Sweden, Free Speech & Diplomacy: Why Haven’t We Heard About This?

Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallstrom, attends a press conference on September 27, 2010 at the United Nations Offices in Geneva. A UN expert pushed for the prosecution of leaders of rebel groups for the mass rape of women in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, saying urgent action was needed "before the trail goes cold." Wallstrom singled out the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Mai-Mai militia. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Back in March, the British newspaper The Spectator ran a troubling story implicating free speech, feminism, Islam…all subjects that typically command a lot of attention in the U.S. 

Margot Wallström, the Swedish foreign minister, denounced the subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia. As the theocratic kingdom prevents women from travelling, conducting official business or marrying without the permission of male guardians, and as girls can be forced into child marriages where they are effectively raped by old men, she was telling no more than the truth.

Wallström went on to condemn the Saudi courts for ordering that Raif Badawi receive ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website that championed secularism and free speech. These were ‘mediaeval methods’, she said, and a ‘cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression’.

She also opined that Swedish cooperation with the Saudi military was unethical.

Following her remarks, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Sweden. It also stopped issuing visas to Swedish businessmen. The United Arab Emirates joined it. The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, which represents 56 Muslim-majority states, issued a statement accusing Sweden of failing to respect the world’s ‘rich and varied ethical standards,’ and the Gulf Co-operation Council condemned her ‘unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’

And how did Sweden–a country most of us think of as a bastion of democracy and a defender of free speech–react?

Thirty chief executives signed a letter saying that breaking the arms trade agreement ‘would jeopardise Sweden’s reputation as a trade and co-operation partner’. No less a figure than His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf himself hauled Wallström in at the weekend to tell her that he wanted a compromise. Saudi Arabia has successfully turned criticism of its brutal version of Islam into an attack on all Muslims, regardless of whether they are Wahhabis or not, and Wallström and her colleagues are clearly unnerved by accusations of Islamophobia. The signs are that she will fold under the pressure, particularly when the rest of liberal Europe shows no interest in supporting her.

My question is: why has the American media failed to cover this? Why has social media been silent?

Have I missed an outcry? A public debate over the relative importance of free speech and diplomacy? Or could it be that this effort to silence Wallstrom is different because she’s a woman, complaining about the treatment of women?