Three years on from the media storm that erupted around Raif Badawi’s imprisonment, Laila Amawi considers the political climates surrounding such acts of repression and how to stop a campaign from losing momentum.
In his iconic novel 1984, George Orwell sets a dark vision; “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever”. If you alter the image of a boot stamping on a human face to an image of a whip lashing against a human back, you can say Orwell’s prediction was pretty spot-on.
From horrific beginnings to what can only be assumed to become a tragic ending, Raif Badawi’s case must be one of the biggest violations of the basic human right of free speech to date – and oddly enough, echoes Orwell’s dystopian 1984 to a large extent.
Badawi (ironically born in 1984), was first sentenced to 600 lashes and 7 long years in prison, but this harsh sentence was later decided to be “too lenient” and intensified to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison, as well as a fine of 1 million Riyal. Arrested in 2012 primarily on charges of insulting Islam in his blog, the “Saudi Free Liberals Forum”, Badawi’s charges later came to include “ridiculing Islamic religious figures”, “going beyond the realm of obedience”, “setting up a website that undermines general security”, and apostasy.
For the international community, witnessing such an obvious breach of the Human Rights Act article on free speech – an article which protects political expression, artistic expression and commercial expression – is quite baffling. What’s even more baffling is the fact that Badawi’s case isn’t the only one of its type in the region; if anything, this case is indicative of an epidemic of repression and inhibition of free speech sweeping the area. Besides Raif Badawi, Palestenian-born poet Ashraf Fayadh has recently been sentenced to 800 lashes and 8 years in prison. He is just another on an extensive list of peaceful writers serving harsh sentences for expressing their personal views – a list including, but not limited to: Badawi’s sister Samar Badawi; his lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair; activist and blogger Fadel al-Manasef; and writer and critic Zuhair Kutbi.
The issue goes beyond the degrading punishment and clampdown on activists, even beyond the torture in custody and elimination of any opportunity for dissent. It has become a matter of complete censorship and criminalization of thought, a mechanism for creating a commitment to the predominant and traditional mind-set. The positioning of someone like Badawi in the crosshairs, setting him as an example, legitimizes the space for those who employ their ideologies, whatever these ideologies might be, to oppress others and adds to the factors fuelling the extremism terrorizing the international scene. The narrative of oppressing freedom of speech isn’t exclusive to Badawi – if it hadn’t been him, it would have certainly been another writer.
Three years on, no serious action has taken place to rescue Badawi, despite the obvious cruelty of his punishment. This raises the question; how? How is this sort of punishment still applicable?
The answer lies in the fact that regimes, even the unpopular ones, are the products of societal norms and a manifestation of the citizens they govern. The issue is circular: if these citizens are prevented from thinking critically and discouraged from analysing situations, then this stifling of expression shouldn’t come as a surprise. When religious and social beliefs are dogmatised from a young age, there isn’t much room for creativity. In Badawi’s own words, “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”.
Coming to realize this, the pressing question of “what next?” presents itself. Marking just over three years since the beginning of this ordeal, the campaign supporting Badawi must keep going strong. Utilizing the source that evoked the situation, the internet has a lot to offer. Whether it’s by finding a way to keep hashtags reminding people of Badawi’s struggle flowing, or blog posts, or even posting YouTube videos, social media serves as such a powerful platform and can serve this cause perfectly. In addition, influential figures and celebrities are quite the persuasive source, a source that can remind people of Badawi’s punishment. The two methods of campaigning can be intertwined; reach out to influential speakers through social media and demand their support. You can also create petitions, organize events, create a mailing list, keep the energy flowing in any and all ways!
Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, Raif Badawi’s case isn’t unique, albeit its punishment is crueller than most. Measures must be taken in order to change the dynamics of repression. First and foremost, we need to stop simply condemning oppression by sprinkling empty rhetoric. We need to stop throwing religious and political sentiments in the face of creativity and change. We absolutely need to learn to become proactive citizens instead of just being passive vessels. Finally, we must leave some space for conversation and debate. I think somewhere in prison, waiting for the repeatedly-postponed next round of lashes, Raif would be nodding his head in agreement.