Winner of the Sakharov Prize: Raif Badawi

Raif Badawi was named the winner of the 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought this morning. Today is his 1253rd day spent in jail for being a writer. He is the first winner from Saudi Arabia.

The prize carries with it an award of €50,000 but no guarantees of personal safety; the 2011 winner, Razan Zaitouneh, a Syrian human rights lawyer, was kidnapped in 2013 and her whereabouts remain unknown. A high-placed source informed Ensaf Haidar, Raif’s wife, two days ago that an official go-ahead was delivered this week to resume caning him, possibly as soon as tomorrow. Saudi officials certainly knew that Raif Badawi was one of three finalists for this prestigious international award and they certainly are aware that he is this year’s laureate.

The European Parliament’s President, Martin Schulz, made certain to include concerns about Raif’s personal safety in his announcement today:

Below is the moment Martin Schulz announced the winner; the crowd of parliamentarians spontaneously stood to applaud when Raif’s name was spoken:

Raif Badawi started a blog (on WordPress, the same host as this site) called “Saudi Arabian Liberals,” and both he and his lawyer, Waleed Albukhair, have bravely faced Saudi Arabia’s tangled Kafka-esque nightmare of a legal system for several years; both are in prison to this day. Saudi Arabia is a country in which the freedom of thought does not exist. Raif was convicted of “insulting” in his writings his nation’s official religion, Islam, which carries with it a heavy penalty: an exorbitant monetary fine, 10 years in prison, and 1000 lashes with a cane.

It is that last portion of the penalty, the fact that he was to be whipped for writing, for expressing his thoughts—thoughts about how his country needs to experience secularism if it is to grow and develop—that attracted international attention; on January 9, when he in fact was whipped in a public square, the hearts of free-thinking individuals around the world broke. (I came relatively late to this story: my first published thoughts about it appeared on January 8 and my first post on this web site came on January 12.)

The Sakharov Prize was created by the European Parliament in 1988 to grant official, political recognition on behalf of those fighting in the name of human rights around the globe. The Parliament’s declared intent with the Prize is recognize “individuals who have made an exceptional contribution to the fight for human rights across the globe, drawing attention to human rights violations as well as supporting the laureates and their cause.” An imprisonment and a caning is certainly an “exceptional contribution.”

Audacity is not quiet, but Raif Badawi’s essays are quietly audacious. His stand against theism and against the bigotry that of necessity supports theism offends no one who knows that all individuals are free to believe (and to not believe) as they will, but that that particular freedom demands that no one, that no state, may dictate what transpires in another man’s head or heart.

In “Yes! I Will Fight Theists and Religious Thoughts,” Badawi recounts a moment in which a friend asks him how he will react when Hamas “liberates Palestine.” Badawi shocks his friend when he tells him, “I’d be the first to stand and fight Hamas.” He explains to us that although he is against Israel, he is “against replacing Israel with a religious entity built upon its ruins.” He goes on:

Any religion-based state has a mission to limit the minds of its people, to fight the developments of history and logic, and to dumb down its citizens. It’s important to stand in the way of such a mentality, to deny it from continuing its mission to murder the souls of its people, killing them deep within while they are still alive and breathing. …
Look what happened after the European nations managed to remove those clergy from public life and limit them to their churches, denying them any role outside those walls. European countries developed into nations buzzing with civilization, active in building the rights of the individual and exporting knowledge and science to the rest of humanity. …
States that are built on a religious foundation limit their own people in a circle of faith and fear. Abdullah al-Qasemi, the chief proponent of logical thinking in the Arab world [and whose works are banned in Saudi Arabia], agrees that other states celebrate the pleasures of brilliance, creativity, civilization, and life that are forbidden us.

Badawi does not report how his friend reacted to this; it strikes me that there are office-holding and office-pursuing individuals in the United States of America right now who sound like those whom Raif Badawi is writing against.

I made a poster months ago to remind myself that Raif is not a symbol; he is a human, a man, a writer, a blogger who wrote his opinions and published them yet lives in a nation in which writing opinions can be viewed as a crime. Yet his writing is peaceful, calm; he is the least inflammatory blogger in the world, but in this world of flames, that is the most revolutionary thing he could be. This is why his book, 1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think, is worth reading. This is the poster:
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The following pieces have appeared in The Gad About Town concerning Raif Badawi:

 September 14: Award Raif Badawi the Nobel Peace Prize
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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