UTBB Special : I Stand With Raif

Paul from the Quranify Me Podcast asked that I contribute some words to a special episode he was putting together for Raif Badawi. I, of course, gladly obliged. For those who are unfamiliar with Raif’s story, he is a Saudi blogger who founded the website Free Saudi Liberals (since closed by order of the Saudi government), where he wrote a number of articles critical of Saudi leaders and their policies. He was arrested and ultimately charged with 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes. These lashes were to be administered 50 at a time each week for 20 weeks. His first public flogging was carried out on January 9, 2015, and the condemnation from the international community, as well as Saudis themselves, took the regime by surprise. Raif himself was severely injured, and subsequent floggings have been postponed eight times by the Saudi court, on the claim that he is not healthy enough to sustain further punishment at this time. There is no doubt, however, that the main reason is the backlash this brutal punishment has caused across the world, and how the injustice of Raif’s punishment has portrayed Saudi Arabia in an extremely negative light. However, Raif’s wife Ensar revealed that the Saudis are going to retry him for apostasy, and, if convicted, it would be an automatic death sentence.

NGO’s led by Amnesty International, as well the governments of many nations have called for the release of Raif. Also, petitions with millions of signatures have been delivered asking the Saudi government to re-evaluate their sentence. There has even been a petition in which the signees have volunteered to take lashes for Raif. As of this writing, March 9, 2015, the Saudi government has refused to relent, and Raif remains in prison, awaiting an uncertain fate.

In lieu of a regular episode, I’m releasing my monologue to the UTBB feed. Joe had a hectic work week, as well a bachelor party to attend, so we were unable to record. We will be recording later this week, however, prior to his nuptials and honeymoon. Poor guy!

I encourage you to listen to the entire episode of Quranify Me dedicated to Raif. It is two hours long, and contains the voices of many in the secular podcast and activist community. My voice is but one of many in this tribute. I’m also including links to petitions from change.org and Amnesty International to asking the Saudi government to free Raif. If you haven’t already, please sign these petitions. It may seem like “slacktivism” to some, but when thousands sign, it can really make a difference.

Lastly, I wanted to thank Paul for putting this episode together on such short notice. He has emerged as a leader and friend to those oppressed by Islam.  He serves as inspiration through his interviews and advocacy, and he has become a beacon of hope to those who feel isolated and weighed down by the burden of oppression. For those who can’t tell you themselves: Thank you. You are saving lives and making a difference.

The link to the audio of my monologue is here.

Episode 49 of Quranify Me “We Stand With Raif and Ensaf” can be found here.

The change.org petition can be found here.

The Amnesty International petition can be found here.

What follows is the written transcript of the monologue I contributed to the show. As a rule, am I a better writer than speaker, as I tend to stumble over words when reading a prepared text. I can assure you, however, that the feelings of outrage and disgust that I express in these words are genuine.

Badawi argued on 28 September 2010 in favor of “secularism [as] the most important refuge for citizens of a country.” Urged by clerics not to attend “heretical” celebrations marking Saudi national day, he underlined the importance of separating religion from the state. Strikingly he does not attack the Saudi monarchy and even praises the liberal governor of Mecca, the intellectual and poet Khaled al-Faisal Al Saud.

“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.”

By his words and thoughts, Raif Badawi shows he is a beacon of rational and well-reasoned commentary not only in his native Saudi Arabia, but indeed throughout the Muslim world. Here we have a man who through his masterful prose displays a thorough understanding of the world around him. Through compassion, wit, and satire, he shows that he truly cares about the values of liberalism, which he defines as “live and let live”. This is a message that is universal, thus Raif speaks for all of us, and not just his nation, or religion, or region. On a personal level, I find his constraint and civility remarkable considering the constant negative feedback he received, and then his ultimate sentencing by a Saudi court. He doesn’t call for the overthrow for the government, nor is he disrespectful to the Saudi princes themselves, indeed praising them on occasion.  He still considers himself an observant Muslim, and he is not ashamed of this. Under similar circumstances can any of us say that we would be so even-handed and level-headed against those who would oppress us? Can any one of us that we would even start a blog knowing the consequences could ultimately be fatal? I, myself, will not make that claim. But Raif did dare. And that what makes him the very definition of bravery.

