By Devika Mittal
15 June, 2015
On 17 June 2012, a Saudi Arabian Blogger Raif Badawi was arrested under the charge of “insulting Islam”. Raif Badawi had created “Free Saudi Liberals”, a website which encouraged debates on religious and political issues in 2008. The website promoted the idea of secularism and criticized religious extremism. He was charged of insulting Islam through this website.
The Saudi Supreme Court held him guilty and pronounced a sentence of 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes (50 lashes on every Friday) and a fine of 1 million riyals. After he serves a decade in jail, he is also forbidden to travel for the following decade and from participating in the media.
He had been previously charged for “apostasy” in 2008 as well but was released after questioning. “Apostasy” which means renunciation of one’s religion is chargeable with death sentence in Saudi Arabia. In 2012, the prosecutors wanted to charge him under apostasy as well but in 2013, he was cleared for it. According to sources, he may face the charge of apostasy again.
Raif Badawi is undergoing the punishment for the charge of “insulting Islam”. He is imprisoned. He had received the first 50 lashes in January. But since his wounds remain unhealed, the punishment has not been repeated.
Badawi has support from the international community. He receives support from the United Nations, United States, the European Union, Canada and several other countries. Human Rights Activists and Organisations around the globe have expressed their support with him. In January 2015, the United Nations had issued a last-minute appeal to Saudi Arabia to stop the scheduled second round of flogging for the activist. They had also appealed the Saudi Government to review this type of penalty. However, the Government remains unmoved. While the punishment is being delayed, there is no news of any relief. Infact, the Saudi officials have asked the international community not to “interfere” in the ‘internal’ matters of the country.
Badawi’s case is or should be for everyone who speaks and respects “Freedom of Speech”, “Secularism” and “Justice”. Here’s why we all should support him and demand his immediate release:
Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression
Freedom of Speech and Expression is one of the most important rights given to an individual. It is one of the important rights given in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the article 19 of which states,
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
It applies to all member countries of United Nations. Since Saudi Arabia is a member country, it is applicable for it as well. Going by this, Raif did nothing wrong. He has the right to freely express himself and to have an opinion. As the right mentions, he also had the right to seek information, learn from other sources regardless of the frontiers and this is what he had done. No Government should try to define the boundaries of knowledge.
Badawi has the right to think and decide for himself. He has the right to form his own opinion, choose what he may believe in. His website conducted debates on different issues. It cannot be regarded to be illegal and unacceptable. What is unacceptable is the behavior of the Saudi Government to restrict knowledge. Controlling freedom of speech, dissent is a mark of autocratic and barbaric states, not modern nation-states.
There is a Difference Between “Insult” And Being “Critical”
Badawi has been accused of “insulting Islam” but how has he done so? There are no concrete evidences available to prove that he had “insulted” Islam. There is a difference between insulting and being critical and the latter cannot be regarded to be illegal or objectionable. Everyone has the right to be critical. It is important to understand and know what exactly had Badawi said that is considered to be against Islam. What was objectionable? Was his way of holding a debate over religious practices objectionable? If yes, then this very thinking is against Islam. Islam was born out of questionings, as a response to the contemporary sociopolitical situation. Islam is rational in its essence. Every practice that Prophet Mohammad had ascribed was given with reasons which were clearly specified. This method meant that he wanted that people should know why a certain practice has been prescribed. The underlying motive seems to be to challenge blind acceptance and to promote thinking and rationality. Thus, debates cannot be considered to be un-Islamic. Debates to think about the religious practice, to explore the true essence of islam cannot become unacceptable. A true Muslim who knows about the life and teachings of Prophet Mohammad will know it.
Prophet Mohammad laid down several practices and they all responded to the specific conditions at that time. The overarching ideology was to promote peace and justice. Even if Badawi may have challenged some of the practices, he did so by being under the ideological paradigms of Islam. So he could not have “insulted” Islam. He may have been critical which is allowed not only by the Universal Right to Freedom of Opinion but by Islam itself.
