Speak out for Those Who Can’t

Love takes many different shapes and travels many different roads. Love of family. Love between two who believe each to be the other’s everything. Love of truth and of truth-telling, no matter the price.

There are individuals around the world who are in prison cells right now, or are being secretly executed right now, because they told the truth about the power arrangements in their nation and told the world that they live in a country that believes in punishing and sometimes killing those who have revealed these things. And yet they have gone ahead and written these things anyway at the risk of joining the ranks of the punished, joining the silent brigades of the killed. This is a love for the truth that I sincerely believe will never be tested in my heart in my lifetime, so I have no clue if I will ever have an opportunity to display the matchless courage that Raif Badawi, his powerhouse wife Ensaf Haidar, his brother-in-law Waleed Abulkhair, or Waleed’s wife (and Raif’s sister) Samar Badawi display every damn day that Raif spends in jail (as of today, 1103 days) and Waleed spends in jail (more than a year now).

Raif and Waleed are in jail; their wives work every day to keep their names in the public square.

Raif is a blogger in Saudi Arabia who wrote things like the quote memorialized in the image at the top; his writing plunged him into a Kafka-like dreamworld of religion-as-part-of-state-bureaucracy. For a time, he was charged with apostasy, or renouncing his religion. The punishment for apostasy is a beheading. Instead, he was declared guilty of a lesser charge, “insulting” his nation’s official state religion. That landed him a sentence of 10 years in jail and 1000 lashes by a whip or a cane, to be delivered in sets of 50 slashes each Friday before Friday prayers. The first set of 50 was delivered on January 9, and his condition has been reported to be too weak to withstand a second set each Friday since.

Waleed is Raif’s brother-in-law and his lawyer and a human rights activist. He was arrested in the courtroom during a hearing regarding his own case and summarily found guilty and given a sentence of 15 years in jail.

(I have written several columns about this matter. The most recent was on May 7, “A Prisoner’s Anniversary,” and it has more details. My first column, “For Raif Badawi,” includes statements about the flogging.)

Ensaf Haidar spent the last couple weeks in Europe meeting with government agencies and diplomats, and she accepted awards in the name of her imprisoned husband. She is trying to get any government to directly address the Saudi government specifically about her husband’s case. So far, embassies have delivered messages to embassies. Statements have been given to the press. “I’m not aware of any government talking officially to the Saudi Arabian authorities and officially requesting the release of Raif,” she told The Independent last week. She is working to inspire that sort of direct communication.

On May 21, Amnesty International gave Joan Baez and Ai Weiwei the organization’s prestigious Ambassador of Conscience award in Berlin. Ensaf was there and delivered a speech. She was embraced by Patti Smith.

Other awards and citations followed. In meeting after meeting, media appearance after media appearance, Ensaf Haidar has offered her small but powerful presence as testimony that even in 2015, there are places in which thinking for oneself is expensive and the expression of those thoughts is punishable. She has not been in the same room as her husband for more than three years now. Any photo of Ensaf with her husband is a photo of Ensaf holding a photo of her husband:

Ensaf Haidar and Raif Badawi

Ensaf Haidar and Raif Badawi

That is love, too. Love that is neither requested not required when two people join together, but a precious love when it is seen. I wrote last week, “Building a family is perhaps the most optimistic act possible; fighting for a better country and world demands vigilance in the name of that optimism.” The two have three young children, ages 11, 10, and seven. They have only seen photos of their father in the last three years as well.

Last week, The Independent interviewed her in Brussels and she described her life with them (they live in Canada):

The situation is difficult—there is something missing in our lives. The kids definitely miss their father. They need him in simple things, but they also need him for important things. When they go to restaurants, they see other families with the father and the mother and they feel they are not in the same situation. When they are sad and crying, they ask for their father … They ask the same question every day—I’m not exaggerating—every day they ask “when is our father coming back?”

And so she fights. She is not alone, but meeting hundreds of supporters and seeing thousands of signatures probably can not keep her and her family from the dread-filled feeling that this nightmare is theirs alone for the entire 24 hours each day.

Today, June 1, is Backlash Day. If you are following this story, you are seeing Amnesty yellow online everywhere, like above. The organizers of the website RaifBadawi.org (full disclosure: two of my columns about this story have been included on the website) have organized a Facebook- and Twitter-storm to create and direct attention against Saudi censorship. They are calling for people to post photos of themselves with a red lipstick slash drawn across their naked back—as if they have been whipped—with the hashtag #backlash. So far today, I have seen dozens of these photos.


The group describes the movement as “A multi-faith, multi-ethnic #backlash on behalf of those that do not have liberty or freedom of expression.” I do not think this movement will stop just because June 2 will follow June 1. It will continue.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of several dozen Twitter and Facebook activists who are trying to keep this story alive and in the hearts and minds of those who maybe can affect a change and help free Raif and Waleed and other prisoners of conscience. Ensaf and Samar or their representatives have sent thank yous online. That was unexpected.)

* * * *
Why this story? Why am I spending the capital of my reputation on this story? Raif Badawi’s story is one about injustice, about the idea that a person can face corporal and capital punishment for possessing ideas and for writing them down and publishing them, and his story also represents one that is being seen too often, in too many places around the world.

His country is Saudi Arabia, and as a citizen of the United States, I am aware that I have no say in the legal system or traditions of another country’s bureaucracy; I can only write this column to implore my government to at least say something to one of its allies in the name of a fellow writer and the freedom of ideas. So far, officially, it has not. I can only write and publish this to add to the sound of millions demanding justice. It is not a pleasant sound, but it is a sweet one.

The humanitarian outcry and the many statements from diplomats of other countries about this story do not get the attention of the authorities in Saudi Arabia simply because there would be very little backing up those statements. We need our ally more than it needs our approval; our disapproval means little. So why make an empty statement that will be received with an empty statement? To not try, though, that is horrifying.

The complaints, official or otherwise, are considered an insult. When several governments spoke out on Raif’s behalf at the end of 2014, the response was the public flogging on January 9. When the German foreign minister addressed the issue in a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, the government issued a cold and anonymous statement: “Saudi Arabia expresses its intense surprise and dismay at what is being reported by some media about the case of citizen Raif Badawi and his sentence. Saudi Arabia at the same time emphasises that it does not accept interference in any form in its internal affairs.”

And the authorities in Saudi Arabia can point to stories in which American writers and journalists in other countries that are decrying Badawi’s treatment have been jailed or face jail time for the crime of writing, so they feel that they can tell us to stick it.

When writers blog about this story, the response from persons claiming to be from Saudi Arabia usually looks like this, a person telling the writer to stick it:

It seems to me to be a terrible bit of empty equivalency: America does wrong, so this matter is not a wrong. Yes, wrongs are committed here, Mr. Meshari. (Why his Twitter account has a picture of Ben Affleck, I do not know.)

I know that I write and complainabout thema lot. I do not face harassment for writing my opinions. I cherish this fact.

Attention must be paid to all of these cases, here in America and abroad. Attention must be paid.

* * * *
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  1. Catherine Hamrick · June 1, 2015

    Hey Mark. Thank for dropping by my blog a little while ago. More than that–thanks for another thought-provoking piece. Honest. Is that today’s word or what?

    Liked by 1 person

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