Ten Years and 1,000 Lashes: Why We Must Advocate for Raif Badawi

How much does our society value freedom of speech? What would we risk to have our voices heard? For 31 year-old Saudi writer and activist Raif Badawi, it could cost him his very life. His blog entitled “Free Saudi Liberals”, which challenges the central role of ultra-conservative religion within Saudi Arabia, has come under the condemnation of the state’s Supreme Court for apostasy and “insulting Islam through electric channels.”

This has resulted in a 10 year sentence, a fine, and 1,000 lashes. Badawi, who received the first 50 lashes before a large public audience in January, has become an international representative for freedom of expression. Dubbed a “Prisoner of Conscience” by human rights group Amnesty International, Badawi’s case has been championed by activists and academics worldwide, and his sentencing has come under criticism from the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Canada, and others.

In January a group of Nobel Laureates, including author J.M. Coetzee, advocated for Badawi's case in an open letter published in The Independent to leading Saudi academics, and expressed dismay at the “severe restrictions on freedom of thought and expression still being applied to Saudi Arabian society.”

Shortly after its release, a letter was addressed to the ambassador to Saudi Arabia and signed by seven religious freedom advocates from various ethnic and faith-based backgrounds who offered to each take 100 lashes in Badawi’s stead, as stated in The Independent: “We would rather share in his victimization than stand by and watch him being cruelly tortured. If your government does not see fit to stop this from happening, we are prepared to present ourselves to receive our share of Mr. Badawi’s unjust punishment.”

What drives others to take a stand for a stranger in another country willing to express his opinion? Why is Badawi’s sentencing so important for Christians in the United States to pay attention and respond to?

How much does our society value freedom of speech? What would we risk to have our voices heard?

Princeton Professor Robert George, a signatory of the letter, emphasized in the Independent article that “compassion, a virtue honored in Islam as well as in Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths, is defined as ‘suffering with another.’ We are persons of different faiths, yet we are united in a sense of obligation to condemn and resist injustice and suffer with its victims, if need be.”

This sense of obligation is aptly expressed by former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who wrote a personal letter to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in an appeal for Badawi’s clemency, stating on www.raifbadawi.org that “We are all members of faiths that underscore mercy and forgiveness.” In his 1999 book No Future Without Forgiveness, Tutu expresses that our humanity is inextricably bound up with that of others, for we are “diminished when other are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

Badawi’s sentencing under an absolute Saudi monarchy and powerful religious clerics that does not tolerate freedom of speech needs to become a point of contention and call to action for those committed to public justice. His struggle for an open forum regarding matters of the state, religion, and freedom of expression echoes our calls for justice and expression within our own schools, media, church, and government.

There are several ways we can actively advocate on behalf of Badawi, who faces his next 50 lashes in public as soon as this Friday. Amnesty International’s US office urges advocates to write, call, and email on his behalf. The organization’s campaign for Badawi includes a “Write for Rights” letter to sign to King Salman, the phone number to call the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC, as well as the address to Badawi’s wife, who, along with their three children, has sought asylum in Canada. There is also a #FREERAIF activist toolkit with suggestions for tweeting his case and tweeting directly to @raif_badawi to communicate your support for him through prayer and action.

May we continue to be advocates for justice as we stand alongside those fighting for their voices to be heard in Saudi Arabia and beyond. Badawi represents a generation in his country struggling for a more open society in which their viewpoints on a multitude of social issues can be fearlessly expressed. May we steadfastly lift up the safety of Badawi and his generation, which represents more than half of the population of Saudi Arabia, in a prayer for freedom of speech, open discussion regarding religion, and opportunities for their influential voices to be represented. 

- Sara Burback served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the glorious nation of Kazakhstan, where, in addition to teaching English, she developed a keen interest in democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech (or lack thereof) in the former Soviet Union. She expanded upon this at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies, where she earned her MA in International Human Rights. She now works at the Institute of International Education in Washington, DC. Photo via Amnesty International.