We’ve heard a great deal over the last two weeks from Western governments about free speech and freedom of expression. We’ve heard that free speech is a defining value of our civilization that ‘the terrorists’ want to take away from us. We’ve heard from Francois Hollande that ‘France has principles and values, in particular freedom of expression.’ David Cameron has told us only this week that ‘ we have made clear to those who think they can muzzle freedom of speech and expression with violence that our voices will only grow louder.’
Many of the ‘world leaders’ who attended last week’s carnival of hypocrisy in Paris have made similar statements, and many people have pointed out some of the glaring contradictions between what these leaders say and what their governments actually do within their own countries, and also in the alliances and arrangements they enter into with states that do not even pretend to uphold freedom of expression.
There many examples of these contradictions, but one of the most glaring must surely be Saudi Arabia, which also sent officials to last week’s Charlie Hebdo march. It’s one of the strange quirks of modern history that one of the most autocratic and repressive states in the world, a state that ruthlessly enforces and exports a reactionary and extremist version of Islam that differs very little from the one that ISIS is currently imposing on Iraq and Syria, has been sitting on the world’s oil spigot ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt sailed on the cruiser Quincy to the Suez Canal in 1945.
Last week the Saudi regime demonstrated how reactionary it was when the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was given 50 lashes for apostasy and ‘insulting Islam’. Yesterday Badawi should have received 50 more, out of a total of 1,000 lashes, except that doctors ruled that his body had not recovered from the last batch.
If this punishment were to go ahead as planned and Badawi’s body were able to stand it, this ritual would be repeated for 19 more weeks. What was Badawi’s offence? He created the website Free Saudi Liberals, on which he posted things like this: .
‘Secularism respects everyone and does not offend anyone … Secularism … is the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world and into the first world.’
‘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.’
‘For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live. This is a splendid slogan. However, the nature of liberalism – particularly the Saudi version – needs to be clarified. It is even more important to sketch the features and parameters of liberalism, to which the other faction, controlling and claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means.’
In one brilliant post, Badaw savaged a Saudi tv preacher who called for astronomy to be banned because it encouraged scepticism about sharia law:
‘I advise NASA to abandon its telescopes and, instead, turn to our Sharia astronomers, whose keen vision and insight surpass the agency’s obsolete telescopes. Indeed, I advise all other scholars the world over, of whatever discipline, to abandon their studies, laboratories, research centres, places of experimentation, universities, institutes etc. and head at once to the study groups of our magnificent preachers to learn from them all about modern medicine, engineering, chemistry, microbiology, geology, nuclear physics, the science of the atom, marine sciences, the science of explosives, pharmacology, anthropology etc. ‘
Observations like these go beyond simple ‘political dissidence.’ In 1553 Miguel Servetus the theologian and medical student, was burned for heresy in Geneva because of his unorthodox views on the Trinity and copies of his books were burned with him. Servetus was the victim of a period of European history in which freethinkers and deviants from the officially-prescribed norms were regarded as heretics,and states acted according to the principle ‘who rules decides the faith.’
The West’s Saudi friend is behaving in much the same way. In 2012 Badawi was arrested for his blogging. Last year, in addition to the 1,000 lashes, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail and fined 1million riyals (£175,000). His lawyer has also been sentenced to 15 years in jail for setting up a Human Rights organization that is ‘unlicensed’ and ‘breaks allegiance with the ruler.’
If Western governments took free speech seriously, they would be clamoring to stop this punishment. But Saudi oil and the Saudi market for weapons easily trump their commitment to ‘our’ values, for Britain and France especially, and their criticisms have been generally polite, muted or non-existent.
Fortunately an international campaign is developing which is beginning to put pressure on the Saudis to back down, and we need to support it. When Miguel Servetus was burned alive the theologian Sebastian Castellio wrote a pamphlet condemning the execution of heretics, in which he argued ‘ to burn a man does not defend a doctrine, but slays a man.’
What the Saudis are doing to Badawi does not defend a doctrine, but flogs a man. Such actions are the actions of tyrants, and I urge you to support the campaign to stop this brutal punishment and allow Badawi to leave the country to be with his wife and children.