The hardline, Wahhabist followers of Islam in Saudi Arabia bump heads spectacularly with the government of Indonesia.

THE FUROR BEGAN with the beheading of Ruyati binti Satubi, a 54-year-old Indonesian grandmother, after she was convicted of stabbing her employer by a Saudi court. In truth though, the seeds of the anger that saw Indonesia recalling its ambassador to Riyadh and suspending nationals from leaving to work in Saudi Arabia go much, much deeper.

Satubi’s death was a perfect storm born of fundamentally different perspectives within the faith, and – less metaphysically – anger at what many Indonesians see as the horrific treatment of foreign workers by their Saudi employers.

Saudi Arabia has, for a long time, been held in a stable political arrangement by an effective bargain between the ruling family and Wahhabist puritanicals. The ruling family gets a religious endorsement, while one of the strictest subgroups of broader Islam gets a free hand on religion and the law. That Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in the religion, grants the Wahabbist’s point of view a disproportionate weight in the Muslim world.

In comparison, Indonesia has long been a bastion of a more moderate and humanistic interpretation of Islam. Not only the world’s most populous Muslim nation, the country is also home to Nahdlatul Ulama, possibly the religion’s largest organised group. Compared to Wahhabism, the differences could not be more stark.

While women in Saudi Arabia have yet to be allowed to drive, or given the legal status of an adult, women in Indonesia enjoy far wider basic rights in a nation that, for the most part, has fostered genial relations with its religious minorities.

With Satubi’s beheading, philosophical differences between the strict, uncompromising view of Islam amongst the Wahhabists and humanistic beliefs of the moderate Indonesian majority have been brutally tested.

Even beyond issues of religion, Satubi’s death was the last straw in a chain of mistreatment of many foreign servants working for Saudi employers. In January, a Saudi princess stood accused of physically assaulting her Indonesian servant for forgetting to pack her sunglasses, walking in front of her in in a Florida mall and demanding to be treated like a human being during a trip to America. This, sadly, is improved behaviour by a Saudi royal, after a grandson of the Saudi king battered a manservant to death.

Given that there is some dispute as to whether Satubi may have been acting in self defense in killing her employer, resentment by many Indonesians has finally come to a head over the case. Some see Saudi Arabia’s behaviour as utterly hypocritical for a nation that is home to Islam’s geographical heart. Others simply find it revolting that anyone should treat fellow human beings in such a disgusting way, regardless of religion.

Watching the Saudi government’s posturing to smooth over what it seems to view as a fixable political spat with Indonesia, it would seem that the country is intent on getting back to business as usual as soon as the dust settles.

That should not be allowed to happen.

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