Saudi Arabia has launched an all-out diplomatic and economic assault on Canada following criticism from Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland about the recent arrest of Samar Badawi, a women’s rights activist.
“Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia,” Freeland tweeted on 2 August.
“Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”
Raif Badawi is a Saudi blogger who was arrested in 2012 after writing critically of Muslim clerics and theocracy.
In addition to expelling the Canadian ambassador and recalling its own from Ottawa, Riyadh has suspended all new trade and investment in Canada and canceled scholarships that funded thousands of students in Canadian universities.
Infographic KSA, a Saudi group that describes itself as “managed by a group of Saudi youth who are interested in technology,” tweeted an image of a plane heading towards a Toronto skyscraper.
Many observers noted how it recalled the sight of airplanes flying into buildings in New York and Washington during the 11 September 2001 attacks.
“He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him,” the text on the image read, adding to the sense of menace.
The tweet and the account were taken down following widespread criticism.
Hypocrisy from the Canadian government
To close observers, the sudden concern by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government for human rights in Saudi Arabia is odd, given how upon taking office in 2015 he refused to cancel a $12 billion deal to sell armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia, the largest arms sale in Canadian history.
In 2016, Amnesty International published an open letter from Canadian civil society leaders urging the Trudeau government to drop the sale to “one of the world’s worst human rights violators,” and warned that these “lethal weapons” should not be sold to a government that has engaged in serious abuses domestically and in Yemen, just as similar weapons have been used to violently suppress protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
Governments do express concern over human rights violations in other countries, but will rarely be willing to provoke such a major spat with serious diplomatic and economic fallout.
At a press conference following Saudi Arabia’s retaliatory steps, Freeland stated that “when it comes to the Badawi family, Ensaf Haidar is a Canadian citizen, and she and her family therefore merit special attention from the government of Canada.”
Ensaf Haidar is the wife of Raif Badawi.
“It’s something we do, we stand up for Canadians and their families around the world,” Freeland added.
But it is certainly notable that while Canada is willing to risk major diplomatic ruptures over the rights of a non-Canadian like Samar Badawi, the government in Ottawa barely speaks out when the rights of some Canadians are directly violated.
Israeli snipers shot and injured Canadian emergency surgeon Tarek Loubani in the Gaza Strip on 14 May. A short time later, they killed the Palestinian medic, Mousa Jaber Abu Hassanein, who helped rescue Loubani.
Loubani told The Electronic Intifada Podcast that the medical team was “clearly marked” and there were “no burning tires, no smoke, no tear gas, nobody messing around in front of the buffer zone” when the medics were attacked.
The response from Trudeau and Freeland to Israel’s shooting of Loubani was muted.
“Canada deplores and is gravely concerned by the violence in the Gaza Strip that has led to a tragic loss of life and injured countless people,” Trudeau stated following Loubani’s shooting, which occurred the same day Israeli snipers massacred some 60 Palestinians.
But Trudeau’s carefully worded statement avoids saying the obvious – that Israeli military forces did all the killing that day, although the prime minister added that Canada is “engaging with Israeli officials to get to the bottom of these events.”
Freeland issued an equally bland statement on Twitter, failing to mention Israel at all:
Why the “special attention”?
There is no question that Raif Badawi is the victim of a grave injustice. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a large fine in 2014.
This was punishment for charges including “insulting Islam through electronic channels,” and apostasy after he created a website called Free Saudi Liberals, according to a website run by his wife Ensaf Haidar and supporters campaigning for his release.
“He was also sentenced to a cruel and inhuman punishment of 1,000 lashes, the first 50 of which were meted out in a public square in Jeddah on 9 January 2015,” Amnesty International stated in a call last year for Badawi to be freed.
The flogging was secretly filmed.
Flogging sessions have been postponed, sometimes due to Badawi’s poor health, according to the website supporting him.
His case has spurred international outrage and demands for his release.
“More than a million messages from Amnesty International activists have been sent in support of Raif Badawi since 2014,” the human rights group stated.
“Saudi Arabian authorities must ensure his immediate and unconditional release, as well as the release of all prisoners of conscience detained solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” the group said.
Human Rights Watch has also demanded Badawi’s release, stating that the “cruel and unjust treatment of Badawi is sadly just one piece of a broader crackdown on peaceful dissent in Saudi Arabia.”
Amnesty also noted that Badawi’s lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, has himself been given a 15-year prison term “solely for his human rights work.”
Ensaf Haidar and the couple’s three children fled Saudi Arabia and now live in Canada, which granted them political asylum in 2013 and citizenship in July.
Since then, it appears that the Badawi family has obtained special access to high-level Canadian officials through Haidar.
Both she and Trudeau have posted photos online together, and she has appeared with other political leaders:
In one tweet, Haidar emphasizes her “personal respect” for Trudeau.
Cozying up to pro-Israel and anti-Muslim lobbies
There is no doubt that Haidar has been a tireless campaigner, gaining international attention for her husband’s cause.
But in an unusual twist for someone upholding human rights and free expression, Haidar has developed extremely close ties with Canada’s pro-Israel and anti-Muslim lobbies.
