Freedom of speech is the air that any thinker breathes; it’s the fuel that ignites the fire of an intellectual’s thoughts.
Many human rights organizations believe that freedom of speech is a basic human right, and they call upon the Arab regimes to reform their policies when it comes to freedom of speech. As a human being, you have the right to express yourself. You have the right to journey wherever your mind wanders and to express the thoughts you come up with along the way. You have the right to believe, and to atone, the same way you have the right to love or to hate. You have the right to be a liberal or to be an Islamist.—Raif Badawi, “1000 Lashes Because I Say What I Think“
So far in 2015, we have seen journalists beheaded with machetes, a blogger whipped with a cane as an official judicial punishment for his writing, editorial cartoonists gunned down in their office, bloggers hacked to death in Bangladesh, more than 20 journalists detained and even convicted and jailed in Egypt, and journalists detained in America for covering the racism prevalent in every official part of our system. Not a great year.
If you believe freedom of speech is a precious commodity, “the air” we need to breathe, the most dangerous and assertive act you can perform in the name of that freedom is to keep using it, to keep at it. To keep writing.
If the Norwegian Nobel Committee believes that freedom of speech is a precious commodity, believes that those who fight for it and use it in places where it is dangerous to do so rather than in places where it is easy to do so are the people telling every human being’s story, if the Norwegian Nobel Committee respects that fight, it behooves the committee to recognize Raif Badawi’s fight with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. This is because this is a fight we all might find ourselves in someday, and even if some of us are privileged enough to not be in that fight right now, we must use our voices to support the forcibly silenced.
Raif Badawi has written things like the quote at the top, and his home nation, Saudi Arabia, arrested him and put him on trial for apostasy. His country has an official religion, and those convicted of renouncing their religion are punished. With death by beheading. Raif was not found guilty of that charge but he was found guilty of “insulting” the home religion.
Badawi is a writer who started a blog entitled “Saudi Arabian Liberals” (it was on WordPress, like this one), then was arrested in 2012 and charged with “insulting Islam” and with apostasy for his writings, was found guilty of insulting Islam, and was given the fearsome sentence of 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes. On January 9, he was whipped in public for the first time; 50 lashes were delivered. He has not been whipped in public since; he has also not been seen in public since. The international outcry has been enormous—Amnesty International has revealed that Raif Badawi’s story has received more signatures supporting his release than any other in its history. Bono has spoken about the case in U2 concerts. Saudi Arabia has been forced to break its typical silence and actually comment on his case. Those comments have been disheartening, but Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, continues her remarkable and brave fight for his freedom.
Saudi Arabia is a theocracy that has religion, one particular religion over all others, as its legal and judicial spine. A major offense in that system is “insulting” that religion.
I usually do not name the particular religion in my posts about Raif Badawi’s story because it is not the religion itself that is the issue—Islam is a major faith and it teaches love just as each religion teaches love as the highest ideal—the problem comes when a government decides to become a theocracy and then decides that a free-thinking citizen represents a threat to either those holding power or those holding religious power and that it must squash that freedom of thought. That it must punish thought itself. Every nation that has been a theocracy at any point in its history possesses this bloodshed in its past. The specific religion is not the issue, nor is religion itself, for that matter. The abuse of and executions of citizens for possessing independent thoughts and for sharing them, that is the issue.
Saudi Arabia is going through a particularly bloody period in its history right now. Most of the people its system condemns to death and then kills are “drug offenders.” Users as well as dealers. Many are mentally ill. If you are mentally ill and heard acting out, you may be arrested and found guilty of apostasy. So far in 2015, 175 people have been publicly beheaded at a rate of two a day. Not “humane punishment,” not “lethal injection.” This is beheading in a public square. That is how Saudi Arabia executes its condemned. And many of its condemned would not be considered criminals in other countries. America executes a large number of people, but not for official religious apostasy. Many of its condemned are found guilty of thinking for themselves and expressing it.
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. We will see the results of this silence.
A government’s most precious job is to protect the least of its citizens from bullies. But what happens when that government is the bully? What can outsiders do or say? What can a country allied with that bully say or do? How can we protect the vulnerable inside a bullying nation? How can we protect the vulnerable who are vulnerable because they have the brave audacity to tell the world that they live in a morally bankrupt theocracy?
We can’t. We can only celebrate their bravery and the fact they use their voice in a dark country and hope that more like them appear. 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.
