Washington, DC (TFC) – The selection of Raif Badawi as The Fifth Column’s Man of the Year should come as no surprise to our consistent readers. Editors for the outlet publicly protested on his behalf and our social media pages displayed a modified logo as part of an online campaign to raise awareness of his situation for more than half of the outlet’s existence. For a person to be considered for the title, they have to fit one of two criteria. The person must have made a significant contribution to freedom of speech or impacted the world narrative concerning a specific subject. Raif did both.
In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, freedom of speech is not a given. It’s a nation that allows its citizens to say what they like, as long as the government likes what they say. Raif ran a blog where he promoted free thought and peace. Here’s a sample of the writings:
“As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas, you will find hundreds of fatwas that accused 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.”
The section that probably caused the most issue was a condemnation of the desire to build a mosque at the site of the World Trade Center:
“What hurts me most as a citizen of the area which exported those terrorists … is the audacity of Muslims in New York that reaches the limits of insolence, not taking any regard of the thousands of victims who perished on that fateful day or their families. What increases my pain is this [Islamist] chauvinist arrogance which claims that innocent blood, shed by barbarian, brutal minds under the slogan “Allahu Akbar”, means nothing compared to the act of building an Islamic mosque whose mission will be to … spawn new terrorists … Suppose we put ourselves in the place of American citizens. Would we accept that a Christian or Jew assaults us in our own house and then build a church or synagogue in the same area of the attack? I doubt it. We reject the building of churches in Saudi Arabia, not having been assaulted by anyone. Then what would you think if those who wanted to build a church are the same people who stormed the sanctity of our land? Finally, we should not hide that 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 six billion humans, four and a half billion of whom do not believe in Islam.”
He advocated a secular state:
“I’m not in support of the Israeli occupation of any Arab country, but at the same time I do not want to replace Israel by a religious state … whose main concern would be spreading the culture of death and ignorance among its people when we need modernisation and hope. States based on religious ideology … have nothing except the fear of God and an inability to face up to life. Look at what had happened after the European peoples succeeded in removing the clergy from public life and restricting them to their churches. They built up human beings and (promoted) enlightenment, creativity and rebellion. States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.”
Raif was first arrested in 2012. The charges ranged from insulting Islam to Apostasy. After a series of kangaroo court proceedings, Raif was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes for simply writing. Lashes are given 50 at a time, and a series of lashings would have very likely killed him. He and his wife stood tall. While the #backlash campaign was mounted to free him, his work was published in several languages and made available everywhere. As should be the case, the attempt to silence a dissenting voice only caused more people to be exposed to his work. His work to further free speech is undeniable.
Almost as a side effect, his case and the campaign to free him brought more attention to Saudi Arabia and the West’s relationship with the Kingdom. This led to more and more human rights violations inside Saudi Arabia being uncovered and, more importantly, discussed in the West. His case has led more and more people to pressure their governments to sever ties with the Kingdom. Prior to this, Saudi Arabia was a country that seemed above reproach in the media. The case’s impact on the narrative concerning Saudi Arabia can’t be overstated.
Raif has been honored by with the 2014 RSF Press Freedom Prize and the 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Recognition from a relatively small independent outlet may pale in comparison, but we hope that this lets Raif and his family know that even beyond humanitarian circles, his case and his sacrifice is known and honored.
There is a glimmer of hope in Raif’s case. His sentence has been suspended and numerous credible sources say that a full pardon is in the works. We sincerely hope the Kingdom sees fit to grant Raif mercy and send a message to the international community that rational thought can prevail in Saudi Arabia. Either way, he’s our Man of the Year for 2015.