Sunday, February 8, 2015

For Raif Badawi

The persecution of Saudi Arabian writer and blogger Raif Badawi by the Saudi government has haunted me for weeks. I think of him, his plight, and his family every day. Raif is a 32-year-old writer and political activist who founded the blog Free Saudi Liberals, which was taken down by the Saudi government when Raif was arrested in 2012 for “insulting Islam” and was tried for “apostasy,” which is punishable by death. He came to my attention because I am a Freedom Writer for Amnesty International, which has been working extremely hard to save his life.

Raif was tried and sentenced to be flogged with 1,000 lashes, to serve 10 years in prison, and to pay a large fine. The extreme barbarity and inhumanity of his sentence is deeply disturbing. He is to be flogged (beaten with a cane) 50 lashes every Friday until he has received the total 1,000 lashes. He received the first flogging of 50 lashes on January 9 (in public in front of a mosque) and it nearly killed him. For a couple of weeks afterward, doctors stated that he had not healed from the flogging sufficiently to be flogged again and further flogging was postponed. Raif is diabetic and has high blood pressure. Doctors say that a second flogging will likely kill him. Each Friday for the past few weeks, he has received a last-minute reprieve from another flogging, while mounting attention has focused on his plight from around the world.

Raif is the father of three little girls. His wife Ensaf Haidar and his daughters fled Saudi Arabia (on the heels of death threats) and are living in exile in Quebec, Canada, where they have been given political asylum. His wife continues to take a lead role in efforts to free him. Raif wrote:  “As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas, you will find hundreds of fatwas that accuse 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.” I have to wonder how a country comes to choose to destroy its best and brightest sons and daughters.

Raif’s writings question fundamentalist Islam and terrorist tactics. His lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, has also been imprisoned. Last week, seven American activists who are members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom sent an open letter to the Saudi government requesting that they be allowed to receive 100 lashes (each) in Raif’s stead, and offering to present themselves for flogging. Among the seven who sent the letter are Christians, Jews, and Muslims; some are democrats and some are republicans. One of them is Princeton Professor Robert P. George, who has stated that he signed the letter fully prepared to actually be beaten if it were to come to that. In addition, two members of the Norwegian Parliament have nominated Raif and Waleed for the Nobel Peace Prize. Human rights organizations say that the actions people are taking on Raif’s behalf (writing, faxing, and emailing letters; signing petitions; calling the Saudi embassies throughout the world; demonstrating in the streets) have blindsided the Saudi government, which apparently never expected so much bad press for this decision. The Saudi government is purported to be overwhelmed by the effort to free Raif and dismayed to have become one of the world’s greatest villains of the moment. (Click here to sign the Amnesty International petition for Raif’s release. You can also take other actions:  click here to go to the Free Raif Toolkit with more information.)

Raif’s ordeal touches me in an acutely personal way because I too am a writer and blogger. If he was able to take back his words and to go back in time and not create his website, would he do it? Would he choose to spare himself this torment and to keep his family safe in the country they love? Oh, the tremendous power of words; mightier than the sword. But there is no turning back for Raif. So much damage has already been done to him and his family that it cannot be undone. I do believe in healing, in the amazing resiliency of people, their ability to courageously move beyond trauma and celebrate life. But oh the damage that has been done here. Of course I pray for Raif’s safety, his release. I pray that he will be allowed to leave the country and join his family, to finish raising his beautiful little girls. But even if this happens, if this is the best we can hope for and it comes to pass, such irreversible damage has been done.

If Raif is allowed to join his family in Canada, he will never fully recover from the physical and mental blows he has suffered. Perhaps he will fear speaking out again. Perhaps when his hands hover over the keys of his computer, he will feel that searing pain in his back from the lashes and his hands will tremble. Where will he find the courage to speak freely when this terror seizes him? Maybe I am simply projecting my own cowardice on a man who is braver than I can comprehend. I also think of his wife and children in that foreign land. Kept from the land they love, the culture and community that is in their hearts. If he is allowed to join them in exile, he and his wife will suffer the pain of the exile for the rest of their lives, that separation from the daily, small, beloved aspects of life in their homeland. Their daughters will grow up in an alien country and will never fully comprehend what they have lost by their uprooting. They will never retrieve the sweet feeling of comfort they once had in their native home; and some intrinsic measure of their culture will remain forever lost to them. Will they ever feel at home in the world?

How will Raif be treated if he is allowed to flee to Canada? He is a Muslim and an Arab. I don’t know what it’s like in Canada these days, but in America Raif would be suspect because of his appearance, his accent, his clothing. Sadly, most Americans stereotype Muslims and Arabs (even thinking all Arabs are Muslim), and they are often viewed as terrorists (no questions asked). Ironically, Raif, who has suffered so much for denouncing fundamentalist Islam and terrorism, would be at risk because of this stereotyping. In the current climate, he would be at risk of being shot for putting his hand in his pocket at the wrong moment. Where in the world will Raif find peace and justice?

As I sit here in the safety of my study, relatively secure in the belief that I will not be persecuted for writing these words, I am seized by a flash of fear. Am I as safe as I believe? When I press the key to put these words out into the world, will I start a chain reaction that could cost me my life, my health, my sanity? That could endanger my family? That scenario is unlikely; but if they came for Raif in the morning then they could conceivably come for me in the evening. They put out a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses and he and his wife were forced into hiding. When I press the key to put my words into the world, there is a tiny chance that they will go beyond the small circle of my readers. There is a tiny chance that I could find myself in a Kafka-esque predicament, a fatwa out on me, the need to hide, to leave my home. Because who knows where words will go and what consequences they will bring? So I hesitate. My hand shakes. Am I safe in my obscurity? Am I safe in my country? How far removed am I from Raif and his horrific fate? Is my safety an illusion? 

As I prepare to press that key and release my words, my heart beating loudly in my ears, I must ask you:  If ever I am imprisoned, beaten, tortured for words that I have said, will you stand up for me? Will you speak up for my life and my right to say what is on my mind? If ever I disappear, will you come find me and set me free?

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