Bravery is a skill. I do not know if I have cultivated it in myself. Bravery is, of course, not what one does in the absence of fear but what one can do—what one actually does—when fear is present.
[A comment: Today is December 21, 2016. I wrote the first draft of this column almost a year ago. Sadly, the only update to offer today is this one: All the parties described below are, simply, even more brave than they were several months ago. Ali remains in prison. His father posts updates each week and sometimes more frequently on social media. We learned this summer that he earned a university degree while in prison. Dawood al-Marhoon and Abed allahhassan al-Zaher also remain in prison. Raif Badawi remains in prison. He is starting to learn of the global movement that has grown around the fight to free him. Back to the column from October 2015:]
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A young man sits today in a prison, awaiting a death sentence to be carried out. Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 when he was 16 or 17 years of age (both ages have been reported), making him a juvenile at the time of his arrest. He was arrested at a peaceful protest. His country is Saudi Arabia, and the protests in 2012 in other autocratic nations in that region had been effective in fostering dissent. No government likes dissent. No government cherishes protest; his government is violently allergic to both.
At trial, Ali was not given access to the “evidence” amassed against him, in no small part because there was no such evidence. A “confession” was extracted from him. He was convicted, and this is no joke, he was convicted of stealing every gun and every uniform from a local police station, single-handed.
He was convicted and sentenced to death. Without informing him, an appeals court reviewed his case last summer, and that court upheld his guilty verdict and death sentence. He and his family did not know about this until it was announced. He never mounted a defense. His country announced in October 2015 that this is an internal matter. (It is not solely an internal matter, as his nation’s actions and threats of action contravene international agreements concerning human rights that it has signed, as well as simple decency.)
Ali is to be beheaded, and then his body is to be crucified and displayed to show the world what official cruelty looks like. Of course, one doubts the crucifixion will be publicized, as even Saudi Arabia knows such a punishment is uncommon in the rest of the civilized world. But the display will communicate what a bloodthirsty, autocratic regime wants it to communicate … and to whom it wants it to communicate: future protesters.
His father spoke with the media last fall, after he saw his son in prison, and something he reported has stuck with me: “We were only allowed to see Ali for ten minutes,” Mohamed told US Uncut. “When his mother tried to tell him about the news that the execution order has been issued by the government he interrupted her and told her that he already knew. He told us he had accepted this news with a smile on his face and tried to comfort his parents. Ali turned to me and said, ‘Father, I’m not the only person in the world who has suffered injustice and been falsely prosecuted.’ I was shocked by his response. How could a 20-year-old boy talk like this? It’s unbelievable. To be so unconcerned with his own situation, but be thinking only for others who are suffering … Ali is a beautiful human being.”
“I’m not the only person in the world who has suffered injustice and been falsely prosecuted.”
A lot of people are working around the clock to stop this execution. The world needs Ali alive, the world needs Ali alive and free, judging from what his father reports that he said. It simply needs more people like that alive. Ali Mohammed al-Nimr ought to be another anonymous 20-something studying at university and losing hours to his Xbox. He is brave.
Saudi Arabia is going through a particularly bloody period in its domestic history right now. Most of the people its system condemns to death and then kills are “drug offenders.” Users as well as dealers. Many of the condemned are mentally ill. If you are mentally ill and you are heard acting out, you may be arrested and found guilty of apostasy. So far in 2016, almost 100 people have been publicly beheaded by that nation.. Not “humane punishment,” not “lethal injection.” Beheading in a public square by someone hired to wield a sword. That is how Saudi Arabia executes its condemned. And many of its condemned would not be considered criminals in other countries. America certainly executes a large number of people, but not for apostasy, not for opposing our “official religion,” since we do not have one. Many of Saudi Arabia’s condemned are found guilty of simply thinking for themselves and expressing it.
A government’s most precious job is to protect the least of its citizens from bullies, be they bureaucrats, misguided laws, or foreign powers. But what happens when the government itself, our ally’s 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. The USSR was our enemy, after all. 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, especially at our gas pumps.
In real life if not diplomacy, we recognize that our truest friends are those who feel that our friendship is secure enough that they can call us out when we err. But diplomacy is not friendship.
Bravery is rare. The governments of Saudi Arabia’s allies are not displaying it.
Ensaf Haidar is brave. One evening last September, on a rare night when the sunset and moonrise coincided in a way that made poets rethink their metaphors, she reached for the moon to give it to her love, Raif Badawi. I attempted to do the same for my own true love, Jen, but she and I were sitting together in her car, so it was easy for me. I talked and I talked and I tried to bring the Moon closer for her. Raif is many miles away from Ensaf and in prison, though. Like Ali, he is in Saudi Arabia, and Ensaf resides with their three children in Canada. She posted this simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking photo:
— Ensaf haidar (@miss9afi) September 27, 2015
Raif Badawi is a writer, and part of his sentence is to be flogged for his words. On January 9, 2015, he was flogged 50 times, and every week since, he has not been flogged. Saudi Arabia’s officials have not given a reason for the absence of punishment since that fateful day. This is not leniency being shown; for more than a year, each week brings with it the anticipation that this week is the one in which the floggings will resume.
He created a website entitled “Saudi Arabian Liberals” (it was here on WordPress) and wrote things in favor of the protests of long-ago 2012. He wrote things like, “Liberalism is based on knowledge and appreciation of a free and good life for all, and this view goes in harmony with religion: both always call for good, love, and peace.” Most (not all) of the people who ran for President of the United States this year would have happily delivered that sentence in a speech.
Raif is brave. He took a flogging for his words. (In August, Raymond Johansen demonstrated in London just what it means to be caned.)
All I do is sit here and type and direct some attention towards things that seem to me to be a couple of the world’s injustices (not all of them, not at all all of them), at some of the wrongs that are out there. There are injustices here in America, too.
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 indeed can be tone-deaf sometimes, and I have apologized for that—and sometimes it is unfair; I believe the social media 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.
No one is following me. No one is knocking on my door. No one is tapping my phone. I am no Raif Badawi. 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.
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 and lawyer Waleed Abulkhair, or Waleed’s wife (and Raif’s sister) Samar Badawi display every damn day that Raif spends in jail and Waleed spends in jail.
Raif and Waleed are in jail; their wives work every day to keep their names in the public square.
I haven’t been flogged. The worst that can happen to me is criticism. Every so often a Twitter account purporting to be someone in Saudi Arabia trolls me and attempts to criticize:
— @raadaljanoob (@raadaljanoob) October 8, 2015
I am such a co-dependent personality that I hate all criticism directed at me at all times from anyone every time. It is difficult for me to be addressed with insults, even ones that do not make sense. But it’s no flogging.
In 2015 and the first half of 2016, 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 almost every official part of our system. This is not a great moment in history.
It has been a depressing year, because equal rights—human rights—have been under attack here in the United States of America and in many countries around the world. But it is a hopeful year because human rights defenders are emerging, no more than in any previous year, but thanks to social media, we know their names. We know who the humanitarians are who are working tirelessly against injustice, both corporate and governmental. We know who the opponents of human rights are, too.
And then, every so often, a woman grabs the moon for her jailed husband or a kid says, “I’m not the only person in the world who has suffered injustice and been falsely prosecuted,” and, in those moments, evil is not exactly defeated, but we are re-taught that it does not win.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for July 11 asks us to reflect on the word, “Cowardice.”
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