Of course, when certain regimes pursue violent solutions to problems that only they perceive, sometimes it is easy for the United States to criticize. We certainly celebrated the samizdat dissidents in the USSR during the Cold War. We certainly did not hold back our shock and anger at the violently intolerant Taliban when it took Kabul in the late 1990s. Afghanistan does not sell us our oil, though. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is a dear friend and ally at our pumps.
In real life if not diplomacy, we recognize that our truest friends are those who feel secure enough in the friendship to call us out when we err. But diplomacy is not friendship.
We certainly learned that this spring when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia finally gave an official response to criticism of its sentence of flogging for Raif Badawi. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia responded to Amnesty International, Prince Charles, the German foreign minister, the Canadian foreign minister, the millions of petition creators and signers around the world, the tens of thousands who have marched in protest of a country’s policy of whipping as a punishment for writing. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia delivered a response to a young woman and mother of three whose husband has been sentenced to a caning for writing: It was insulted.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wanted us to know that it is angry about the criticism, did not like it even one bit, and wanted us all to mind our own business. In more diplomatic language, it released an anonymous (anonymous!) statement which said in part: “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.”
Last week, Ali A. Rizvi (@aliamjadrizvi) reminded us that the only nation to take its diplomatic position truly seriously was Sweden, and Saudi Arabia’s response was quite something to behold. Margot Wallström, Sweden’s Foreign Minister, “denounced the Saudis’ outrageous treatment of Raif Badawi, [and then] triggered a diplomatic firestorm when she wrote a speech for Arab leaders, calling them out on human rights abuses and their treatment of women. A day later, Sweden also revoked a decade-long weapons export agreement with Saudi Arabia, infuriating the Saudis.”
Accusing Wallström of “flagrant interference,” they blocked her speech and recalled their ambassador to Stockholm, severing diplomatic ties. They stopped issuing visas to Swedish businessmen, and refused to renew the visas of Swedes who had them. They even refused to accept four Amazonian monkeys from Sweden for a Riyadh zoo. Ultimately, Wallström was compelled to backtrack and assuage Saudi authorities, telling them her speech wasn’t meant to insult Islam, and the Swedish government wants to restore good relations with Saudi Arabia (Swedish exports to Saudi Arabia totaled $1.3 billion last year). Wallström drew a significant amount of criticism from the Swedish business community and its lawmakers for her stance. This is the cost of trying to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, even for one of the most progressive social democratic countries in the world.
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I live in a country in which 99.9% of the worst things that can be done to me for my writing fall under the label of “criticism.” Sometimes it is fair—my tone can be tone-deaf sometimes and I apologize for that—and sometimes it is unfair; I believe the term is “trolling.”
I have not yet been contacted by anyone claiming to represent official American officialdom to explain what I meant by anything I have written, said, or signed. Some of the things I support and put my energy into are not popular: I am affiliated with the New York chapter of Justice Together, a group dedicated to end police brutality in the U.S., and I am friends online with several individuals who are affiliated with different “Anonymous” operations. (I myself an a member of another sort of “Anonymous” organization, but we are not activists.)
No one is following me. No one is knocking on my door. No one is tapping my phone. I am no Raif Badawi. “Je suis Raif?” As a question, it is phrased, “Suis-je Raif?” I hope so, but no one with a title or a badge has demanded that I stop, or suggested that my writings indicate that I have the “wrong” religious beliefs and that as a result I need to be punished, or punished me. The worst thing I have been called online in response to something I wrote is a “LIBERAL.” With all capital letters. (You now, when I was a kid I wore glasses, and bullies used to call me “four-eyes,” which never made sense to me, as I certainly knew I was wearing glasses; whenever I felt strong enough to stand up to them, I used to reply, “Thanks for reminding me. I’d forgotten.”)
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 by my nation 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.
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The Nobel Peace Prize
The various Nobel Prize committees keep their deliberations secret. The names of those nominated for any of the six prizes are not officially known until 50 years after a prize recipient is announced. The deliberations and vote breakdowns are kept secret as well. We only officially know the names of those nominated for the prizes up until 1964 and not more recently because the Nobel Foundation has compiled and published a database of nominees.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has one job to perform each year and only one job: to select the winner of the Peace Prize. It has five members, each appointed by the Norwegian Parliament, and they consider the nominees and vote. The breakdowns of the votes are never revealed, although some of the debates have been transcribed and published after the 50-year moratorium has passed.
