One year ago today, a young writer was publicly whipped by his government for his writings. His words “insulted” his nation’s official religion, his government decreed. The worst part, of course, was that he published his words and that others in his nation read those words and even shared his opinions.
Today is the 1325th day he has spent in prison. After he was arrested, after a long trial, he was found guilty of having ideas that his country does not favor, even finds to be a threat. The authorities declared that his website “propagates liberal thought,” and the search for a punishment that it deemed proper took over a year to calculate. He spent that year in prison.
Raif Badawi’s writings include statements like this: “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear,” so the Saudi Arabian judicial system decided to live up to that observation.
The punishment for propagating ideas that Saudi Arabia finds liberal is spine-chilling: a public flogging, an exorbitant fine, many years in jail. The punishment levied at those the state declares outside the official faith is extraordinary: a public beheading. Raif Badawi faced a trial on that charge, faced a trial at the end of which he might have been beheaded. He was exonerated of that particular charge.
Specifics such as number of hits with a cane, the duration of the imprisonment, or even the financial penalty are determined by a cruel calculus that only the judges seem to know how to unlock. It took several decisions to settle on Raif Badawi’s specific punishment, which wound up as a one million riyal fine (equal to $266,663 as of today), 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes with a cane in a public square. Since January 9, 2015, the caning portion of his sentence has not been resumed; at first it was reported that this was because his injuries had not healed, then a sick weekly started, in which his family awaited word each Friday to learn if he had been among those publicly whipped or not.
Today is no more or less special in this nightmarish story; it is one more check mark on a calendar, one more anniversary. There will be another one next week: his 32nd birthday, the fourth one he has spent in prison.
Last month, his wife, Ensaf Haidar, accepted the 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, for him. The international movement on his behalf, sparked by a young wife’s determination to make the world know her imprisoned husband’s name, led Amnesty International to declare months ago that it has received more signatures for petitions demanding his release than any other in its long and remarkable history. As far as I am concerned, Ensaf Haidar should be on every publication’s list of Most Heroic People of 2015. Badawi’s absence was itself a presence at the ceremony.
He remains today in Dhaban Central Prison, where he was moved in December, as I reported here at the time.
Since that move, rumors about his condition have circulated and it has been difficult to separate rumors from facts, since those two so often resemble one another. I trust my sources and I share what I have when I have it double-sourced. Raif has been in one prison since December, and in November, the Swiss Foreign Minister, Yves Rossier, reported that “a royal pardon is in the works thanks to the head of state, King Salman.” If this is in fact what is happening behind the scenes, for the Saudi judicial system it will be necessary for logic’s sake, as only a royal pardon can contravene a decision that was announced in June to uphold Badawi’s sentence of 10 years and 1000 lashes. After that decision, the only legal means available to release him has been (and is) a royal pardon.
I wrote last month, “The poetic moment in which the winner of the Sakharov Prize, Raif Badawi, arrives to collect the prize and speak out for human rights and freedom of speech is one that many people have scripted for themselves in their hopes and hearts. It will not take place. If, and this is a large if, a pardon from King Salman is in fact to be granted to Raif Badawi, it will come after that prize ceremony—after the attention to Raif Badawi’s absence at the ceremony has passed. This is what many sources in the Free Raif Badawi movement have spoken of to me. The eyes of the world are watching every movement Saudi Arabia makes in this story … and even more importantly, many other human rights stories.”
The international outcry from common citizens and political leaders alike, the vast attention from the human rights community about this story—a belief in freedom of thought and expression, a revulsion to corporal or even capital punishment for writing—appeared to put the Saudi justice system in a bind: to resume the caning would be a nose-thumbing at the international community. But to free him without anything less than a royal pardon would call into question the authority of the Saudi justice system in that nation’s own domestic politics.
The Badawi case led, I believe, to international attention on Saudi Arabia’s anti-freedom, anti-human rights, record and to consternation about the pre-medieval judicial system of its particular form of Sharia law, in which thoughts can be deemed worthy of beheading. Other cases that may not have attracted as much international attention have joined Raif Badawi’s name in the headlines. At the European Parliament ceremony last month, some of those other names were brought up by Martin Schulz, the President of the Parliament: specifically, Waleed Abu Al-Khair, Abdulkarim Al-Khodr, Ashraf Fayadh and Ali Mohammed Al-Nimr.
Waleed Abu Al-Khair is Raif Badawi’s lawyer and his brother-in-law. He has been in jail for years (he was arrested while arguing in court), and he has begun to accumulate more and more noteworthy human rights prizes himself; he won last year’s Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize and his lawyer spoke at the prize ceremony. (Raif’s sister, Samar Badawi, is Waleed’s wife, and she is as much a human rights powerhouse as her sister-in-law Ensaf: she still resides in Saudi Arabia, where she participated in the 2011 campaign to allow women to drive in that country. Saudi Arabia has refused to allow her to leave the country.)
Ali Mohammed Al-Nimr is one of several young Saudis who were arrested at protests, found guilty of crimes that include terrorism, and sentenced to die by beheading and have their bodies crucified. Rumors and reports have regularly emerged that the executions had been approved, then pardons discussed. As many of you know, Ali’s uncle, Sheikh Nimr, was beheaded on January 1, 2016, and, I learned today, his family is being denied his remains for burial.
Each of these individuals languishes in prison and awaits the day he learns the time, place, and manner of his fate. A split in the Saudi judicial system’s personality seems to be coming clear, from an outsider’s perspective, as it negotiates for itself a way between an unreasoning hard-line, anti-humanitarian, stance and joining the international community. One of those paths appears to be the easier one to take for the hard-liners, and the other appears to be the easier one to take. Neither side has King Salman’s undivided attention.
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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.
Raif Badawi 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 an important document in our times.
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Saudi Arabia is a theocracy that has religion, one particular religion over all others, serving as its legal and judicial spine. A major offense in that system is “insulting” that religion.
I do not name the particular religion in my posts about this story because it is not the religion itself that is the issue—Islam is a major faith and it teaches love 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. That it must shed the blood of thinkers.
Every nation that has been a theocracy at any point in its history possesses this bloodshed in its past. Every one. Thus, the specific religion that is at the heart of this particular story is not the issue, nor is religion itself, for that matter. The abuse of and executions of citizens by the state for possessing independent thoughts and for sharing them, that is the issue. As Raif Badawi put it, and I will again quote: “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.”
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The following pieces have appeared in The Gad About Town concerning Raif Badawi:
• December 16: Badawi’s Absence Is a Presence at Prize Ceremony
• December 11: A Cloud of Uncertainty
• October 29: Winner of the Sakharov Prize
• 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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