Criminalizing hate speech
This article was published in Arab News on June 21, 2015:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
In these uncertain and turbulent times, we in the Kingdom need to promote unity now more than ever. With the bloody Daesh group wreaking havoc on Iraq and Syria, and the civil war next door in Yemen, we are surrounded by chaos, violence and death. And at home we have had to deal with our own terrorists, who after being brainwashed by an extremist ideology launched two separate attacks recently on Shiite mosques in the Kingdom’s eastern region in an attempt to sow sectarian strife.
It seems hard to believe, but so many of these young Saudis who are lured by the siren call of the extremists must really believe in the falsehoods that are fed to them by the terrorists, blissfully unaware that the peace and stability of Saudi Arabia has not come at an easy price for our forefathers who grew up 70 years ago, before the oil boom, in times of great financial hardships.
What we thought were going to be the liberating winds of the Arab Spring in 2011 turned mostly to violence against innocent civilians and instability that has left the whole Middle East in the utter shambles that it is in today. We should thank God a thousand times over that we can still go to bed without hearing bombs falling nearby; that we have electricity all of the time; that we have a strong government running the affairs of the nation, and an economy that gives Saudis a GDP per capita matching that of industrialized nations.
This is why I was surprised to read recently in this paper that the Shoura Council decided not to discuss proposals to set up a national unity project. Shoura members in favor of such an initiative had proposed that the government punish those convicted of promoting hate speech to jail terms ranging from six months to five years and a fine of SR500,000. The arguments against such an initiative were the ones we are used to hearing in other countries too: Why should we have new laws regulating public behavior when we already have so many laws on the books; and just writing down regulations in a new law will not necessarily produce change.
In the United States, these are usually the arguments of social conservatives who do not want hate laws enacted meant to protect people that are discriminated against, such as blacks, women and the handicapped. The point of this new law would be to stop those Saudis who make sectarian and racist comments under the guise of free speech, and who expect to get away with it. This should no longer be tolerated and our government and society should take swift action against those who insist on dividing Saudis according to their national, racial or sectarian origins.
After all, our founder King Abdul Aziz did not unify our country to just have our national fabric be ripped apart today by sectarian and racist violence.
For too long we have looked the other way as extremist preachers have spouted their words of hate and discrimination, poisoning the minds of young Saudis and thus producing new generations that hate others of their own countrymen because they are too dark, don’t look Arab enough or are of a different sect. I applaud Shoura member Abdullah Al-Fifi for supporting the national unity project and for pointing out that the Islamic Affairs Ministry has not done enough, or indeed done anything visible, to implement anti-extremist programs in schools and mosques.
The government has rightly clamped down on the hate speech of imams across the country, ordering them not to talk about sectarian issues, and instructing them to have sermons (khutbas) that encourage unity and social cohesion.
With the Arab world in flames we cannot afford disunity or discord in our midst. The stakes are just too high and as the repository of Islam’s two holiest mosques we indeed have a duty not just to ourselves, but to the whole Muslim world, to keep the Kingdom a safe, clean and prosperous place where all Muslims are welcome, be they from Africa or Asia.