Why it is important to stand up for Raif Badawi

Every day in the war zones there are hundreds of people dying. Many others each day are tortured, mistreated or are behind bars because they have insisted on their right of freedom of expression. Why should we, considering this situation, concentrate exactly on Raif Badawi? Aren’t there more important things on this world which should be resolved?

For weeks I’ve occupied myself with Raif Badawi’s case and try now to find answers to these questions.

In the past weeks I’ve been told several times that the question arises why one tries to achieve the release of a single man, while in Syria and elsewhere there are dozens of innocent people being killed each day and in China, North Korea and elsewhere human rights abuses are the order of the day. Although it is no longer just about the life of a single man. Raif Badawi has become the symbol for freedom of expression. After all he has only criticized the system he lives in. He did that in a peaceful and non-violent ways as he founded a discussion forum on the internet. The reaction of the Saudi judiciary turned out all the harder, which through this has become the symbol of arbitrariness.

Raif Badawi’s case has opened the eyes of many people in the West. Not all of them were aware that the strategic ally of the USA and the West is a dictatorship which doesn’t allow any criticism of the system, no demands for more democratization and even less any different interpretation of Islam than its own. Some people I have talked with thought that Saudi Arabia has a similar legal system than the states in Europe. In reality in this country reigns one of the strictest applications of Islamic law. Methods of punishment such as beheading or flogging are the order of the day. In this connection Raif Badawis case has indeed had some effect. Thanks to the attention dedicated to his fate the Western public has learned about the general human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. We should not forget that Raif Badawi is far not the only one. Some organizations speak about thousands of political prisoners only in Saudi Arabia. But how should we stand up for someone of whom we don’t know even the name? There always need to be cases which stand symbolically for the other ones as well. That was the same about Nelson Mandela in South Africa and also Václav Havel stood for many others in Czechoslovakia. They too were not the only ones. In this case it is Raif Badawi who is given this part.

To criticize the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia doesn’t mean that we agree about all procedures at home. The right to freedom of expression does for example not mean that one can insult his environment at one’s discretion. But that is a completely different story again. To advocate for a release of Raif Badawi and other prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia is neither based on hate towards Islam or other religions. Who treats his critics in such a way, inevitably causes resistance, as this methods of punishment evoke memories of past times which we in Europe left behind a long time ago. Even more horrible is that elsewhere they are still the order of the day. That doesn’t have to do much with Islam as such, that would be the same in any other case as well. No religion, no ideology and no other reason justifies such human rights abuses. Everyone should be allowed to believe in whatever he wants to as long as he doesn’t do violence to anyone else.

Another argument, which is also often used by politicians who advise against an intervention in the case of Raif Badawi, is that in a time in which there are so many conflicts in Middle East we should keep Saudi Arabia as a strategic ally as it is a comparatively stable country and the case of Raif Badawi is a too small disruptive factor to risk the good relations. In my opinion one should no longer look away when it comes to human rights abuses in Arabic countries. That would not be the first time in history when one looked away for too long. It doesn’t concern Raif Badawi alone, but thousands of other prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia as well as in the neighboring countries. And then there are the women who are suppressed mercilessly in Saudi Arabia. Should we really continue to ignore this and happily proceed in exporting arms in these countries? One should also not forget that this important strategic ally in the struggle against terrorism ideologically seen has something in common with the Islamic State. And the new laws, whose original purpose is to prevent crimes related to terrorism, are used primarily used to silence critics of the regime.

From the above mentioned can be concluded that it will be important also in the future to stand up for Raif Badawi, as this Saudi Arabian blogger stands for much more than his personal fate. He stands for freedom of speech and for many other unjustly persecuted people in this world. Who just watches any longer, how injustice happens in Saudi Arabia reduces himself to an accomplice of said regime. To get involved for Raif Badawi does mean though to stand up for said persecuted people all over the world just the same. To save all the people of this world who are in danger is virtually impossible. One has to start somewhere. And Raif Badawi’s case is a good initial point.

