Why Saudi Arabia sentenced a blogger to 1000 lashes and 10 years jail

by Paul Braterman

For disrespectful blogging and criticism of the religious authorities, one thousand lashes, to be administered 50 at a time. A fine of one million Riyals (roughly £170,000). 10 years in jail. If, like me, you have been wondering what horrible crimes could merit so severe a punishment, now you can find out.

I BadawiBookacross a selection of Raif Badawi's writings in my local Waterstone's, and see that it has been published in the US, UK, and Canada, and that it is also available in French, German, and Italian. I do not know if there is an Arabic version; if there is, it will certainly not be available in the author's native Saudi Arabia. However, the attempts to silence Badawi have ensured him a far wider audience than he could ever have thought possible.

Having read the offending blog posts, I am shocked. Not because they are strident, or violent, or opposed to religion, or subversive of government, but because they are none of these things, and yet have attracted so extreme a reaction.

A brief foreword to the book (see below) is followed by a short preface, by the bilingual TV journalist Constantin Schreiber. This places Badawi's writings in context, and describes how the hopes he expressed in the days of the Arab Spring have been dashed by events. Unlike Schreiber, I am neither an Arabic speaker nor an expert on events in the Middle East, so I am doing my best here using the English language translation and my own limited background knowledge. If I have been guilty of any mistakes or misinterpretations, I hope that better-informed readers will point these out.

The first piece is a plea for freedom of thought and expression, using a quotation from the Quran itself in support. The second, a complaint against censorship and the outrage synthesised to justify it, begins with the unconsciously prophetic words

Many of the Islamist activists of Saudi Arabia dream of the return of an era along gone: they fantasize about the times of the caliphs. Those caliphs were known to banish and murder their opponents.… The modern Islamists hope history will repeat itself.

Indeed, we now once again have a self-styled caliph, at the head of the entity known as Daesh, [1] that now of all times needs no further discussion by me.

The third piece I, as a scientist, find particularly saddening, as does the physicist Lawrence Krauss, who wrote a brief Foreword to the English edition. It is a gentle satire on the views of sharia scholars, who (as I already knew, and as the footnotes remind us) have decided that the Quran tells us that the Earth is flat. These scholars, nonetheless, assure us that they are not against the science of astronomy. And here Badawi quotes or paraphrases: “It's a long-lived science, but we reject those who question the sharia vision.” He proceeds to draw out the implications:

I call upon NASA to abandon its telescopes and take advantage of our sharia astronomers. It seems to me their sight is sharper than those broken telescopes at NASA. I believe NASA should send some of its scientists to our preachers to study real science.… medicine, engineering, chemistry, and geology… Physics and nuclear science… Oceanography, pharmacy, biology, and anthropology.

I have produced similar catalogues of the sciences myself when spelling out the claims of self-styled Creation Science. But full-blooded Creation Science is a fringe belief, even among theologically Conservative Christians, while the sharia scholars to whom Badawi refers are at the centre of the Saudi power structure. This in the heartland of the culture that once gave us astronomers like al Biruni, whose historical data are still of value today, and al Tusi, whose geometric constructions reappear in Copernicus.

Essay 4 is more controversial. It is an attack on plans (now reduced to a prayer space within a planned luxury condo block) to build a new mosque in New York, close to the site of the World Trade Center atrocity. Badawi starts out by reminding us that he is a citizen of the country that exported the 9/11 terrorists, and moves on to attack the would-be mosque builders for

this chauvinist Islamic arrogance they display; they disregard the innocent blood spilled because of the plans and barbaric and brutal masterminds under the slogan of “Allahu Akabar.” They see this innocent blood as nothing compared with building a mosque that will undoubtedly hatch new terrorists.… We in Saudi Arabia refuse to build churches altogether. What do you think we would do if those who wanted to build such houses of worship were the same people who stormed our lands?

