On January 9, Raif Badawi, a young Saudi man who is a self-declared “liberal,” was brought in front of a mosque in Jeddah and lashed 50 times with a cane. This is only the first part of the excruciating sentence he received: 1,000 lashes altogether and 10 years in prison. His crime? Using the Internet to try and dispel the widespread myth in the Arab world that liberalism leads to vice and to degenerate behavior.
His is a case that should bother those in the Jewish community who care about freedom of expression and belief and who worry about how it is being extinguished by extreme forms of Islam.
Badawi is married and is a father to three young children. In 2008 he boldly started a blog and website called Free Saudi Liberals. According to his wife, Ensaf Haidar, it was an intellectual project for him, an avenue of communication for those in the region who held liberal views. He felt stifled in Saudi Arabia and wanted to be free to explore new ideas in a climate where doing so meant ostracism, arrest or worse.
He knew that what he was doing was dangerous, and he was very careful in how his thoughts were worded. He never insulted the monarchy and he did not commit blasphemy against Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. He did, however, speak of secularism, respecting others’ faiths and ideas, and of the need for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other theocratic authoritarian countries to evolve lest they lose their brightest thinkers to emigration.
He immediately started receiving death threats, which increased after extremist Saudi cleric Abdul Rahman al-Barrak issued a fatwa against Badawi, declaring him an infidel and an apostate of Islam, a capital crime in Saudi Arabia. At the end of 2008, a travel ban was issued against Badawi on his return to Saudi Arabia from the United Kingdom.
Knowing what he was getting himself into, Badawi did not flinch; he continued with his online activities. He did, however, make sure his wife and children left the country. They first went to Lebanon, but when authorities there threatened his wife, she and the children were able to flee to Canada, where they have been accepted as permanent residents.
Badawi was finally arrested on June 17, 2012. His blog was shut down, and a year later he was convicted of the following charges: insulting Islam, founding a liberal website, adopting liberal thoughts, insulting religious symbols and criticizing calls from officials for gender segregation in the advisory body to the monarchy. He was sentenced to seven years and three months in prison and to 600 lashes.
His case was appealed, and the court of appeals overturned his convictions and sentence, but it also ordered a review. In December 2013, a judge not only ordered the case returned to the criminal court, but also suggested that a charge of apostasy be added. Upon review, the criminal court upheld the initial convictions and increased his sentence to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, a fine of $266,631 and a 10-year travel ban on his release from prison. The appellate court confirmed his sentence in September 2014, and Badawi’s internment began.
He has received the first 50 of the 1,000 lashes, from which his wounds have still not healed. In a unique demonstration of humanity, the Saudi government has temporarily abstained from administering the remaining 950 lashes (at 50 per week), due to this serious deterioration in Badawi’s health. According to his wife, Badawi lives in fetid conditions, is malnourished and has developed diabetes. To add insult to injury, his attorney, Waleed Sami Abu Al-Khair, has now also been imprisoned, because of his activism for human rights.
Why is Badawi’s plight important to the Jewish community? In today’s climate, we have seen a sharp increase in anti-Semitism and in violence perpetrated against Jews because of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, Muslims have been the perpetrators of many of these attacks on Jews. There is a deeply intolerant strain of Islam that Badawi himself has railed against again and again. Here he is in 2010 criticizing what he saw as the hypocrisy of Muslim calls for religious tolerance: “We should not hide the fact that Muslims in Saudi Arabia not only disrespect the beliefs of others, but also charge them with infidelity to the extent that they consider anyone who is not Muslim an infidel, and, within their own narrow definitions, they consider non-Hanbali [the Saudi school of Islam] Muslims as apostates. How can we be such people and build… normal relations with 6 billion humans, four and a half billion of whom do not believe in Islam?”
As Jews, we are Raif Badawi. We are also victims of extremist Muslims who perpetrate violence in the name of their version of Islam. When people like Badawi are safe to speak openly about the virtues of liberalism, secularism and science above superstition, we are all safer as a result. Badawi’s unfettered voice equals our security. When the Raif Badawis of the world can speak freely, opinions start to change, tolerance becomes the rule instead of the exception and people start embracing each other’s differences by focusing instead on how much we share in common.
Debbie Hall is a writer and activist from Charleston, South Carolina.