You find the original text in German here:


Why I started to get involved for Raif Badawi

I remember well that Thursday evening in January. It was just an ordinary evening like all the others. The train was packed with people, many of them were reading the free newspaper Blick am Abend. I don’t like the level of that newspaper very much but this time I was really caught by an article, only a small one. I don’t remember much of it anymore. But it was back then when I learned that a certain Raif Badawi is in prison in Saudi Arabia and should be flogged the following day just because he dared to express peacefully his opinion. The author, whose name I don’t know anymore, described this flogging as a “death penalty on instalments”, so I already saw him dying before my eyes. For the rest of the journey I couldn’t concentrate on anything else and even on the way home from the train station I was only speaking about Raif Badawi. It was in this moment when I sang for the first time the Finale of Les Misérables. And back then I meant it in its original meaning. That even if you suffered a lot in your life and eventually died, you might still have a better life in the Garden of the Lord.

Later I realized given he was still alive, what he is still today, I should get involved for his release. Why was it exactly him who caused me to get involved? Actually I can’t say it with a hundred percent certainty, it was just my heart who chose it to be like that. I just couldn’t stay indifferent. Probably it is because of that corporal punishment. Before reading about Raif’s case I hadn’t even known that there are countries who still speak out such punishments. We often hear about torture of innocent people, which prisoners of conscience are, but normally such mistreatment happens behind thick prison walls. What is even more appalling in this case is that it happens as part of the legislation of that country and is executed publically. Therefore after that day I could do nothing else than do everything that is in my power to help to save Raif Badawi.

Another day of these three months which I remember well is the day when I went the first time to a vigil in Bern, I had a really strong positive feeling. I realized that I am not alone fighting for this cause, that there are others who share the same ideals and I felt deeply connected to them although I had never seen them before. This gave me even more motivation to continue being involved for human rights in Saudi Arabia. I signed up for Twitter and I am raising awareness among all the people I know.

In these ten weeks or so I got to know many impressive people, above all those who we are standing with, Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair, as well as their families, as well as amazing people from all over the world. Most of them I have never met personally, not even the two most important ones, those we are actually involved for. But nevertheless there is something that connects us all which is difficult to be described. Maybe something like the hope for a better world, in a time in which one reads about terror, war, death in the news all the time. In such a time where you think hatred and other negative feelings would prevail (I mean the very reason why we are doing this all is because of hate and incomprehension towards different attitudes which even ends up in violence) I have witnessed so many positive feelings, so much love towards other people. Those feelings gave me so much positive energy which helped me even through the difficult situation where I thought I might lose hope because I realized that maybe what we all are doing still might not be enough to save Raif, that maybe he will die all the same. But I didn’t give up, I can’t stay silent anymore when injustice happens. And I know Raif needs us now more than ever. We shall continue to speak up for him, because if we don’t we just do what those in power in Saudi Arabia want us to do: to forget about Raif and go back to our daily concerns. But this is not the case. Not for me at least.

Because all this has given a new sense to my life. Speaking about human rights doesn’t not mean anymore that I am simply talking about what the characters in the story I am writing would do in communist Czechoslovakia. It has become something real, it’s not just fiction anymore. I believe that we all together can make a difference here when we speak up for human rights. Even if they are a matter of course for us here, especially our generation. We should be grateful to have the opportunity to be able to express our opinion freely. And we should use this opportunity not only to comment the dresses which some celebrities wear, we should speak up for those who don’t speak up, those who are prevented from doing so and those who don’t dare to express their opinion. We should raise awareness about cases like Raif’s one. We should share the ideas of thinkers like Raif who are too far ahead for the environment they live in. Because like that we make sure that the main intention of the system which is repressing them is not fulfilled, which is to silence them. During these weeks I have realized that I would like to make my contribution to this as well. Because I believe that there is a flame that never dies, that even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise. That is what the song says that I sang on that first evening. Why don’t make it possible also for the life on earth?