His Writings Targeted Extremism, Not Islam
As about the claims, it is again important to re-iterate the fact that no concrete evidences are available to show how he had “insulted Islam”. His website was shut down. What remains are some of his writings that have appeared in other websites. What emerges from his writings are his rejection of extremism of all sorts. He had not insulted islam, he had insulted extremism, blind following which as stated earlier, is antithesis to the spirit of Islam. Here are some extracts from his writings:
On the Israel-Palestine issue, Badawi wrote, “I’m not in support of the Israeli occupation of any Arab country, but at the same time I do not want to replace Israel by a religious state ... whose main concern would be spreading the culture of death and ignorance among its people when we need modernisation and hope. States based on religious ideology ... have nothing except the fear of God and an inability to face up to life. 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” (Source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/14/-sp-saudi-blogger-extracts-raif-badawi)
In another account, Badawi wrote on an incident in which an astronomer was punished on the grounds of being critical of sharia beliefs,
“I advise NASA to abandon its telescopes and, instead, turn to our Sharia astronomers, whose keen vision and insight surpass the agency’s obsolete telescopes. Indeed, I advise all other scholars the world over, of whatever discipline, to abandon their studies, laboratories, research centres, places of experimentation, universities, institutes etc. and head at once to the study groups of our magnificent preachers to learn from them all about modern medicine, engineering, chemistry, microbiology, geology, nuclear physics, the science of the atom, marine sciences, the science of explosives, pharmacology, anthropology etc. – alongside astronomy, of course. God bless them! They have shown themselves to be the final authority with the decisive word in everything, which all mankind must accept, submit to and obey without hesitation or discussion.” (Source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/14/-sp-saudi-blogger-extracts-raif-badawi)
hrough his writings, Badawi had criticized persecution of other religions in Saudi Arabia and the conservatism of Saudi Clerics, their attitude towards secularism.
This is not to argue that all his writings were unproblematic but what is true is that his larger ideas were right. There were no false claims. A glance at the Saudi Arab’s human rights record can testify it.
More importantly even if his ideas were problematic, his writings were one-sided or biased, the fact is that they were only articles. They were also not provocative. He also did not have the same authority as Saudi clerics did. Unlike them, he could not issue any fatwas to impose his view.
Death Sentence for ‘Apostasy’ is Barbaric
The Saudi authorities are trying to charge Badawi for apostasy for which he can be granted death sentence. Badawi would not be the first to be the victim for apostasy. Saudi Arabia has a terrible record of executing people. As reported by Amnesty, Saudi Arabia ranks among the top five executioners in the world. In 2014, 90 people were executed. So far in this year, 54 people have been reportedly executed in the first three months of 2015. (Source: https://www.amnesty.org/en/articles/blogs/2015/04/the-ultimate-punishment-saudi-arabia-ramps-up-beheadings-in-the-kingdom/ ) Apostasy is one of the top charges for execution. Apostasy means the renunciation of one’s faith and conversion to another.
Simply put, it is a barbaric practice. Everyone has the right to think and decide for oneself. Secondly, it again cannot be a rule that may have been given by Prophet Mohammad. The rationalist that he was, he would not have forced people to follow his teachings. He wanted people to follow his teachings by understanding them, their importance. Prophet Mohammad was also not opposed to people of other religions. His teachings did mark a deviation from them but he had not permitted the use of violence against them.
Killing people over their religious beliefs is un-Islamic and inhuman. More importantly, if one is truly religious, one will know that religion is a sacred thing. All religions teach the same thing. They teach love, justice and humanity. Only a person who is not familiar with his/her religion will fight over it. Religion is not an identity, it is a belief. If someone does not believe in or follow the religious practices, how does it matter if he/she is a follower or not?
A last point is that by giving death sentence or lashes as punishment, will the glory of Islam be established? Will people who do not believe or respect Islam start respecting it? There are better and more civil ways to tell people that what they are thinking is wrong. Violence is never the solution.
Badawi Punished For Opposing Saudi Arab Authority, Not Islam
Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human rights’ record. The Saudi Arab authorities severely restrict freedom of expression, impose censorship, have discriminating laws against women and non-muslims, have detained and sentenced without trial, many Government critics and political activists. Badawi had written about this at length. He had particularly criticized the government for suppressing dissent. There is a possibility that Saudi Arabian authorities have suppressed Badawi not for his views held to be against Islam but against itself. The lack of concrete evidence as well as the writings of Badawi hint at it.
Badawi’s case, thus, needs to be seen in a more complex way and should be supported by anyone who supports Freedom of Speech, Secularism and understands Islam. While Badawi’s case is not the first case, there is a chance to make it the last one or move towards a better tomorrow.
Amnesty International’s Annual Report: Saudi Arabia 2013 http://www.amnestyusa.org/research/reports/annual-report-saudi-arabia-2013
“A look at the writings of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – sentenced to 1,000 lashes” by Ian Black published in The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/14/-sp-saudi-blogger-extracts-raif-badawi
“What Blogger Raif Badawi’s new book reveals about Saudi Arabia” published in Deutsche Welle (DW) http://www.dw.de/what-blogger-raif-badawis-new-book-reveals-about-saudi-arabia/a-18353234
“Why Saudi Arabia is so afraid of Raif Badawi” by Sara Yasin published in Los Angeles Daily News http://www.dailynews.com/general-news/20150119/why-saudi-arabia-is-so-afraid-of-raif-badawi
Devika Mittal, Ph.D student of Sociology at Delhi School of Economics; Core member of Mission Bhartiyam; Convenor(India) of Aaghaz-e-Dosti