Raif Badawi and the Nobel Peace Prize

Raif Badawi remains in prison. Raif Badawi still awaits 950 lashes with a whip. Raif Badawi still has several years left on his long prison sentence. All for writing …

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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

The name of the winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced at 11:00 a.m. on Friday, October 7. That is 11:00 a.m. in Oslo, Norway, which is 5:00 a.m. EST.

Raif Badawi is considered a mid-range long-shot for receiving the prize this year, even after receiving 2015’s Sakharov Prize. Perhaps he is last year’s human rights story; he may no longer rank as the most pressing case of a human rights violation in his own nation of Saudi Arabia this year: Ali Mohammed al-Nimr and his two compatriots, teenagers sentenced to die for participating in a protest, still await execution and post-mortem crucifixion and have attracted international attention and fears about their fates. (Ali’s uncle, Sheikh Nimr, was executed on January 2, 2016, along with 46 others. Saudi Arabia has executed by beheading more than 100 individuals since January 1, 2016, a record pace for that nation.)

But Raif Badawi remains in prison. Raif Badawi still awaits 950 more lashes with a cane. Raif Badawi still has several years left on his long prison sentence. All for writing sentences like the one I ran at the top. For declaring in his writings that since he has the right to freedom of speech he will insist on pursuing that right for himself, he was sentenced to 1000 lashes and ten years in prison.

If his name is spoken on Friday morning in Oslo, this will not mean the fight has been won for Raif Badawi, his wife and family, or his many supporters around the world, as he still is in prison and most likely will not be allowed to leave his prison cell or his country to collect the medallion. He was not allowed to collect the Sakharov Prize (My article: “Badawi’s Absence Is a Presence at Prize Ceremony.”)

The poetic moment in which the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Raif Badawi, arrives to collect the prize and speak out for human rights and the freedom of speech is one that many people have scripted for themselves in their hopes and in their hearts. It will not take place even if he wins. 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 these last two years. The eyes of the world are watching every movement Saudi Arabia makes in this story … and even more importantly, many other human rights stories.

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.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has one job to perform each year and only one job: to select the winner of the Peace Prize. It does not select the winners of the other Nobel prizes. 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.

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 2017:

• 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.

Because the public and many historians have been interested, in recent years the committee has officially announced the number of nominations it has received just before announcing the winner. This year, a record number were nominated: 376, which shattered 2014’s record of 278 nominations.

According to the prize committee, 148 organizations were nominated and 228 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. (Republican nominee for U.S. President Donald Trump has been confirmed to be one nominee. His nominator confirmed it.)

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.

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, 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.”

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.

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.

* * * *
Last winter, I recorded myself reading one essay from Raif Badawi’s book, 1000 Lashes Because I Say What I Think. It is the entire chapter, “Is Liberalism Against Religion?” Get yourself a copy of the book. I have intentions to record myself reading more of his essays, if that appeals to readerrs.


* * * *
Over the last twenty months I have published a few dozen articles about Raif Badawi, his wife, and Saudi Arabia. “Secularism is the solution,” a graffito that Raif Badawi said he saw in a prison lavatory, is the guiding thesis inside each of my articles. This website is the only one to have had insiders report on conditions in Raif Badawi’s prison. This list corrects errors I created in earlier presentations of this list:

 June 16, 2016: A Wife’s Lonely Fight for Her Husband
 May 12, 2016: Secularism Is the Solution
 April 17, 2016: Inside Raif Badawi’s Prison Cell
 April 11, 2016: A New Prize for Raif Badawi
 March 25, 2016: #ReadRaif: Now More than Ever
 January 26, 2016: Raif Badawi’s Hunger Strike
 January 9, 2016: One Year After He Was Flogged, Raif Badawi Remains a Prisoner
 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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