Lashes for Freedom [One of the best articles on Raif Badawi that I’ve seen so far]

When I read this article yesterday I was truly impressed. So I thought I should translate it into English to make it available for more people who are concerned about Raif Badawi’s fate.

All rights to this text belong to Regina Spöttl from Amnesty International Germany and the article was first published in German here: https://www.amnesty.de/journal/2015/april/schlaege-fuer-die-freiheit

In Saudi Arabia the blogger Raif Badawi has been sentenced to 1000 lashes because he spoke out for liberal reforms. In the kingdom applies an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam as religion of state – who protests against it, has to expect draconian penalties.

Midday was approaching on the 18th Rabi al-Awwal of the year 1436 AH, when guards in uniform brought a young man in chains on the square in front of the Al-Jafali mosque in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah. When the faithful had arrived in swarms after the Friday prayer, one of the guards hit with a long whip fifty time the back and the legs of the young man, who endured the torture wordlessly and visibly in pain. After the fiftieth lash the crowd scanned “Allahu Akbar” and dispersed.

What on the first glance appears like a medieval torture scene, didn’t take place many centuries ago, but in the 21st century. Because the 18th Rabi al-Awwal 1436 describes a date of the Islamic moon calendar and equals the 9th of January 2015.

The young man who was beaten up publically in front of the mosque is called Raif Badawi and is 31 years old. He has a wife and three children who live in exile in Canada and who haven’t seen their husband and father for three years. Raif Badawi was sentenced on 7th of May 2014 by a Criminal Court to ten years of prison, 1000 lashes, a fine of converted 195’000 euros and a subsequent travel ban of ten years. Over a period of twenty weeks he shall be flogged with 50 lashes always after the Friday prayer.

His crime: He had founded the online forum “Free Saudi Liberals”, a website with a blog, on which he exchanged his ideas about a more modern, more human, more tolerant Saudi Arabia with other courageous people.

Topics like politics, human rights, freedom of expression and religion, culture and the separation of religion and state as key to more freedom were discussed there. He thought the time is ripe for urgently needed reforms for a more liberal kingdom. As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas”, Raif Badawi wrote in his blog which now is shut down, “you will find hundreds of fatwas (Islamic legal opinions) that accuse him of being an infidel just because he had the courage to discuss some sacred topics. I’m really worried that Arab thinkers will migrate in search of fresh air and to escape the sword of the religious authorities.”

He even took another step forwards when he said: “The separation of state and religion is the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world into the first world.” Every human being should have the right to choose freely his religion. Badawi sees religion as the personal spiritual relation between the individual and its creator and says that secular right like for example traffic rules and labour law cannot be deduced from religion.

In Saudi Arabia, according to Raif Badawi, the government claims the monopoly on the only and commonly valid truth. Liberalism is considered as basic evil, all people who belong to other religions are viewed as infidels and apostates. “But how can we have this attitude and have normal relations to the six billion people on this world of which four and a half billion are no Muslims?”

With that Raif Badawi has shaken at the to the very foundations of the autocratic Saudi Arabian state, which since the conquest of the Arab Peninsula and the first state foundation by Mohammed Ibn al-Saud in the 18th century is based on two columns: the royal house of the al-Saud and the “Council of the highest scholars of religion” (Ulama), which leads back to the religious founder Mohammed Abd al-Wahab.

Both balance out each other in this power structure. As long as the royal house maintains the strict ultraconservative form of the Wahabite Islam – which most of the time is only achievable by suppression – and as long as the Quran is the constitution of the country and the Sharia the unchallenged law, as long as that the clergy will not question the monarchy of the al-Saud.

Reciprocally the Ulama supports the royal house, for example by legitimating unpopular prohibitions with often absurd justifications and by defaming and obstructing science and research. Like that women who drive a car allegedly risk to become infertile and to lose their virginity.

In September 2011 Saudi clerics seriously claimed that there are Sharia astronomers whose knowledge about the universe are the only true and right ones. According to that a short time ago a lecturer declared in a course that the Earth doesn’t rotate but stands still. Who dares to criticise the clergy will be tried of “Defamation of Islam” and condemned to long sentences. Raif Badawi had among others made fun about the “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice”, the notorious religious police, and asked for reforms. The consequences are known.

