King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has shocked many by announcing in a royal proclamation that under new laws, being an atheist and spreading atheist ideas is now a terrorist action. The Interior Ministry of Saudi Arabia has issued new guide lines about what exactly defines an atheist, which includes, “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”
The changes in law have come, the authorities in Saudi Arabia claim, to prevent dissidence and unrest within the country and to better protect their law-abiding citizens. They are specifically to prevent protests and other actions that could “harm public order.” However, it is perhaps more accurate to say that there is concern within Saudi Arabia that their citizens are traveling to Syria to aid in the fighting there, and then returning with new ideas about how a government should interact with its people. The re-definition of atheist is thought to be an easy way of tarring the names of those that the government of Saudi Arabia wishes to remove and criminalizing anyone that has thought or speech that contradicts the government’s official positions.
The effects of these changes in law, however, are not limited to new arrests that may occur in the future. They also apply to those that are currently in prison in Saudi Arabia. This could greatly alter the resolution of cases against inmates that are considered dissenters by the Saudi Arabian government. On the other hand, it has been argued that in many legal cases, these new definitions have been used for a while to convict people of slight offenses.
Saudi Arabia is understandably concerned about terrorism. After all, eighteen of the nineteen 9/11 bombers were from Saudi Arabia. This move, however, has caused outrage amongst human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, which monitors actions taken to limit the rights of citizens. The laws will merely aid officials within Saudi Arabia that are currently carrying out systematic campaigns of fear, intimidation, panic, and investigation of their own population.