Trichur: Cirque du Soleil walking an ethical tightrope in Saudi Arabia

Valid questions and questionable ethics and values:

Send in the clowns.

Don’t bother. They’re here.

Cirque du Soleil is defending its decision to deepen its business ties with Saudi Arabia despite concern about that country’s human-rights record and the fate of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi – whose family lives in Quebec.

The Montreal-based entertainment company recently signed an agreement with the Saudi Ministry of Culture to bring more of its shows to the kingdom, including The IllusionistNow You See MePaw Patrol Live – Race to RescueTrolls Live! and Blue Man Group World Tour.

The agreement also sets the stage for Cirque to create an original performance for Saudi Arabia and to collaborate with its officials to establish a regional training academy and office.

Although Cirque is eager to generate new revenue after emerging from bankruptcy protection, its new owners are walking an ethical tightrope by doing more business with Saudi Arabia. The company has had six shows there since 2018, and some of those performances prompted a backlash from employees and ordinary Quebeckers. So it is baffling that it is risking a new controversy while there is widespread worry about Mr. Badawi’s case.

“Through our shows, our goal is always to inspire the local population and our presence in any market should not be interpreted as a political and moral stance,” Cirque spokeswoman Caroline Couillard wrote in an e-mail. “As a private company, we do not believe it is appropriate to interfere in the domestic and foreign affairs of the governments of the countries we visit.”

Let’s get real. This is where the rubber meets the road on corporate social responsibility. Cirque’s seemingly apolitical stance isn’t in keeping with its pledge to act “as a responsible agent of change.”

Saudi Arabia is talking a good game about cultural transformation these days, but it is still very much a repressive regime. Despite relaxing some social norms, the kingdom has made no substantial progress on human-rights issues since the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Its track record on human rights is already a sore spot with Canadians. We’ve learned that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) allegedly sent a hit squad to Canada in a foiled attempt to assassinate former Saudi intelligence officer Saad Aljabri not long after Mr. Khashoggi’s murder. And much to our collective horror, Canadian arms are fuelling the worsening conflict in Yemen (effectively a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran).

Now, with Ottawa calling on Riyadh to release Mr. Badawi from prison, offer him leniency and allow him to reunite with his family, Cirque’s new agreement comes at a particularly sensitive time for Canadian-Saudi relations.

Although Mr. Badawi is a Saudi citizen, his wife Ensaf Haidar and three children are Canadian. He was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for criticizing Saudi clerics on his blog. According to the Islamic calendar, Mr. Badawi’s prison term ends Feb. 28, but his release is far from certain. Even if he is liberated, he still faces a 10-year travel ban.

Perhaps that’s why the Cirque agreement caught the eye of Ms. Haidar, who congratulated MBS for it in a recent letter, written in French. She took the opportunity to urge him to release her husband and lift his travel ban.

“We believe that this gesture would be in perfect harmony with the reforms you are undertaking,” Ms. Haidar wrote.

Her tone was remarkably polite given the circumstances, but when the potential penalty for offence is to be cut into pieces like Mr. Khashoggi, it’s understandable.

Separately, Mr. Badawi’s supporters are urging Ottawa to grant him Canadian citizenship.

“The Government of Canada is very concerned by the case of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia,” said Jeffrey MacDonald, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. “We have consistently advocated on his behalf and will continue to use every opportunity to do so. His well-being is foremost in our minds.”

That’s why it’s unfathomable that Cirque would sign an agreement like this. And yet Ms. Couillard frames the deal as coming “on the heels of announced reforms and social changes in the country, as well as the announcement of business deals to build an entirely new entertainment industry in Saudi Arabia.”

However, Canadians are unlikely to buy into Saudi Arabia’s propaganda campaign, given how some of Cirque’s previous performances in the kingdom also generated controversy. Not only did Cirque’s own artists voice their concerns back in 2018, but so, too, did co-founder Guy Laliberté, according to a published report from Radio Canada International.

