Sweden should not back down from feminist foreign policy against Saudis
I have to admit that I was a little late in catching up with the tension between Sweden and Saudi Arabia. For latecomers like me, let me summarize the situation.
First let me start by recalling that the Swedish government announced a “feminist” foreign policy when it took office in September.
Since then, Stockholm’s relations with Riyadh have nosedived after the Swedish coalition government’s leftist Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem told parliament in a February speech that the oil-rich state was a “dictatorship” that violated women’s rights and whipped bloggers. Wallström particularly denounced the Saudi courts for ordering Raif Badawi to be jailed for 10 years and to receive 1,000 lashes for setting up a website that championed secularism and free speech. These were “medieval methods,” she said, and a “cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression.” “Who can argue with that?” asked Nick Cohen in his article on the issue in The Spectator magazine. Indeed.
However, in response Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Stockholm and stopped issuing visas to Swedish businessmen.
“Saudi Arabia has successfully turned criticism of its brutal version of Islam into an attack on all Muslims, regardless of whether they are Wahhabis or not,” wrote Cohen in his article.
The row grow even bigger when Sweden ended a military deal with Saudi Arabia after Wallström was prevented from making a speech at an Arab League meeting in Cairo. Wallström had been invited as an honorary guest to the Arab ministers’ meeting, in praise of her government’s decision to recognize Palestine in October. Her cancelled opening speech - published by the Swedish Foreign Ministry - mentioned neither Saudi Arabia nor Wallström’s feminist foreign policy agenda, but did stress women’s rights and human rights.
Wallström obviously angered the business circles in her country, which is the world’s 12th largest arms exporter. More than 30 business executives published an open letter saying that breaking the deal would “jeopardize Sweden’s reputation as a trade partner.”
I am not surprised at the panic of businessMEN who only care about sweet money and could not be bothered by the sufferings of women in Saudi Arabia. But the government, and especially Wallström, also seem to be under criticism from other quarters.
“This championing of rights may have damaged Sweden’s ability to punch above its weight and its ambition to win enough votes to be a rotating member of the U.N. Security Council,” said former Swedish Ambassador to Moscow Sven Hirdman, quoted by Reuters. “The Swedish brand, as a reliable partner who you can talk to, has been badly hurt.”
In another article published on the website of the Gatestone Institute, Ingrid Carlqvist and Lars Hedegaard wrote that “The Swedish government, parliament and mainstream media seem to have no inkling of what Islamic sharia law implies.”
“In their hearts, they evidently believe that we all think the same. As Sweden champions democracy, liberty and equal rights, the Swedish establishment apparently cannot imagine that others would think otherwise. In sharia law, there are no ‘human rights’ as thought of in the West, but only human obligations as imposed by Allah and his prophet,” they wrote.
“The Foreign Minister appears to have been unaware that ‘human’ and ‘women’s’ rights are anathema in a great number of Arab States including Saudi Arabia,” they added.
I am sure that these two writers are aware that whatever progress humanity has achieved came as a result of questioning and challenging taboos and anathemas. While they don’t say so directly, my understanding of their message is “You can’t change and challenge the Arab world, as they follow Islam. Why should we deprive ourselves of lucrative business?”
The founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and women to this day have challenged and continue to challenge religious and cultural taboos against women. The struggle for democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms like freedom of speech continues in Turkey; nothing is anathema for those who believe in the universality of these values. If it can happen in a majority Muslim country like Turkey, it can also happen elsewhere, if only some in the Western world got rid of their orientalist, hypocritical stances.
Sweden has recently dispatched an envoy to Riyadh to mend fences. “I said we were very sorry if there were feelings of misunderstanding about what was said from the Swedish side, and said that we want to have a dialogue,” the envoy said, while adding that he had stopped short of an apology.
We all know that there is no misunderstanding whatsoever, but I find it natural for any country to try to maintain the bridges of dialogue and contain the crisis.
According to some reports, ending the arms trade treaty might not mean ending arms trade between the two countries completely.
But I hope the Swedish government will not back down from its earlier decision.
Sweden has always been Turkey’s staunchest critic when it had the worst record on human rights violations, but at the same time it has been Turkey’s staunchest supporter when it embarked on democratic reforms. Through that stance it has contributed to the consolidation of Turkish democracy.