My best friend died last week. He and 21 other innocent concert-goers were murdered by an individual to whom no attention should be paid. We cherish the memory of the victims and we mourn with their families.
Megan Hurley, Courtney Boyle, Philip Tron, Wendy Fawell, Elaine McIver, Eilidh MacLeod, Chloe Rutherford, Liam Curry, Sorrell Leczkowski, Nell Jones, Michelle Kiss, Jane Tweddle-Taylor, Marcin Klis, Angelika Klis, Kelly Brewster, Olivia Campbell, John Atkinson, Alison Howe, Lisa Lees, Saffie Rose Roussos, Georgina Callander and my dear friend Martyn Hett.
Somebody else who offered their condolences was one King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the head of the autocratic Saud family that have ruled Saudi Arabia since the foundation of the modern state in 1932. He picked up the phone to his staunch ally Prime Minister Theresa May and, like many of the world’s leaders, condemned the attack and committed to standing shoulder to shoulder with Britain in the ongoing war on terror.
There is no reason to believe his words were insincere. Saudi Arabia has, after all, fallen victim to terrorism countless times on its own soil. Yet, there is a story that’s not being told, touched upon briefly by Caroline Lucas in Wednesday’s General Election debate. As Lucas underlined, the UK is the world’s second biggest arms dealer and delivers its bombs and guns to 22 of the 30 countries on our Government’s own human rights watch list.
It should come as no surprise that Saudi Arabia is high on that list with its repressive male guardianship system; its routine imprisonment, torture and execution of LGBT people and its complete disregard for the freedoms of expression, association and belief. That’s before you even consider the Saudi-led bombing raids on Yemen, which the UN confirms have been the single biggest cause of the thousands of lives lost in the bloody conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country. The list of Saudi atrocities is long and the victims are too numerous to name. So why is it that British firms have sold £3 billion worth of weapons to the Saudis in the last three years alone, while the British government continues to send an a annual aid package amounting to less than a tenth of that revenue to Yemen? Our government’s support for the Al Saud family makes us complicit in mass murder. Sadly, at Wednesday’s debate, Theresa May was too busy to defend her government’s appalling record. What was so preoccupying that the election she called remains unclear. However, when confronted about the issue, her foot-soldier, Home Secretary Amber Rudd, merely shrugged: “It’s good for industry.”
So what does all this have to do with the callous murder of 22 people in Manchester last week? Well, it requires us to look into the ideology that drove that sorry man to commit such an act. The Saudi state-sponsored brand of Islam known as Wahhabism is widely considered to be at the source of much extremist thought. In the words of the world’s largest Muslim youth organisation, it is characterised by antipathy – at times violent – towards Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and even other Sunni Muslims who do not share the Wahhabis’ rigid and authoritarian view of Islam.
“For more than fifty years, Saudi Arabia has systematically propagated a supremacist, ultraconservative interpretation of Islam among Sunni Muslim populations worldwide,” reads the official statement released by the Indonesian Muslim youth movement Gerakan Pemuda Ansor the day after my friend was killed. “The Wahhabi/ultraconservative view of Islam—which is embraced not only by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but also by al-Qaeda and ISIS—is intricately wedded to those elements of classical Islamic law that foster sectarian hatred and violence.”
I do not blame Theresa May or her government for the death of my friend, nor do I hold anyone responsible for the depraved act other than the perpetrator himself, but we cannot afford not to look at things in their context. To shrug off complicity in the killing of thousands of innocents for the sake of industry is, to my mind, criminal. To turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s aggressive propagation of an ultraconservative perversion of Islam and its role in the radicalisation of young minds is equally incriminating.
So while you might attack Jeremy Corbyn for his failure to recall a figure when pushed by Emma Barnett on Woman’s Hour earlier this week, for his shabby appearance or, God forbid, his policies, you cannot possibly fault him on the pledge to end the sale of arms to the Kingdom after almost 60 years. On 8th June, it is with conviction that I will cast my vote for Labour and for our best chance of a foreign policy we can be proud of: one that does not just aim to cash in on arms deals regardless of the consequences, but one where trade deals are conditional on the guarantee of universal human rights, democracy and the rule of law.