As an American, and, at least I strive to be, a freethinker, I am horrified by the turn of events that have led to Raif not only receiving such a brutal punishment, but also now the possibility of a gruesome death. While this country of mine is by no means perfect, there is one thing that, to me, is the greatest gift that is bestowed upon us by our Constitution: free speech. Nowhere else in the world is this ideal held as dearly as it is in the U.S. I take for granted that I have this right, as I’m sure many do, but when I see what has happened to Raif JUST BECAUSE HE WROTE A BLOG, I have a crystal clear realization that free speech as we enjoy it here in this country is by no means a universally applied concept. It bears repeating that this brilliant man wrote a blog. He did not threaten violence; he did not encourage treason; he did not urge others to take up arms against the Saudi regime. The only thing he did was to argue that those in power should strive to make decisions based on rational ideas, not religious dogma. Yes, he wrote brilliant and scathing satire against the government, but it was all couched in feelings of a true patriotism; the desire to make his country better. This encourages me as an American, as one who wants to truly see our country strive to become a leader again, not in military might or consumer capital, but instead a leader in the higher ideals of humanism and humility. I know as an individual I can have limited impact upon our way of life. But if enough individuals come together for these greater ideals, than true change can happen. This is the actions we should undertake to honor those such as Raif, who put himself at risk of imprisonment, injury, and perhaps even death to articulate his views. Not only should we do this, we MUST. Otherwise his sacrifice will be in vain, and we have proven our vaunted values to be nothing but empty rhetoric.

Raif’s writing is magnificent, not only from a technical standpoint, but from the insight he brings on the issues he covers. He is not afraid to upset those in power, nor is he afraid to tip sacred cows. But these words come not from anger or bitterness; they come from a place of love for his homeland. And that love of his people, indeed all people, shines through. It is difficult oftentimes to get a clear picture from the mainstream media as to what it is truly like for someone living under the Saudi regime. Even staid reports from the region fail to convey the true feelings of the “man on the street”. When one reads Raif’s blog, however, a glimpse of what it’s like for someone of my disposition, a progressive humanist, to live in such a society. Through this lens, I can see the true oppression and sense of helplessness implicit in a place where every word and action must be closely guarded, lest the morality police carry you away, never to be seen again. I can see the abhorrent treatment of women and their relegation to second class citizens, indeed, even slaves. But I can also see, beyond all reason, a glimmer of hope; that somehow things can get better. That the tide will turn, and that the grip of extremism will loosen and eventually fall away altogether. And this is perhaps the greatest thing about Raif’s writing: his ability to show the worse in his circumstances, while also giving one cause to hope for a better day. This is not only the sign of a great writer; but also of a great human being.

What inspiration can one draw from such a man but to want to stand up and not speak, but scream, against injustice? Who are we, in the place where freedom of speech is enshrined as almost religious dogma, not to put all we have into putting our voices out against the things we see as unbearable, unjust, and inexcusable? In the Western world, and most especially in the U.S., we have a duty to speak out, more so because so many others do not have such a right. For every Raif, there are thousands more who undergo the same oppression silently, and they cannot tell us of their plight. These are the ones we need to speak for, if for no one else. Otherwise their voices will never be heard.

If anything is to be gleaned from Raif’s message, it is that we must speak for our beliefs in any way we can, whether it be through a blog, a podcast, or even letters to the editor. Write your representatives; speak to your senators; email the president. Even if you think your voice means nothing, speak, because in the end, it does mean something. Because you are not the only one raising your voice. There are millions more like you who you will never see who speak with the same fervor about injustice wherever it is to be found. In America, and also other Western democracies, we have a unique privilege of being able to speak our minds freely, and we should take advantage of this privilege as much as possible.

To Raif’s wife Ensaf and their three children Terad, Najwa, and Miriam I would say simply: be strong, for that is what he needs most right now. Know that there are many people such as myself who are putting the word out loud and clear that what Raif is going through is a travesty and a gross miscarriage of justice. NGO’s led by Amnesty International are actively campaigning for his release. Petitions have been signed by millions asking that the Saudi government release Raif. I know none of these things can replace your precious, beautiful husband and father, but I hope it some consolation. You are an example to all of us of strength and resilience.


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