Because the public is interested, in recent years the committee has officially announced the number of nominations it has received just before announcing the winner. This year, 276 nominees were submitted to the committee, according to its website, which is two fewer than last year’s record of 278. Of the 276, there are 49 organizations were nominated and 227 individuals were. The names of those nominated are not officially known, but anyone who is a qualified nominator can announce that they have nominated an individual or organization.
Thus we know that in February Raif Badawi and his lawyer and brother-in-law Waleed Abu al-Khair were nominated by two members of the Norwegian Parliament, Snorre Valen and Karin Andersen. If there is such a thing as the “most social media way” to announce something, this may have been it: It was made public on a Change.org petition to request that the Norwegian Nobel Committee “Give the Nobel Peace Prize to Raif Badawi!” I was one of the signers.
The winner of the prize, should there be one, will be announced at 6:00 EST Friday, October 9.
The committee explains: “A nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize may be submitted by any person who meets the nomination criteria. A letter of invitation to submit is not required. The names of the nominees and other information about the nominations cannot be revealed until 50 years later.” The total number of nominators is not known from year to year, but if you meet any of the following criteria, you have until February 1 to submit a nomination for 2016:
• Members of national assemblies and governments of states;
• Members of international courts;
• University rectors; professors of social sciences, history, philosophy, law and theology; directors of peace research institutes and foreign policy institutes;
• Persons who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize;
• Board members of organizations that have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize;
• Active and former members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee; and
• Former advisers to the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
Awarding Raif (and Waleed) the Peace Prize would tell every writer in a dangerous country that they are not alone, would tell everyone who accepts the risk of physical punishment for the intellectual and spiritual act of writing, every writer who might write such dangerous words as those I quoted at the top and others like “liberalism means to simply live and let live,” every writer in a dangerous time that their words are not unread that the fight for freedom of expression matters. That the only way to fight for freedom of speech is to declare one has it and begin to use it.
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A note about Ensaf Haidar:
“The first time I spoke to him, I felt as though I had known him for a very long time,” Ensaf Haidar told the British newspaper The Telegraph in August about meeting the love of her life, her husband Raif Badawi.
With Raif in jail since 2012—for the crime of writing online essays about issues in Saudi Arabia and the world, like I do about America and the world—and sentenced last year to being flogged 1000 times (50 lashes per flogging), Ensaf has waged a campaign that has steadily grown in numbers to fight for his freedom and to raise awareness that Raif’s sentence is not a unique one. He was flogged in public once, on January 9, and every week since the floggings have been postponed but never with any announcement, with has created a virtual prison on anxiety for her and her family.
In the first long interview in English with Ensaf, she describes life inside her world: she and their three children left Saudi Arabia and thought he would be able to follow. When he was arrested again, she sought and received help from Human Rights Watch and the United Nations and she and her three children were given asylum in Canada, where they have lived for almost two years.
“All of this has taught me to be stronger and more responsible,” she says. “I know he’s coming back, really soon. But whether it’s two years or 10 years, everything stops until he comes back.”
(Full disclosure: one of my Tweets is included in the article. This is, I believe, the first time this has happened. It was very weird to be reading an article in an international newspaper about a subject I care about and see me cited in it.)
Ensaf Haidar has spent the last several years fighting along with her husband and for her husband’s freedom. She is a large part of the reason Raif’s name has become as well known as it is. Last week, she announced that she and he are starting a foundation, one that he will guide when he is free again, the Raif Badawi Foundation. (I do not know if it is necessary to point out that I am not affiliated with it but would be happy to work with/for it.)
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The Sakharov Prize
Raif Badawi is one of six nominees for the 2015 Sakharov Prize, awarded by the European Parliament. The prize announcement will come on September 28.
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The following pieces have appeared in The Gad About Town concerning Raif Badawi:
• August 18: Tortured
• June 17: Three Years in Prison for Blogging
• June 10: An Urgent Need for Action
• June 7: A Sense of Injustice
• June 1: Speak out for Those Who Can’t
• May 7: Ignite the Light
• April 3: We Want Life
• March 13: Raif Badawi and Official Cruelty
• March 6: Raif Badawi Remains a Prisoner
• February 20: 1000 Days
• February 6: #FreeRaif, Week 5
• January 31: Raif Badawi, Week 3
• January 22: An Update about Raif Badawi
• January 12: For Raif Badawi
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Last week, I recorded myself reading one essay from Raif Badawi’s book, “1000 Lashes Because I Say What I Think.” The mic on this laptop is not strong, and my voice … well, there I am holding a copy of the book. Get yourself a copy.
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.