OSLO - Whenever something happens to alter the global equilibrium between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the ripples can be felt across a huge swathe of the earth, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And one such alteration came with Donald Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, where as colleagues have written, he aligned America more firmly with the Sunni kingdoms of the Gulf. The president also pleased his royal interlocutors by harshly denouncing the behaviour of Iran, epicentre of the Shia Muslim world.
As was noted this week by many participants in a global human-rights festival, the Oslo Freedom Forum, the new American line seems to give the Saudis and their local allies a free pass over domestic policy. It now seems that terrible violations of basic human liberties, such as the flogging of brave dissidents like Raif Badawi, will no longer be of great concern to the White House, though they may win rebukes from specialist American agencies such as the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Some of the consequences of that policy shift were swift and obvious. A crackdown by the authorities in Bahrain, where a Sunni dynasty holds sway over a majority Shia population, lent poignancy to part of the proceedings in Oslo: the award of an annual prize for “creative dissent” to Aayat Alqormozi, a brave young Bahraini poet. She shared the honour with a Zimbabwean playwright and a group of Venezuelan satirists. The prize, established by the New York-based Human Rights Foundation in memory of the late Czech statesman Vaclav Havel, celebrates those who, “with bravery and ingenuity unmask the lie of dictatorship by living in truth.”
In a short, dignified acceptance speech, Ms Alqormozi said she had always chosen the “most peaceful means” to criticise the rulers of her country. During an uprising in 2011, her 20th year, she stood in a central square, reciting her verses; this led to her imprisonment and expulsion from university. As she spoke this week in Oslo, news was emerging of a government raid on the home village of Bahrain’s best-known Shia cleric, in which nearly 300 people were arrested and at least five people died. Without delving too deeply into politics, the poet lamented that many respectable governments were exporting weapons to her country’s masters with little care as to how they were used. “Please stop killing us,” was her simple plea.