A woman is sentenced to be whipped ten lashes for . . . drumroll . . . driving a car. That might have made for a fairly typical week in Saudi Arabia. After all, the kingdom’s 20 million subjects and 5 million immigrant laborers are under constant surveillance by the mutaween, the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a police force several thousand strong that enthusiastically enforces Saudi law.
Whipping is a common punishment, so much so that our Saudi allies carefully regulate it: When the authorities impose hundreds of lashes, the sentences are carried out over weeks or months, no more than 50 strokes per session. Maybe the CIA should have consulted the enlightened sheikhs to ensure that waterboarding terrorists was as humane as whipping drivers.
In the scheme of things, you might even say that Shema Jastaina’s ten-lash sentence was pretty darn moderate. Certainly the thirtysomething driver got off easier than Khamisa Mohammed Sadawi. She is the 75-year-old Syrian who, in 2009, was sentenced to 40 lashes, as well as four months in the slammer. Busting through her door, the mutaween caught her consorting with two young men, neither related to her. The elderly woman was apparently undermining Saudi virtue by accepting a bread delivery. The painstaking Saudi investigation uncovered that 24-year-old Fahd’s presence on the scene was halal because, in his infancy, Khamisa had breast-fed him. Sure, she was about 50 at the time, but in the kingdom, blood is thicker than water, and breast milk — well, you get the idea. Alas, Fahd’s companion, Hadian, had not had the pleasure. He was thus a stranger, his moral rectitude imperiled by the septuagenarian temptress. Forty lashes, next case.
It turns out, though, that the week of Ms. Jastaina’s conviction for driving while female was anything but typical. Only a couple of days earlier, the maestro of Saudi justice, King Abdullah, decreed that henceforth, Saudi women would enjoy the right to vote and hold public office. At least, that’s how the announcement was splashed across the West by our Islamophilic media and the kingdom’s network of well-compensated cheerleaders.
Leave it to us party poopers at National Review. On the Corner, the invaluable Nina Shea, who directs the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, pointed out that there is considerably less to Abdullah’s edict than meets the eye.
For one thing, the word “vote” does not appear in it. Instead, women will be allowed to “participate in the nomination of candidates” in municipal elections. It is anything but clear that this equates to a right to vote in elections. What passes for “elections” in the Saudi monarchy is a bifurcated procedure in which candidates first are nominated by amassing a required threshold of support and later compete in an election. The most sensible interpretation of the decree is that women will partake in part one but not part two.
As for holding office, women will be permitted to serve on the king’s consultative “Shura Council.” Sounds great, except the Shura Council, like the local councils whose memberships are determined by the aforementioned municipal elections, has no actual power — which is what you might expect in an autocracy. The royal decree is window dressing.
And even as window dressing, it may not be authentic. At 88 and in failing health, Abdullah is essentially non compos mentis. Throughout his more sentient years, the king’s regard for the fairer sex was unexceptionally Islamist. Recall his 2002 visit to Pres. George W. Bush’s Crawford ranch, when Abdullah’s advance team demanded that all air-traffic controllers directing his flight and all airport personnel meeting it be men. (Naturally, the FAA lapdogs complied, and, once the story inevitably leaked out, the State Department dutifully echoed the Saudi party line that no such demand had ever been made.) Thus, as Nina relates, it is widely rumored that an opportunistic royal daughter somehow finagled the decree out of the daffy old polygamist.
All the more reason to doubt the decree will ever be implemented. The next Saudi elections are four years away. Abdullah’s chances of still being around then to enforce the diktat are even more iffy than Barack Obama’s chances of remaining the president who debases his office by bowing to Saudi kings. The sensibilities of Abdullah’s putative successor, Prince Nayef, are said to be of the mutaween variety. He’s unlikely to suffer suffragettes, especially if the ladies have to drive to the polls.
The fanfare around the unprecedented non-voting voting announcement is what made the week atypical. It spotlighted the abundant precedent for whipping Islamic women — cruelties imposed for engaging in activity so mundane no Western woman would think of it as “exercising a right.”
The regime was sufficiently mortified by the attention it received that, according to the BBC, Abdullah has revoked the whipping sentence — not the driving ban or whipping in general, mind you, just Ms. Jastaina’s ten lashes. It is a small favor to be thankful for. Like the embarrassed retreats that sharia regimes tend to beat on those rare occasions when the world takes notice of the persecution of apostates, homosexuals, and non-Muslims, it shows how craven is the folly of averting our eyes and biting our tongues when it comes to Islamist, er, eccentricities.
More interesting, however, were the terms of the American discussion about political rights in Saudi Arabia. It was as if we were all one big, happy civilization.
Maybe, some suggested, voting rights are natural and unalienable. In the United States, of course, we hold the equality of human beings to be “self-evident.” The Declaration of Independence is explicit on the matter when it comes to “all Men.” Implicitly, we now recognize that the principle applies to all men and all women, regardless of race or creed. Thus, if voting is a foundational right for one, it must be for all.
Others countered that unalienable rights are few and sweeping: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — but not voting. The overarching principle of equality renders this distinction insignificant. Whatever their taxonomy — natural, constitutional, statutory — we see voting rights as universal. The notion that they could be granted or denied by a king was rightly seen as a perversion of equality’s premise that the ruler is no greater than the rest of us.
