Silencing the dissenters

May 31, 2015

Raif Badawi tried to ‘free Saudi liberals’

Silencing the dissenters

Dear all,

It’s strange how the world seems to have forgotten all about Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger arrested three years ago and subsequently sentenced to 1,000 lashes and a 10 year jail sentence. When Badawi’s sentence was announced and then when the first 50 lashes were administered (January this year) there was an international outcry and much media outrage, but this seems largely muted now.

Every so often one hears stories of his wife campaigning for his release, but as a media campaigning issue this seems to have become passé.

The Saudi blogger is only 31 years old. He was arrested in June 2012 on a charge of ‘insulting Islam through electronic channels’ and then was also later charged with apostasy. Badawi is the founder of a website with the rather intriguing name ‘Free Saudi Liberals’. This website featured discussion and criticism of Saudi policy and religious politics, something which obviously did not go down well with the Saudi authorities so one of the many charges against him was of "setting up a website that undermines general security".

As the blogger was thus deemed an enemy of the state, and the proceedings against him became harsher and harsher, his young wife and children managed to get asylum in Canada. But Badawi, the young Saudi man who dared to criticise the Saudi state, remains a prisoner. A prisoner who still has 950 lashes of his sentence to undergo.

Amnesty International describes Badawi as a prisoner of conscience, somebody who has been incarcerated "solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression". Human Rights Watch has the same view and has followed not just Badawi’s case but that of many other Saudi activists and dissidents who have been prosecuted and jailed. Badawi has been sentenced but hanging over his head is still the dangerous threat that he will be tried on apostasy charges -- a charge for which the punishment is death.

This is perhaps the equivalent of the Christian Church’s primitive practice of burning ‘heretics’ at the stake. Organised and dogmatic religion abhors criticism or rational argument. And now, in this age of the internet, Islam seems to be having its own moment of silencing the ‘heretics’. The internet -- blogs and social media -- amplify the views of those who question and criticise and this is something that the custodians of the faith cannot tolerate, and so it is that Muslim bloggers are now such a vulnerable -- and endangered -- group.

Look at the case of the Bangladeshi bloggers: in February this year the secular blogger Avijit Roy was killed in Dhaka by machete wielding attackers, his wife suffered head injuries and one of her fingers was hacked off. The couple were visiting from the United States. One month later another blogger known for criticising religious extremism was targeted: the 27 year old Washiqur Rahman was stabbed to death in Dhaka.

These attacks came two years after the murder of another secular blogger the 30 year old Ahmed Rajib Haider: he was also hacked to death by machete wielding activists, and although the government promised action then, it was perhaps their failure to move against the right wing religious groups linked to the attack that facilitated the 2015 attacks.

But it is not just in Bangladesh that secular bloggers or social activists face threats from religious fascism; let us not forget the cases of Egyptian comedians Adel Imam and Bassem Yousseff. In 2012, the 72 year old Adel Imam, was sentenced to three months in jail for ‘defaming Islam’ while Bassem Youssef, a critic of the then President Morsi, was arrested in 2013 for "insulting Islam".

Has the end of the Cold War to some degree facilitated the upsurge of a fanatical, intolerant version of Islam? Communism was a dogmatic, society-centred ideology which did not need the sanctification of religion -- perhaps because the state was already so strong -- whereas Capitalism needed (and still needs) religion as a political lever. Also, the ‘Free’ World used Islamic jihad as a major weapon during the Cold War and Muslim countries are dealing with the repercussions now.

Whether it was the Afghan Mujahideen, the General Zia Caliphate or the policies of an oppressive Saudi regime, all western foreign policy included strategies that strengthened the use of Islam as something that could be used to silence and intimidate.

So then what is to become of those in the Muslim world who, in the cause of fairness and progress, wish to debate and discuss the ways of their rulers and clergy? What is to become of the activists who dare to raise their voice against injustice or discrimination? I suppose they (or we) should tread very carefully -- or be prepared for the machetes, the lashes, the lynch mob.

Raif Badawi tried to ‘free Saudi liberals’ but got jail and flogging in return for his efforts. And most of the ‘free world’ seems to have forgotten all about him…

Best wishes,

Silencing the dissenters