In the wake of devastating terrorist attacks in Paris, in which journalists, police, and Jews were targeted with ferocity, many are left bewildered by the fact that such violent acts could take place in one of the world’s most beautiful, open, and cosmopolitan cities.
Such brutality seems like the purview of dictatorships in Africa and the Middle East, particularly Islamic dictatorships. As someone who was born in Iran and forced to flee the country in the 1980’s, I know what it is like to live in a society crushed under the weight of theocracy. In Iran today, the regime regularly uses public hangings, torture by electrocution, flogging, and rape as tools to destroy dissent.
If Iran represents the dangers of a state run by extremist Shia Ayatollahs, Saudi Arabia reflects its equally radical Sunni counterpart. We know about the "Chop Chop Square" in Riyadh, where people are beheaded after Friday Prayer and peaceful activists are flogged for questioning Islam or advocating freedom and equality. Just recently, a young blogger and activist Raif Badawi was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment and one thousand lashes by Saudi authorities for criticizing Islam and calling for reform and moderation. He is to be lashed fifty times every Friday after the Friday prayer for twenty weeks, a sentence befitting the medieval era. Badawi received the first fifty lashes on Friday, January 9th.
These and other atrocities around the world, including the slaughter of hundreds of innocents at the hands of the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, evoke sadness – but rarely action – in the West. There is an unspoken sense that, after all, these are not our problems, they unfold in distant lands, and Islamic dictatorships, however brutal, do not affect our lives.
In ignoring the floggings, assaults, and beheadings, Western governments and consumers alike turn a blind eye to some of the worst human rights abusers in modern history. One can only conclude that cheap oil, which should aptly be called "blood oil", accounts for much of the absence of outrage (and in some cases outright appeasement of such states). A democracy like Canada, the United States, or Israel would never be able to get away with lashing a peaceful activist as is Saudi Arabia right now. That the Saudis are doing so openly, in the knowledge that Western governments will raise no real protest and Western media will fail to provide serious coverage, only speaks to the fact that cynicism and barbarism go hand-in-hand.
Meanwhile, the Islamic regime in Iran has managed to stall any kind of agreement on the nuclear issue, and just this week announced the construction of two additional atomic facilities. This is particularly egregious given that the P5+1 powers negotiating the nuclear issue had both extended the deadline for negotiations and provided sanctions relief for the regime. All of which is to say, a regime that regularly sponsors terrorism worldwide and abuses human rights at home probably cannot be expected to negotiate and uphold a nuclear agreement in good faith. Were it not for the immense oil revenues that have sustained the regime since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran would be in a fundamentally different position today.
We should not fail to see the link between international terrorism today and the oil-funded hubs of extremism abroad, particularly when it comes to Iran and Saudi Arabia. It should come as no surprise that the same countries that abuse their own people in the name of religion are among the primary sources of inspiration and funding for extremist Islamist movements, including terror groups. In so doing, they have ultimately laid the foundations of the same strain of violent extremism being fought in the streets of Paris this month.
As petroleum customers, Western nations ignore such brutal – and brutally obvious – facts at their own peril.
Sayeh Hassan is a criminal defence lawyer in Toronto and a pro-democracy activist fighting to change Iran’s Islamic regime.