CenterBadawi then speaks, deadpan, in praise of [then] King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and “his famous and great initiative Dialogue Between Religions, hoping to gather us all under the umbrella of human civilisation”, about which I have myself written elsewhere in the light of the punishment that the King's courts would mete out to Badawi. He goes on to praise the United States for its tolerance of diversity, and to ask “us” (i.e. his fellow-Muslims; this self-identification is never in doubt) to refrain from building a mosque near the site of 9/11. Finally, he criticises Saudi Arabia for its intolerance towards varying beliefs, even beliefs within Islam that do not fit one particular conservative theology:

How will we be able to build a human civilization with positive relations with the 7 billion people around the world when 5.5 billion of them don't even believe in Islam?

Above, R: King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, Vienna

In the fifth essay, Badawi approaches the core of his argument obliquely, by explaining why he would be opposed to a Hamas state in Palestine, since it would be a religious entity:

Such a state would only seek to spread a culture of ignorance and death within its people. Instead, we need those who call for life and civilisation. We need those who believe in planting hope in our souls.

Look at all the countries that are based on a religious ideology… They offer nothing more than an irrational fear of a deity and an inability to challenge life…

Incapable of creative thought, incapable of building culture. They are unable to create their own modern structure or even practice systems of civilization bestowed upon them by others.

Any religion-based state has a mission to limit the minds of its people, to fight the developments of history and logic, and to dumb down its citizens.

Badawi then speaks of the stifling influence of the priesthood in mediaeval Europe, [2] and how, once they were confined to their churches,

European countries developed into nations buzzing with civilization, active in building the rights of the individual and exporting knowledge and science for the rest of humanity. These communities welcome to the culture of enlightenment, life, and creativity as they led a revolution against ignorance in all its aspects.

Only at this point does Badawi turn explicitly to the situation of his own country:

Conversely, the religious philosophy controlling our lives in Saudi Arabia is fighting a daily war to plant and impose the lines of Salafi religious ruling, which was forced upon us hundreds of years ago.

Very clever. He is not attacking Islam, but only one of the many traditions within Islam, and even then it is not the doctrine itself that he is opposing, but the way it is being imposed. And he is reminding us that Salafism is at once too old to correspond to modern reality, and too young to lay claim to ancient authority. There are no doubt many other such refinements as this throughout the book that would be understood by his intended audience.

Next we have an essay, written in February 2011, in celebration of the Arab Spring and its seeming victory in Egypt. Where, since then, we have had in rapid succession an election victory by the Muslim Brotherhood, a military takeover, and the emergence of a government that manages to combine the worst features of both religious and secular regimes.

Essay 7 is a critique of some peculiarities of sharia marriage law, and how it treats women, of which Badawi says

It's a wonder of human behaviour: we build our own handcuffs that trap and harm us. We create the myth, and we honour it.

Of the remaining essays, Mixed or Divided reflects on gender mixing in the workplace, legally endorsed in Saudi hospitals and accepted in some places, such as high-class shopping malls, but not others:

If we continue to limit women's lives, some might have to take immoral routes to bring bread to the table.

Data are hard to come by, but we know exactly what he means.

In essays on liberalism (by which he means simple tolerance of diversity of opinion) and enlightenment, Badawi writes:

Many… try to advertise liberalism as a line of thinking that rejects religion, somehow suggesting liberalism is a religion of its own. This cannot be further from the truth.… Every intellectual has the right to promote and discuss his own philosophy. This gives people the right to pick what they like from these views and methods.

And later, referring to a public forum that discussed his writings,

Most of the attendees insisted liberalism, first and foremost, is an enemy of all religions, especially Islam, and considers it to be a religion of its own.

I am reminded of the claims I hear every day here in Scotland that secularism is a religion, that a challenge to religious privilege is a threat to religious freedom, that religion is essential to national identity, and that the representatives of religion have the right, if not indeed the duty, to speak for society as a whole. If the values Badawi is espousing are universal, so is the reaction against them.

It would, however, be impudent to compare our situations. I may be moved to complain that Church representatives sit unelected on Scotland's Education Committees, but no one is going to fine, imprisonment, or torture me for questioning their right to do so.