All very nice . . . and utterly beside the point. Saudi Arabia is a sharia state. In fact, it is the quintessential sharia state. Most Muslim countries tout Islam’s law as supreme, but they incorporate other legal codes in tacit acknowledgment of its deficiencies. Egypt, for instance, mixes sharia with Napoleonic civil law. In stark contrast, the Saudi monarchy boasts that its law is the law of Islam, period. Sharia needs no patches, because it is Allah’s perfect, indivisible prescription for living human life.
The vice and virtue with which the mutaween concern themselves are not reflective of universal values, nor are they meant to be. They are distinctly Islamic. Sharia is based on Islamic scripture: primarily, the Koran, the hadith, and certain biographies of Mohammed deemed authoritative for more than a millennium. It is not entirely literal and static — there is wiggle room for jurisprudential interpretation. But neither is sharia what we’d call dynamic, at least not in the influential mainstream. The prohibition against women’s driving, for example, is based on a fatwa issued by the late Abd al-Aziz bin Abdullah bin Baz, who was made the kingdom’s grand mufti by Abdullah’s predecessor, King Fahd. And why not? As I recounted in The Grand Jihad, Sheikh bin Baz is best known for his 1966 fatwa declaring that the world is flat.
The voting edict, if we are to credit it as such, was not a case of King Abdullah’s deigning at long last to give women what the West takes to be their due. As Keeper of the Two Holy Mosques (the cities of Mecca and Medina), Abdullah is the Muslim ummah’s most revered ruler. True to that status, his concern is limited to what sharia has to say on any given matter — and if it says something opposed to Western sensibilities, he emphatically rejects Western sensibilities. While American generals, diplomats, and media divas agitate over a Koran’s being torched by an obscure Florida pastor, the Saudi government torches Bibles every single day as a matter of official sharia-driven policy.
In a Muslim society, women’s rights are understood strictly in an Islamic context. Western theories about universal precepts are irrelevant. Western civilization is not seen as a guide but as a competitor. The mission of classical Islam is to supersede Western tenets, not adapt to them.
Furthermore, in Islamist ideology, what makes the ruler viable is his fidelity to sharia. The Muslim Brotherhood’s most influential theoretician, Sayyid Qutb, put it plainly: “The ruler in Islamic law is not to be obeyed because of his own person; he is to be obeyed only by virtue of holding his position through the law of Allah and his Messenger.” In Saudi Arabia, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man. Ditto her inheritance rights. She may marry only one man, while the man may marry four women. The man may peremptorily divorce his wives — and he gets custody of the kids.
These are not the king’s whims. Abdullah enforces them because they are sharia strictures derived directly from Islamic scripture. His legitimacy as monarch hinges on enforcing Allah’s rules. And these rules are fixed and knowable. Anyone can read them in Reliance of the Traveller (Umdat al-Salik), the sharia manual that has been endorsed by the scholars of al-Azhar University, with the Saudi government itself certifying the manual’s English translation.
There is no outright sharia prohibition against a woman’s being given the right to vote or to hold public office. Islamic scripture, however, plainly frowns on the concept of women ruling men. “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women,” says Sura 4:34, “because Allah has given the one more strength than the other.” In the natural order, the verse elaborates, “righteous women are devoutly obedient” towards men. Those who stray from obedience are to be disciplined, including by physical beating. Furthermore, a well-known hadith quotes Mohammed as observing, “A people that leaves its leadership to a woman will never succeed.” Consequently, Reliance explains that a caliph, the supreme leader of the Muslim community, must be a man — women are not qualified.
So why not simply ban women from voting or standing for office? The question exposes a fundamental chasm between Islam and the West that continues to escape notice. We Americans consider ourselves a free, self-determining people. Charting our own destiny is how we define ourselves. It is a power we most openly — even defiantly — express by voting for officials whom we endow with immense powers to effectuate our will.
In Islam, it is simply not that important. Islamists define themselves by submission to Allah and his laws. Lawmakers are ministerial functionaries, not visionaries. The society’s destiny has already been charted: It is divinely enjoined to make Islam supreme over other systems.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s leading jurisprudent, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, is held in high esteem by the House of Saud. Between fatwas approving suicide bombings in Israel and the killing of American soldiers in Iraq, he has also decreed that sharia approves of women’s participation in politics. To his gullible admirers in Western academe, that is a sign of Qaradawi’s nuance and moderation. In reality, though, his rationale is completely consistent with his endorsement of women as shahada — jihadist martyrs. In Islam, it is never about the fulfillment of the individual; it is about what the ummah needs to overcome its enemies.
For Qaradawi, to defeat a better-equipped foe, it may be necessary for women to carry out attacks. Similarly, if women are not active in politics and education (three of the sheikh’s daughters have earned doctorates), those arenas will be left to secular women and their corrosive Western ideas. Muslim women are welcome, because they are needed in the fight.
Moreover, when it comes to political rights, the Islamist sees the stakes as very low. Qaradawi shrewdly figures that permitting a few female officeholders will impress the West without creating a danger that the women would actually be ruling men. More to the point, neither men nor women may make law for themselves. “Legislation belongs to God,” the sheikh teaches. “We only fill in the blanks.”
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.