Cirque’s most recent performance in the country was Messi10, named after Argentinian soccer player Lionel Messi, which was held in 2021. Perhaps it should instead take its cues from entertainment heavyweights, such as rapper Nicki Minaj, who have cancelled shows there over human-rights concerns.

The company is twisting itself into a pretzel to justify this new agreement, but its mental gymnastics only risk courting more controversy.

Source: Cirque du Soleil walking an ethical tightrope in Saudi Arabia

Would Canadian citizenship be a lifeline to this jailed Saudi blogger? Ottawa ‘not convinced’

Raises some broader citizenship policy issues (e.g., likely sets a precedent for other detained prisoners) and likelihood of impact on Saudi government incarceration of Badawi likely to me minimal at best, counter-productive at worst. That being said, yet another reminder of the false veneer of MBS’s modernization initiatives:

The federal government appears reluctant to grant Canadian citizenship to a jailed blogger in Saudi Arabia whose wife and children live in this country.

Weeks after the House of Commons passed a unanimous motion to ask the immigration minister to bestow citizenship on Saudi dissident Raif Badawi, a source told the Star on Wednesday that the federal government is “not convinced” such an act would help — and fears that a show of public support might in fact worsen his treatment.

As a result, the federal government prefers, for now, to stick with diplomatic “back channels” to advocate for his release, said the source, on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The case appears to be the latest to spotlight the fine line the Canadian government is trying to walk when it comes to using public pressure versus quiet diplomacy on the international stage.

Badawi, who has championed support for religious pluralism and respect for minorities, was arrested in 2012 and accused of using the internet to “infringe on religious values” in violation of a Saudi Arabian law against cybercrime, according to his international legal team. He was later found guilty of the charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a steep fine.

“This new investigation is likely an act of intimidation, intended to silence Raif and his family as the Kingdom faces growing backlash for its human rights abuses,” said Brandon Silver, an international human rights lawyer and the centre’s director of policy and projects.

The centre says Badawi’s ongoing imprisonment is unjust and it has urged Saudi authorities to include Badawi among the list of prisoners who, as part of an annual tradition, will be granted royal pardons during Ramadan this year.

“Nine years have been long enough. My kids are growing up without their father, and we all miss him terribly,” Haidar said in a recent statement.

A written appeal previously sent to Saudi authorities by Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former justice minister and the centre’s founding chair, argued that Badawi’s “moderate and reasonable voice” did not defame Islam or personally attack authority figures, posed no threat to national security and reflected a “deep patriotism.”

The clemency appeal noted that Saudi Arabia’s “reputational crisis” following the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, as well as other events, could intensify if the kingdom doesn’t send a “clear signal” to the world it is committed to reforming.

A motion in late January calling on Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino to use his discretion under a section of the Citizenship Act, which allows granting of Canadian citizenship to a person facing “special and unusual hardship,” was put forward by Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet and approved unanimously in the House. 

Thomas Juneau, an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said he sees both sides of the argument when it comes to conferring citizenship upon Badawi.

On the one hand, granting citizenship is the morally right thing to do and helps bring attention to the case. On the other hand, there’s a powerful counterargument that granting citizenship could make the Saudi government feel like it’s been backed into a corner and there’s a risk it could dig its heels in because it does not want to be seen as bending to outside pressure.

“It’s not a democracy, but it still has its own domestic considerations,” Juneau said. “It might be reluctant to be seen as responding to external pressure.”

Juneau says this sort of dilemma over whether Canada should exert public pressure on another country or use more discreet back-channel talks to get its way can be seen in this country’s handling of the ongoing detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China and terrorist kidnapping cases abroad.

“Is it better when these terrorist kidnappings are managed with as low profile as possible or when there’s attention brought to the case? We don’t know the answer to that. There’s still a very serious debate,” he said.

Juneau adds that going the quieter route can invite speculation whether the government is seeking to avoid political embarrassment.

Silver told the Star conferring Canadian citizenship upon Badawi would “give Canada greater standing in its interventions on Mr. Badawi’s behalf, including in requests for clemency and consular visits.”

“As well, (Badawi) is subject to a 10-year travel ban following the completion of his sentence, and Canadian citizenship may also help secure him a passport and safe passage to Canada despite the ban.”

