In the beginning of 2015, the Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallström, described the Saudi Arabian judicial system as “medieval.” Since then, she has been portrayed both as a culturally insensitive Islamophobe and as champion of human rights. The Guardian, for example, called her “magnificently undiplomatic.” But Margot Wallström is neither an Islamophobe nor is she a champion of human rights. She is also not “magnificently undiplomatic”, but rather ignorantly and detrimentally undiplomatic.
The affair started as a result of the arrest and conviction of blogger Raif Badawi. The young blogger was arrested in 2012 and finally charged with 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam on his site “Free Saudi Liberals.” Foreign Minister Wallström consequently called the punishment of Raif Badawi “near medieval” in a meeting with a Saudi Arabian diplomat. As a result, Saudi Arabia removed its Ambassador from Stockholm, stopped issuing business visas to Swedish nationals, disinvited the minister from speaking at the Arab League and removed their support for Sweden’s bid to become a rotating member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation also condemned Wallström’s statements as anti-Islamic. Unable to stand behind the tactless minister, Sweden sent a special delegation to Riyadh with apology letters from the Swedish King and Prime Minister including an explanation that the foreign minister did not intend to criticize Islam. As a result, diplomatic relations have fortunately been restored, but Saudi Arabia’s support for Swedish UNSC membership remains withdrawn.
There are two main flaws in Margot Wallström’s actions and statements regarding the issue, both of which highlight a wrongful turn in Swedish foreign relations. First is Wallström’s insistence that her statements were not a criticism of Islam and second is her inability to perform foreign policy cost benefit analyzes.
In an interview with the Guardian, Wallström made the following statement: “No, I do not regret the medieval remark.” She stands by calling the legal framework of Saudi Arabia, based on Sharia law, “medieval.” In the game of political slander, such blanket statements, especially in relation to religion, are clumsy. Sharia law has widespread support among the conservative powers of the Middle East and elsewhere and since flogging is part of this system, her critique cannot be separated from critique of conservative Islam. It holds true that the minister has not criticized the Islamic faith itself, but she has criticized an aspect of its practice–a practice many hold to be fundamental to the faith. In trying to defend her statements Wallström thereby appears ignorant.
So why would Wallström, an intelligent person, deny criticizing Islam and the inhumane practices many practitioners, especially among Saudi Arabian elites, support? Since, if she did not, she would be breaking the Western leftist tendency toward absolute cultural relativism. To avoid gaining enemies on the left, Wallström therefore practices a relativist rhetoric concerning culture in regards to human rights. As such, the denial tells the observer about Wallström’s underlying intentions – publicity.
Wallström made her statements to promote her feminist foreign policy, in which human rights are the central unit of measurement. As a marketing stunt it has been remarkably effective but foreign policy is not dependent on marketing – it is not activism. Activists need as many supporters for their cause as possible. But in foreign policy, especially in dealing with a conservative Islamist nation, it doesn’t matter how many liberal left-wingers cheer you on – what matters is your ability to put real pressure on the people who can affect real change.
Consequently, Wallström’s second major flaw is revealed – her inability to produce a sound cost benefit analysis. Yes, global attention turned towards Saudi Arabia’s horrible human rights record – but everyone already knows Saudi Arabia has a horrible human rights record, and Amnesty International has already spearheaded an international protest campaign. The argument of long-term positive result is thereby overruled. Failing to achieve positive results, it did, however, achieve negative ones. By marginalizing her own nation, Wallström inhibited Sweden from meaningfully championing human rights in the Middle East. If not for her statements, Wallström would have been able to speak at the Arab League and continued a dialogue regarding human rights. Sweden, with the support of the Arab world, would also have a much better chance of becoming a member of the UNSC, thereby having the opportunity to stand strong for human rights in the most powerful body of the United Nations.
Foreign Minister Wallström has tried to hold the picket sign while keeping her suit on. She has thereby failed in her appointed responsibility – a responsibility to lead a small but important nation in global affairs. To lead a nation that has the potential to make real change in the areas of feminism and human rights. In choosing to be fallaciously undiplomatic, Margot Wallström has instead made Sweden into a sign-carrying protester, screaming outside negotiation rooms instead of making real change inside them.