate"
appeared more typical of Saudi opinion on the social media
Awaji said conservatives were at risk of becoming
sympathetic to militants after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
"People are angry with the government. They think it is
showing more respect to the West than it is to the Prophet. They
even shared in this demonstration in Paris while there were
pictures in the demonstration insulting the Prophet," he said.
The Al Saud dynasty have worked hard over the past decade to
build up religious support for their campaign against al Qaeda
and, more recently, IS, which attack the family for its ties to
the West and gradual moves to liberalise Saudi society.
They have imprisoned clerics who openly backed the militant
groups, have sacked others for comments the authorities viewed
as extremist and have for years pressed senior clergy to
denounce al Qaeda, IS and similar groups as "deviant".
Saudi implementation of Sharia punishments like beheading as
well as flogging for crimes such as adultery, apostasy,
blasphemy and witchcraft, along with its denial of equal rights
for women, is the source of intense criticism in the West.
But when U.S. President Barack Obama visited Riyadh in
March, Washington said he did not discuss human rights with King
Abdullah in a meeting that focused on regional conflicts - an
illustration of the limits of Western pressure.
However, the Al Saud have also sometimes curtailed their use
of Sharia penalties in cases that particularly outraged
international opinion, such as the punishment of rape victims
for breaking gender segregation rules.
While King Abdullah appears unlikely to risk angering
domestic opinion by issuing a pardon to Badawi, Alani said, he
might respond to growing international pressure by informally
suspending the floggings before they are completed.
"The first part is done and they have made their point," he
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)