There is precedent for this, Silver added, citing the federal government’s efforts under Pierre Elliott Trudeau to secure the release of Soviet dissident and human-rights advocate Anatoly Sharansky, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison in the late 1970s on espionage charges. According to a 1978 Canadian Press story, Trudeau told Soviet authorities “We would take him off their hands” and that the House had earlier given unanimous approval to grant Sharansky landed-immigrant status. (Sharansky was eventually released in 1986 and flew to Israel).

Asked Wednesday if the government planned to act on the motion regarding Badawi, Alexander Cohen, the minister’s press secretary said in a statement, “We continue to raise (Badawi’s) case at the highest levels and we have repeatedly called for clemency to be granted. We remain in contact with Ms. Haidar and we want to see Mr. Badawi reunited with his family. The recent motion demonstrates the concern of Parliament with regard to Mr. Badawi’s detention.”

Syrine Khoury, press secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, would not elaborate, saying, “We will continue to raise our concerns regarding (Badawi’s) situation in Riyadh and Ottawa.”

However the government source said Ottawa was “treading carefully” on the question of granting citizenship to Badawi.

“The idea it could confer benefits is tenuous,” the source said.

For one, the Saudis don’t recognize dual citizenship, so giving Badawi Canadian citizenship would basically amount to a symbolic gesture.

Secondly, the source said, there is concern the Saudis could perceive the act of granting citizenship as Canada unnecessarily “meddling” in their internal affairs and potentially hurt Badawi’s clemency bid and result in a deterioration of his conditions. (Badawi is allowed brief phone calls with his wife but is not allowed visitors, according to his international legal team).

Informed Wednesday of the government’s lukewarm position on granting citizenship to Badawi, Silver said public advocacy and private diplomacy are equally important and proved to be an effective combination in getting the recent release from detention of Loujain Alhathloul, the Saudi women’s rights activist and former UBC graduate.

The granting of citizenship to Badawi, Silver added, would give “great hope” to Badawi and to his family and potentially protect him from future reprisals.

“I don’t think symbolism is something that should be so quickly papered over.”

Source: https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2021/03/03/would-canadian-citizenship-be-a-lifeline-to-this-jailed-saudi-blogger-ottawa-not-convinced.html

Douglas Todd: Would Saudi Arabia’s jailed blogger be accused of ‘Islamophobia’ in Canada?

Less contradictory than the article argues. Virtually all of the recommendations that came out of the committee examining M-103 applied to all forms of racism and discrimination (dissenting Conservative recommendations focused more on definitional questions of Islamophobia).

The additional funding for the multiculturalism program was general in application save for programming directed against racism and discrimination encountered by Black Canadians).

Just as one can criticize the policies and practices of the Israeli government without being antisemitic, one can criticize the policies and practices of the Saudi government without being anti-Muslim. In the case of the former, the IHRA definition of antisemitism provides some (imperfect) guidance that could form the basis of discussion for a comparable approach to criticizing the policies of Muslim countries, beyond basic human rights.

So while some Muslims may argue that any criticism of Saudi Arabia is anti-Muslim or Islamophobic, some Jews also argue that any criticism of Israel is antisemitic. It depends on the nature and form of the criticism:

Would jailed Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi end up being accused of Islamophobia if he were released from his Riyadh prison cell and allowed to come to Canada?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is taking contradictory symbolic stands.

In August, it provoked a diplomatic dispute with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by tweeting support for Badawi, who was arrested in 2012 and flogged for criticizing the country’s hardline religious leadership. Canada has even offered citizenship to the free-speech advocate, his wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their children.

But how does that jibe with the federal Liberals also pushing through Motion 103, which urges all-out war against “Islamophobia?” The Liberal politicians behind M-103 refused to respond to requests to define Islamophobia. And their deceptive gamesmanship would end up jeopardizing Badawi’s right to free expression if he were to ever to come to Canada.

Among other things Badawi has equated a host of Saudi Arabian Muslims with terrorists, which many Canadians think is an offensive and Islamophobic accusation to make.

