This is the time to cherish free speech and the right to express ideas. And while you do so, spare a thought — and a prayer, if so inclined — for Raif Badawi.
The 31-year-old writer has been locked up in a Saudi Arabian prison since 2012 because he dared to create a blog and question the role of religion in state affairs.
Last Friday, he was transported by bus to a public square in the port city of Jeddah and flogged 50 times before hundreds of spectators, who reportedly chanted “Allah-hu Akbar,” while the beating went on.
Badawi’s sentence calls for him to spend 10 years in prison and receive 1,000 lashes, which his captors apparently intend to administer in weekly 50-lash intervals after Friday prayers. It may kill him.
“Raif told me he is in a lot of pain after his flogging, his health is poor,” Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, told Amnesty International from Canada, where she has taken refuge with the couple’s three children.
Ian Black, Middle East editor for The Guardian newspaper, has excerpted the English translation of some of Badawi’s writings. A common thread is Badawi’s belief that governments should be secular, and not beholden to religious authorities.
“States based on religious ideology ... have nothing except the fear of God and an inability to face up to life,” he wrote in 2010. “Look at what had happened after the European peoples succeeded in removing the clergy from public life and restricting them to their churches. They built up human beings and (promoted) enlightenment, creativity and rebellion. States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.”
This could qualify in many parts of the globe as college essay material. But Saudi Arabia, as much as any nation on earth, is a state based on religion. Badawi’s thoughtful writings, which included support for the Arab Spring movements in Egypt and other places, were deemed by a court to be cybercrime and an insult to Islam.
In a show of breathtaking hypocrisy, Saudi Arabia’s government allowed the flogging of Badawi right around the time it issued a statement denouncing the murders of 12 people in and around the Charlie Hebdo newspaper offices in Paris. While condemning an act of terror aimed at stifling free speech, Saudi Arabia is killing one of its own citizens for the crime of expression — just more slowly than the Paris extremists.
What’s more, Saudi Arabia is currently a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, responsible, as the council’s website says, for “the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.”
How can the council or the UN expect anyone to take that seriously? Flogging is prohibited under international human rights law. The U.N. should censure Saudi Arabia for its treatment of Badawi.
And where is the international community? The United States, along with Britain and some other nations, has condemned Badawi’s sentence and the beatings. The State Department issued a brief statement last Thursday calling on Saudi Arabia to “cancel this brutal punishment.” He was flogged the next day.
Surely, the world’s powers can muster more outrage and diplomatic pressure on Badawi’s behalf. How about an international commission to expose Saudi Arabia’s many human rights violations, as the Washington Post suggests in an editorial?
Ordinary people around the world seem more exercised. They have held vigils outside of Saudi embassies in Washington and cities in Europe and Tunisia. If nothing else, the support is a source of strength to Badawi’s family.
In a blog post in May 2012, Badawi quoted the French author and philosopher Albert Camus: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Soon after, police took Badawi away. It is now up to others to speak up for him.