Raif Badawi is a Saudi writer and activist who was arrested in 2012 for insulting Islam in his blog and brought to trial on that and other charges, including apostasy. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, a fine, and 1,000 lashes. The first fifty lashes were administered this past January. This part of his sentence was then suspended due to concerns for his health, but now the Saudi Supreme court has heard his appeal and affirmed the lower court’s decision, opening the door for the lashings to continue.
Throughout all this, I and others have campaigned to free him. Many people have commented on my frequent postings in this cause. It’s personal: of the many cases of persecution of dissidents, perhaps I relate to Badawi’s case the most. Both of us are Arab, and both of us are liberals. In my case, I am an atheist and very public about it; if I had been living in the Middle East and caught by the government or an Islamic militia, I could be in Badawi’s position. Actually, I wish I could take his place. Unlike him, I am neither married nor have children. He is far braver than me and many other people.
I started on the road to secular activism back in Iraq during the first Iraqi elections held after the U.S. invasion in 2005. I was very afraid that Iraq was headed for sectarian conflict. I take no pleasure in the fact that, unfortunately, I was right.
Two countries play the biggest roles in feeding that sectarian conflict: Wahabi Sunni–based Saudi Arabia and Williayat Al Faqih Shia–based Iran. Wahabism presents more danger than Shia Islam, not because Shia Islam is more benevolent but because Sunni Islam is followed by the majority of Muslims in the world and also because the main tenets of Wahabism appeal to Islamists. Mouhammad Abdul Al Wahab, the founder of the Wahabi Sunni Islam school of thought, was by most definitions a reformer in the same vein as Martin Luther. He advocated for a return to “pure Islam” and the study of the lessons from the life of the Prophet. He rejected modern Islamic schools of thought led by Al Azhar and other clerics and instead emphasized the history and the fundamentals of Islam. Wahabi Islam has formed the foundation for many Islamist and jihadist groups around the region, the newest one being the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, sometimes known as ISIS or ISIL or just IS (that’s what they like to be called).
Although many observers have been critical of the influence of Wahabi ideology in Saudi Arabia, one person has stood out because he challenged it not from the outside but from the inside. Raif Badawi cofounded a forum for liberal thought in Saudi Arabia called Free Saudi Liberals to do exactly that. His main argument is that, in order for liberalization and secularization to happen across the region, his country of birth must be liberalized.
Saudi Arabia is by definition the most difficult country in which to even start this discussion. Leave aside for the moment that it is the birthplace of Islam; it is also home to the most radical version of the religion, and the majority of the population is not just conservative but ultra-conservative. The Middle East Eye has published a graph of the differences between ISIS and Saudi Arabia (available at http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/crime-and-punishment-islamic-state-vs-saudi-arabia-1588245666). They have a lot in common. To take but one example, they prescribe nearly identical punishments for crimes.
Saudi Arabia is very important and dangerous at the same time because of its position as a major supplier of the world’s oil. Even if the United States or other countries in the West cut all ties with Saudi Arabia tomorrow, it would not lack for markets. China and Russia, superpowers that don’t really put a priority on human rights, stand out as possible buyers. So Saudi Arabia has little motivation to change its behavior in this regard: it has little concern for world opinion.
Considering the economic interests that the West has in Saudi Arabia, there is not much hope in trying to effect change on the government or policy level. But there is something to do on an individual level, not only concerning Saudi Arabia but the whole Muslim world.
Thanks to the Internet, we have the ability to connect with dissidents and activists from Saudi Arabia, no matter how closed the society is. Many Saudis have access to the Internet through their cell phones or computers. And despite the fact that many websites are censored, including the Wikipedia page about the theory of evolution, many liberal dissidents know how to use proxies. I have invested hundreds of hours in trying to find a solution to the problem of helping dissidents in powerful countries. Here is what we as freethinkers can do.
Inspired by Raif Badawi’s story and struggle—as well as people like him—I am working to support the human rights of liberal dissidents through Movements.org, a project funded by Google that allows me to crowd source skills and a way to match those who need help with those who can. I have built a database that includes activists in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and many other countries in the Muslim world (many in which secular activists face death sentences if they are apprehended by the government). I genuinely believe that everyone has a role to play. Whether you are a journalist, a policymaker, an artist, a technologist, a public relations expert, a writer, an editor, a translator, or just someone who cares about this issue, you can lend your voice in support of threatened dissidents in some way. Liberals and freethinkers living in the West can offer their skills, including writing, editing, graphic design, legal help, and many others to help the activists.
Thus far, we have helped Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haider, connect with major news media to publicize her husband’s plight. We have helped get two Bengali bloggers whose lives were in danger to a Western European country. Many other activists are being helped every day by other individuals.
Movements.org is not only about mobilizing aid but also about building solidarity. People such as Raif Badawi are not only the tools for change; they are the change itself. Badawi stands for the principles all secular humanists agree upon, including freedom of speech and equality for women, LGBT rights, and the rights of minorities. Badawi and people like him should not be standing alone in facing giants who are backed by lots of funding and other kinds of support.
Hundreds of billions of dollars from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia, and China are funding forces of regression and radicalism. Many more people need to be mobilized if we are to fight these influences. Many people look at the Middle East today and see a binary choice: dictators or religious fanatics. Frankly, the West has been supporting some dictators for decades, while theocratic groups such as ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas have gotten enormous support from Qatar, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. David Keyes, the executive director of Advancing Human Rights, mentioned in an interview (http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/crowdsourcing-freedom) with Sam Harris, a writer who supports these efforts, that we need to do something as secularists and liberals living in the West; we can’t wait for the U.S. government to offer support to the liberal activists of the Middle East. Meanwhile, they are being slaughtered, jailed, and lashed every day.
The case of Raif Badawi should be the spark of change that moves liberals in the West to get involved in helping their fellow liberals in the East. But change takes a long time, and every minute we wait is a minute wasted.