In 2015 she established the Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom to support “freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the Arab world.”
Their support for Raif Badawi contrasts with their consistent demonization of and support for human rights violations against Palestinians and Muslims.
Maajid Nawaz is a self-proclaimed “secular liberal Muslim” who became a prominent voice funded and embraced by the US Islamophobia industry.
He found the Quilliam Foundation, a “counter-extremism” think tank that received significant funding from the British government and neoconservatives in the US.
His claims to be an “Islamist extremist” who turned “moderate” propelled his rise, but the story was challenged in an investigation published by The Grayzone Project.
Prevent “brands Muslim schoolchildren and workers in the public sector as potential terrorists for expressing support for Palestine, growing a beard or criticizing the UK’s foreign policy.”
In an article for The Daily Beast, Nawaz blames Muslim communities in Britain for crimes done in the name of Islam.
In the same piece, Nawaz attacks what he calls the “regressive left” for failing to “worry about medieval punishments conducted in Islam’s name, such as the lashing of Saudi bloggers like Raif Badawi.”
He uses this to deflect criticism of Israel, adding in sarcastic imitation of the left he caricatures: “Let us not be Uncle Toms, after all. Israel is the real enemy. Keep it real, man.”
Undermining human rights at the UN
UN Watch, headed by Raif Badawi Foundation board member Hillel Neuer, is “closely associated with rightist sectors in the United States and Israel,” according to Right Web, a project that tracks organizations that promote aggressive or militaristic US foreign policies.
Among UN Watch’s “Israel-centric and conservative-leaning” funders, the most prominent is the American Jewish Committee, according to Right Web. UN Watch has also received money from some of the main funders of Islamophobic groups in the US.
UN Watch’s main activity is attacking and undermining UN bodies and officials who investigate or call for Israel to be held accountable for human rights abuses against Palestinians – including the detention of hundreds of Palestinians without charge or trial.
Amnesty International has publicly objected to UN Watch’s role in undermining efforts to hold Israel accountable over settlements it builds on occupied Palestinian land in violation of international law.
Haidar gave testimony to the UN Human Rights Council last year on behalf of UN Watch, calling on the Saudi ambassador to help release her husband.
Zuhdi Jasser, another member of the board, heads the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, an organization that says it aims to find “concrete solutions to Islamism.”
Jasser also narrated the anti-Muslim propaganda film The Third Jihad and voiced his support for Donald Trump’s travel ban on people from certain Muslim-majority countries, even suggesting that the then-presidential candidate’s proposed ban did not go far enough.
Jasser is also an outspoken supporter of Israel, taking to Twitter to attack the BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement and to praise the Trump administration for transferring the US embassy to Jerusalem, a move overwhelmingly opposed by Palestinians and governments around the world:
The foundation also lists Canadian lawmaker and former justice minister Irwin Cotler as the legal advisor to Raif Badawi.
Cotler met with Trudeau on behalf of Badawi last year.
Cotler has long been a prominent defender of Israeli human rights abuses, for instance justifying Israel’s invasion of Gaza launched in December 2008 as “self-defense.”
An independent UN-commissioned inquiry into that attack found extensive evidence of war crimes committed by Israel during an assault that left around 1,400 Palestinians dead.
The Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom states that it does “not accept more than 30 percent of its budget from a single government source,” though it does not list governments that may be funding it.
The foundation did not respond to a request for comment from The Electronic Intifada.
Haidar tweets for Israel
Ensaf Haidar has been echoing many of those who support her foundation, amping up her own Islamophobia and support for Israel via Twitter.
She conflates criticism of Israeli policy and occupation of Palestinians with anti-Semitism – a common tactic to deflect criticism of Israel:
She has suggested that Arab societies are inherently anti-Jewish:
She mocks women who wear a face covering and incites government authorities in Canada to crack down on them and exclude them from receiving services:
Haidar was interviewed by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot in 2015.
In a 2017 tweet, Haidar said she was invited to speak about Saudi normalization with Israel by the publication Middle East Monitor, but that she thought “my opinion won’t fit their narrative as I’m not against Israel.”
Ali Abunimah contributed research and analysis.
- Raif Badawi
- Ensaf Haidar
- Saudi Arabia
- Chrystia Freeland
- Samar Badawi
- Infographic KSA
- 11 September
- Justin Trudeau
- Amnesty International
- Tarek Loubani
- Mousa Jaber Abu Hassanein
- Great March of Return
- Operation Cast Lead
- Free Saudi Liberals
- Waleed Abu al-Khair
- Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom
- Maajid Nawaz
- Zuhdi Jasser
- UN Watch
- Hillel Neuer
- Quilliam Foundation
- Israel Lobby
- Rania Khalek
- The Grayzone Project
- English Defence League
- Tommy Robinson
- Right Web
- American Jewish Committee
- UN Human Rights Council
- International Criminal Court
- American Islamic Forum for Democracy
- The Third Jihad
- Muslim ban
- US embassy in Jerusalem
- Irwin Cotler
- Max Blumenthal
- Tom Gross
- Khaled Abu Toameh
- Yediot Ahronot
- Middle East Monitor