David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

The Cost of Despotism


Let’s consider Iran and Saudi Arabia; imagine for a moment what life in either of these leading Muslim countries must be like. Both are in the grip of Islamist ideologies, rivals because the one is Shia and the other Sunni, but both have the common property of promoting fantasies so far removed from human reality that they have to maintain police states for the sake of enforcement. The costs are terrible.

Where Iran is concerned, it is hard to be accurate, but human-rights organizations identify at least 50 people who have been hanged in the month of June alone, and at least 30 more were hanged in May. Several victims have been hoisted for execution on a crane, and in public, too. A photograph on the web shows ten men in Ghezel Hesar prison standing side by side on a scaffold with a noose round their necks, in effect torturing before killing them. The victims are accused of drug trafficking or rape, though Abdolmalek Rigi, aged 26, was hanged like his brother before him supposedly for leading an armed Sunni group in this Shia dictatorship. Were the two brothers really guilty? Their confessions on television followed closely the model of Stalin’s show trials: The old Communist accusation of “enemy of the people” neatly morphs into “enemy of God.” Ayatollah Khamenei has just reprieved 81 political prisoners, but another 450 are said to be held in detention without trial. Babak Heshmat Saran is just one of them. A student, he went to demonstrate on the anniversary of last year’s stolen election, was picked up by the police, and has disappeared ever since.

It’s also not clear how many people have been publicly beheaded this year in Saudi Arabia. But daily existence brings its cruelties and absurdities, especially through the deranged view held there about the relationship between the sexes. A young woman at a college was taken ill. The ambulance men arrived, but were refused entry because they were men. While they were all prevaricating, the woman died. Elsewhere, the police arrested a group for having a mixed party, and sentenced 15 of them to prison and flogging. One woman, a minor, was sentenced to 80 lashes, enough to disfigure permanently, even to cause death. Saudi women are allowed to be in the company only of male relatives, but a sheikh who is also an adviser to the ruling family has found a way to get round this prohibition. According to his fatwa, women who come into contact with unrelated men have to breastfeed them, whereupon they are considered members of the family rather than potential lovers. The big disputed issues of the day in Saudi Arabia are whether the man should suckle directly, which might prove erotic, or whether the woman should express her milk for him into a glass, and what is to be done about women who do not lactate.

In previous times, the view here would have been that, if Iranian and Saudi despots set up a society that depends on murdering or denaturing their subjects and making laughingstocks of them, so be it, they’re the losers. That won’t do now. Iran and Saudi Arabia are extending their range and influence among us, and though their Shia and Sunni ideologies are at loggerheads, both are making universal claims that no free individual could possibly accommodate. Failure to confront them would leave civilization itself the loser.


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