Can Trudeau’s government have it both ways? How can it champion Badawi’s right to freely criticize Saudi Arabia’s form of Islam at the same time that Liberal MPs make a virtue of condemning anyone who disparages Islam, including the deadly rules in many theocratic Muslim countries, which legislate that people should have their heads cut off for leaving the 1.5-billion-member faith?

Ali Rizvi, Canadian-based author of The Atheist Muslim, was one of the first to point out the lack of logic from Canada’s liberal-minded politicians, which include NDP and Green MPs. “People like my good friend Raif Badawi is in jail and he has been flogged 50 times simply for blogging,” Rizvi, who has lived in Saudi Arabia, told CBC’s The Tapestry.

“It’s interesting to me that if he finally made it to Canada and joined his wife and kids here, a lot of his ideas would be considered ‘Islamophobic’ by Liberals over here because of the criticisms he makes.”

An Angus Reid poll suggests many Canadians agree with Rizvi that the Liberal government has muddied the waters of free speech when it comes to criticizing religions and religious people, something which has been going full bore in the West since the Christian Reformation 500 years ago.

Half of Canadians said it’s not necessary for federal politicians to formally condemn “Islamophobia.” And 55 per cent say the problem of anti-Muslim sentiments in this country has been overblown by politicians and the media. Presumably most Canadians feel the country’s existing anti-hate speech laws already cover extreme hostile attacks on ethnic or religious groups.

The federal Liberals have managed through all this to get themselves into a pickle over free speech.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s August tweet calling for the release of Badawi and his sister led to Saudi Arabia retaliating. It cancelled trade deals with Canada and cut short the educations of nearly 15,000 Saudi students in Canada, even while confusion reigns about the fate of the more than 1,000 Saudi physicians in training in the country.

The trans-national furore is taking place as Badawi’s circumstances grow more dire. Even though an initial charge of apostasy, which is punished by death, was withdrawn, his health deteriorates in his small, stinking, shared cell. He has four years left in his sentence, which was to include 1,000 public lashes with a whip (he’s had 50 so far). He’s not alone in his degradation. In other Muslim-majority countries, online critics of the religion have been hacked to death, including a Bangledesh blogger who was also a friend of the Canadian author of The Atheist Muslim.

What has Badawi actually said to suffer such egregious punishment?

He has censured Muslims’ for their intolerance and argued against unequal religious attitudes towards women. He has promoted “live and let-live” secularism to replace Islamic theocracy and attacked Muslim schools that he says are filled with terrorists. And he has criticized Muslims in Arabic countries for failing to follow the lead of Europe, which has a separation of religion and state.

“States which are built on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear,” he writes in 1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think (published by Vancouver’s Greystone Books).

“We should not hide the fact that Muslims in Saudi Arabia not only disrespect the beliefs of others, but (they) charge them with infidelity, to the extent that they consider anyone who is not Muslim an infidel,” he has said.

Badawi was outraged when Muslims in New York City called for a mosque to be built near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center, where 3,000 people were murdered in the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaida terrorists, whom Badawi directly linked to Saudi Arabia.

“What increases my pain is this (Islamist) chauvinist arrogance, which claims that innocent blood, shed by barbarian, brutal minds under the slogan ‘Allahu Akbar,’ means nothing compared to the act of building an Islamic mosque whose mission will be to … spawn new terrorists.”

Badawi’s costly bid for freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia, for the right to openly denounce Islamic practices, puts him in a similar boat as the staff at France’s satiric Charlie Hebdo magazine, the Danish newspaper editors who published cartoons of Mohammed, and British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, whom have all suffered for finding fault with Islam.

In 1000 Lashes, Badawi defiantly chooses to follow the dictum of the late French existentialist Albert Camus, who said, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

Badawi’s courageous existence is a clear revolt against Saudi Arabia’s bullying Islamic authorities. It should also cause some censorial Canadians to squirm.

Source: Douglas Todd: Would Saudi Arabia’s jailed blogger be accused of ‘Islamophobia’ in Canada?