Later in these essays, Badawi writes that

The belief system of liberalism is advancement. It believes freedom in itself is good and works towards good. It believes that truth comes out of dialogue, and constant improvement is a natural movement for humanity.…

Those who reject it are the Islamists, the Western right wing, and the fusty Europeans of the mediaeval ages. They are those who stood in the face of the French Revolution and who stood by the Church and feudalism.…

A liberal country has no religion, which doesn't mean it's godless. It means it protects the rights of all the religions and nurtures all of them without distinction or upholding one over the others.

So far, so good. And then,

Liberalism… goes in harmony with religion: both always call for good, love, and peace.

If only.

Badawi warns that the society he longs for cannot be accomplished simply by copying models from elsewhere:

The obsession with finding a ready-made example is similar to the need of a teenage boy for a father figure to give guidance. It is a clear sign this nation is still lacking in development and weak in its base.

And the Western model itself is currently in deep trouble:

Because of the current cultural atmosphere and the new economic situation, this supposed Western structure is threatening the future of democracy, the values of enlightenment, and the foundations of the French Revolution…

[The current] Western example is based on the value of superiority and power. It relies completely on the servitude of poor nations to their external loans. It is based on the colonising division and the support of some groups and some military forces in the regions of the East and South.

We know who he has in mind. And I will conclude this inadequate summary with a paragraph that reaffirms the values he sees endangered in the West, and suppressed in his homeland:

This Western example is heavy with delusions of total control over the keys to wealth and the secrets of power. It is threatening the values that created the magic of the West over many decades: the values of intelligence, equality, world peace, protection of the environment, conviviality, and the many other values that will lead to the immortality of humanity.

One could argue about whether the French Revolution merits such unqualified applause, whether the West was ever as true to its stated values as Badawi suggests, whether “constant improvement is a natural movement for humanity” (but for powerful quantitative evidence in support of this view, see Stephen Pinker's Better Angels of our Nature), and from our comfortable armchairs we could even take exception to Badawi's failure to mention the rights of those without any religion. All this is to miss the point. If there really is to be any hope of an Arab Spring worthy of the name, Badawi embodies it.

Badawi is far from unique. Many others are punished for speaking their minds in Saudi Arabia, or even, like Badawi's own lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, for coming to the legal defence of others who do. Indeed, in some ways Badawi is fortunate. Unlike Abu al-Khair, he has not come before Saudi Arabia's Specialised Criminal Court, which handles dissent alongside terrorism. His wife and children are safe in Canada, he has for health reasons so far received only fifty of the thousand lashes to which he has been sentenced, and his original conviction for apostasy was modified to spare the Saudi authorities the embarrassment of executing so public figure. Not that these authorities are averse to executions; they have carried out over 150 so far this year. His name is widely known and his voice is heard. And in the Internet age, borders are porous.

CameronSaudiSaudi Arabia is a major customer for the UK's armaments manufacturer, BAE systems, so much so that in 2008, the Blair government persuaded Britain's Serious Fraud Office to drop bribery investigations regarding this trade, for the sake of national security. The weapons supplied are presumably among those currently being used by the Saudis in their bombing campaign in Yemen. Salafism is currently the fastest-growing branch of Islam, largely as a result of Saudi generosity. Relations between the UK and Saudi Arabia were extremely close during the lifetime of King Abdullah, but have come under strain recently when the UK pulled out of a contract to train Saudi prison officials. We are assured, however, that Cameron is taking action to heal the rift, as a matter of urgency.

1] For why I use this term, and wish the BBC and other media would do likewise, see here.

2] Some historians might wonder if this is entirely fair. But if it is not, it is precisely because the priesthood never had a total grip on political power, but was challenged internally by the secular authorities, and, latterly, externally by exposure to Greek learning, diffusing back from the Islamic world where it was then valued.

Image of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue building from Wikipedia entry. Image of Prime Minister David Cameron receiving the King Abdullah Decoration from the King himself during a 2012 trade mission, from Daily Mail on line.