Everything You Need to Know About Saudi Arabia’s Death Penalty

The inhumanity of the death penalty.

Before you go judging the Saudis for their death penalty sentencing, let’s remember: The United States has 31 states that also have a death sentence penalty. The U.S. policies on sentencing don’t exactly make it the pillar of criminal rehabilitation.
That said, generally, what incites human rights activists that speak out against Saudi Arabia’s capital punishments are not the actual death — but the actual method in which these deaths are carried out.
Let’s not sit here and pretend that we can debate the humanity of a death sentence penalty, because it is logically impossible to do so.
There is no humanity in the death penalty sentence. It is designed to end a human life. By its very nature it is inhumane.
So what exactly does the Quran say about the death penalty?

“If anyone kills a person — unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land — it would be as if he killed all people. And if anyone saves a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all people.” (Quran 5:32)

“Take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law.” (Quran, 6:151)

Justice and law are never quite cut and dry, are they? (The second amendment, the right to bear arms — nothing about assault weapons.) The Quran makes it pretty clear; unless you have murdered, you cannot be murdered — right?
So why is Saudi Arabia the target of all this anti-capital punishment rhetoric?

Kettle (Iran) calling the pot (Saudi Arabia) black?

According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia tops the list of countries that are prolific in carrying out capital punishment, followed only by China and Iran. That’s right — Iran has its own death sentence skeletons (no pun intended) in their closet.
As a matter of fact, the International Federation for Human Rights reports that in Iran, crimes punishable by death include: Murder, rape, child molestation, sodomy, drug trafficking, kidnapping, terrorism and treason.
Off the top of my head, I can think of a handful of American politicians who might actually agree with capital punishment for these crimes.
Perhaps that is why Saudi Arabia is front and center when it comes to the death penalty debate. In Saudi Arabia, capital punishment doesn’t always fit the crime — “apostasy” and “witchcraft” are also punishable by death.
In addition to the severity of the punishment for non-lethal crimes, capital punishment is determined by the judge hearing the case and his interpretation of Sharia law in each case. There is no set standard, it is simply left to the discretion of the judge and is based on evidence like confessions from interrogations — and, well, we all know about coerced confessions.

Politics disguised as religious virtue.

In this latest round of Saudi Arabia’s fulfillment of death sentences, humanity isn’t even an issue. Neither the severity of the punishment nor the method of punishment was of concern when Saudi Arabia carried out the death sentences of 47 prisoners convicted of “terrorism.”
This time, it was not about the death penalty at all — rather, who was punished: Sheik Nimr-Al-Nimr, a Saudi Arabian Shiite cleric.
This was not about religious law, this was Saudi Arabia’s attempt to send a clear message that challenging the Sunni Wahhabism interpretation held by the “House of Saud” — the ruling kingdom — will not be tolerated and will be punished by death. To understand the recent wave of executions and the public outrage, historical context is necessary. Again, I am not a theologian or a historian, but let’s see if I can break this down for you.

Iran and Saudi Arabia: Religion lost in translation.

The history of Iran and Saudi Arabia has been a theological feud that reads like the “Gangs of New York.” Both countries have been dueling for the powerful title of the “Best in Islam.” Both the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are considered to be conservative in their Muslim interpretation.
Iran follows Shia Islam and Saudi Arabia follows Sunni Islam. The differences between the two sects are few, yet fundamental in the eyes of their followers. For example, they both believe that Christians and Jews are “people of the book.”
The fundamental difference between the Sunnis and Shiites boils down to whom Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) nominated as a successor. The Shias believe that the only true successor and therefore leader of the faith must be a member of the Prophet’s family. In Sunni Islam, the leader of the faith is simply a qualified cleric.
To put it another way, it’s much like Christianity’s division of faith between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Both are Christian, yet fundamentally different in worship. To break it down even further using the same analogy, Roman Catholicism is further divided into Protestantism. Much like Catholicism, Sunni Islam varies based on different schools of thought.
In Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism — the most conservative interpretation — is the Sunni Islam version that is used by the ruling kingdom and determines the establishment of Sharia Law.
The connection between the “House of Saud” and Wahhabism was no accident. In the 18th century, then patriarch of the Al-Saud family, Muhammad ibn Saud, and Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, a tribal leader and founder of the Wahhabi movement collaborated.
Their mission was to expand the then radical form of Islam and dominate the region. It took a few generations but by the early 1900s, Abdul Aziz Bin Saud took over the majority of the region and ousted then leader Hussein bin Ali, who up until then was supported by none other than our friends across the pond, the British.
The main argument used to oust bin Ali was based on the notion that he was ruling the region contraindicative to Sharia law.
Since that time, the majority of Shiite Muslims remained in Iran. However, Yemen and Bahrain are still heavily populated with Shiite Muslims, which is quite unnerving to the Saudis, especially since they are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their positions on Syria and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has also been a critic of the Iran nuclear deal. This round of executions of “terrorists” (in Saudi Arabia that means people who disagree with the government) is simply designed to reaffirm the country’s position against Iran and the Shiite community in and outside of Saudi Arabia.