Saudi Arabia is the country with the probably most rigid restrictions of the human right to religious freedom. The Wahabite Islam is religion of state; already the Shiite Muslims who are living mainly in the East of the country are likely called “infidels” and discriminated in daily life. The practise of any other religion is prohibited and is punished. Unlike the other Gulf States in Saudi Arabia you look in vain for Christian churches, synagogues or Hindu temples. Even the possess of a Bible or a Star of David is punishable.

No wonder thus, that Raif Badawi’s call for a secularization of the country made all alarm bells ring and had to be inhibited immediately. This explains also why the operation of a webpage and the writing of a blog were punished in a such draconian way.

Of Raif Badawi an example had to be made, also to show the limits to many users of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Because the cyberspace meanwhile has become a hard nut to crack for the censors, not every website can be controlled, many Facebook posts slide through the tight net of surveillance. “Twitter is our parliament” recently said a young Saudi hopefully.

The wish for reforms, more liberties and openness towards the world is big in the country. The Saudi Arabian women who still need the consent of a male legal guardian if they make an important decision, wish for equal rights and self-determination. And they finally want to drive a car.
But also here the authority strikes out without mercy. Women who are caught at the wheel of a car are put under arrest and can be charged and sentenced under the new antiterrorism law, also to lashes.

Driving a car thus is considered as a terrorist act, nevertheless the women don’t let themselves prevent from doing so any longer. The 21st century has arrived also in Saudi Arabia and the very young society – two thirds of the population are under 25 years old – wants to participate without any obstruction and finally get the many restrictions and bans out of the way.

Government critics and peaceful reformers however are in danger and often pay a high price for courageously advocating for freedom and human rights. For years the Saudi Arabian Government suffocates any criticism of dissidents. Almost all founding member of the human rights organisation ACPRA which now is banned were condemned to prison terms up to ten years. Notable reformers and human rights advocates, among them lawyers, former judges and university professors, are serving long sentences after unfair trials.

In February 2015 an appeal court confirmed the judgement against human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, Raif Badawi’s legal counsel and brother-in-law. He has to go to prison for 15 years because he had founded the human rights organization “Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia” in 2008, which documented human rights abuses. Moreover he had defended many human rights activists in court. As many other prisoners, also Waleed Abu al-Khair had been tortured and abused under arrest.

Thus Raif Badawi is not the only nonviolent political prisoner in Saudi Arabia, probably the most known at the moment though. His fate has triggered a wave of indignation and compassion in the whole world. Hundred thousands of signatures so far could have been delivered at demonstrations and vigils in front of the Embassies of Saudi Arabia around the globe. The interest about his case is still overwhelming and the social networks are full with statements of solidarity for Raif Badawi and his family and appeals to the Saudi Arabian government to suspend the remaining 950 lashes and to cancel the verdict. Politicians from all over the world campaign for the blogger.

The good news: Raif Badawi hasn’t had to suffer any further lashes since the 9th of January 2015. The corporal punishment has been suspended temporarily, due to “medical reasons”, as it was stated. His case has been send back from the Supreme Court back to the Criminal Court in Jeddah. The process thus could be reopened, a date for a judicial hearing has not been set yet though.

As long as the verdict hasn’t been cancelled, Raif Badawi still is in highest danger. The cruel scene in front of the Al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah could repeat itself at any time on one of the coming Fridays. And not enough with that. At a resumption of the trial at the Criminal Court in Jeddah, Raif Badawi is in danger to be again charged with apostasy for which he might be sentenced to death.

Unless the new Saudi Arabian king Salman pardons Raif Badawi as part of an amnesty to his assumption of office and orders his immediate and unconditional release. Then the dream of Raif’s wife Ensaf Haidar and the three children maybe still could become reality: that they finally can take their husband and father in their arms again at the airport of Montréal.