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Saudi Arabia sentences a man to death for tearing up the Koran

Indonesians protest the beheading of an Indonesian migrant worker in Saudi Arabia.
Indonesians protest the beheading of an Indonesian migrant worker in Saudi Arabia.
(Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. An unidentified Saudi man has been sentenced to death for tearing up a Koran, hitting the pages with a shoe, and uploading a video of the actions online, according to multiple reports.
  2. The man was charged and convicted of apostasy — renouncing his Muslim faith. Apostasy is criminalized in much of the Muslim world, but executions are rare.
  3. The man, in his 20s, will have a chance to appeal.

Apostasy is criminalized in much of the Muslim world, but Saudi Arabia Islamic law to extremes


Countries that criminalize apostasy in brown. (Pew Research Center)

As the above map shows, Saudi Arabia isn't the only Muslim-majority country in the world to criminalize changing your religion. According to Pew, 11 percent of countries worldwide criminalize apostasy. Within the Middle East and North Africa, that figure jumps to 70 percent — partly a result of a common interpretation of Islamic law that criminalizes leaving the Islamic faith.

According to Hanibal Goitom, Foreign Law Specialist at the Law Library of Congress, eight of these countries make apostasy a crime punishable by death. Such sentences, though, appear to be rare. "Of the countries researched, it appears that Iran is the only one that has executed a person convicted of apostasy to date," Goitom wrote in 2014.

But it shouldn't surprise us that Saudi Arabia has done so as well. The Saudi state is founded on a bargain between the Saudi monarchy and Islamic fundamentalists known as Wahhabis. The Wahhabist interpretation of sharia law "is the exclusive foundation of criminal justice" in Saudi Arabia, legal scholar Shahid M. Shahidullah explains.

The Wahhabis, relying on several hadith (sayings) attributed to Muhammed, believe apostasy is punishable by death. Given that the Saudi justice system frequently beheads people and flogs dissidents until they can't take it anymore, the threat to execute this young man for his (lack of) faith is frighteningly seriously.

The Saudis keep these practices not out of religious devotion, but because of politics

king abdullah morality police

This photo shows, on right, former King Abdullah, then the crown prince, speaking to an unidentified member of the religious police in 2004. (Bilal Qabalan/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the past several decades, as individual members of the Saudi royal family have grown up far more exposed to outside ideas and formal education, they have drifted away from the country's Wahhabi roots. That has included some modest reforms to the justice system.

"Successive monarchs of the kingdom supported selective modernization of the kingdom in many areas, including law and justice." Shahidullah writes. "It is for this relatively liberal perspective of the Saudi ruling monarchy that a number of law and justice institutions have recently grown to establish strict procedural guidelines on the implementation of sharia law."

And yet, the medieval punishments remain. There are two main reasons for this, both of which have far more to do with politics than religion. First, the Saudi royal family still believes it needs the support of the ultra-conservative clerical establishment to hold power, just as it did in the 1700s. And these punishments are a way of appeasing those clerics. Second, the Saudi royal family is a dictatorship that earnestly fears unrest, and uses severe punishments as one of several tools to stifle dissent or grassroots organizing.

That first point, though, may be the most important. The Saudi monarchy sees itself as stuck between a powerful, ultra-conservative clerical establishment on one side and the practical realities of running a modern country on the other. Public beheadings are one way that the Saudis continue to allow Wahhabist control over religious matters, and thus preempt Wahhabist opposition to the monarchy's modest modernizations and pro-Western foreign policy.

This tension has long defined the country: in 1979, religious extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, demanding the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy for betraying ultra-conservative Islamist ideals. The siege, which killed over 200 people, led the Saudis to try to prevent future attacks by co-opting radical Islam where it could, to be more extremist than the extremists. In 1991, when elements of the Saudi clerical establishment practically revolted over the monarchy allowing US troops to temporarily base there, the monarchy again responded by co-opting the extremists, encouraging them to fund jihadists abroad rather than make trouble at home.

Brutal punishments such as public beheadings are one way that the Saudis do this. The monarchy has given little indication it considers human rights a priority, so it has been seemingly quite willing to trade them away.

In return, the religious establishment has rewarded the monarchy with loyalty that has been crucial to keeping the Saudis in power. "In every crisis the regime has faced since the founding of the modern Saudi state," Texas A&M's F. Gregory Gause writes, "the Wahhabi clerics holding high positions in the state religious hierarchy have rallied to the colors."

Even when it comes to something like commercial law, where the haphazard nature of sharia law does actual harm to the Saudi economy and thus the regime's coffers, the monarchy has been historically hesitant to try to reform the religious courts.

"This situation puts Saudi Arabia at odds with the rest of the Arab world, where modernizing governments have steadily hemmed in religious courts," Dickinson College historian David Commins writes. "It appears as though the Saudi rulers lack the confidence to challenge directly the Wahhabi ulama, perhaps from a sense that the dynasty's claim to legitimacy is questionable."

Saudi Arabia is unique

saudi woman art

Fully veiled Saudi woman shows a man her art work at the spring exhibition for Saudi culture and family heritage in Riyadh on May 10, 2010. (Hamad Olayan/AFP/Getty Images)

It's tempting to use Saudi Arabia, one of the largest and most powerful Arab states, as a proxy for the legal systems in Arab states as a whole. But that's not fair. Saudi law takes a much stricter interpretation of Islamic law than almost all of its neighbors, and Saudi practices are viewed with horror in much of the Middle East.

That's because the Faustian pact between Wahhabi clerics and the al-Saud family is unique. Though many nations use sharia as a source of inspiration in their legal codes, no other Arab country is explicitly founded as clerical-Wahhabi states.

Reform is not impossible. Caryle Murphy documented a number of promising signs in an interesting Foreign Policy essay, including growing diversity of religious thought and declining public support for sharia law. Saudi women are challenging some of the particularly absurd gender rules, like the ban on women driving.

But don't expect an end to things like the criminalization of apostasy anytime soon. The Wahhabi establishment, and its harsh vision of criminal law, are deeply embedded in the Saudi state, and seen by the monarchy as essential for keeping themselves in power.