Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience in Saudi Arabia – Raif Badawi continues to ponder the dangers of blogging

An update from Mick Hartley on the continuing saga of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi:
In July Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was reported to have been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for “setting up a website that undermines general security” and ridiculing Islamic religious figures.

And now:
A judge in Saudi Arabia has recommended that imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi go before a high court on a charge of apostasy, which would carry the death penalty upon conviction, according to Badawi's wife.

Ensaf Haidar initially told CNN on Wednesday that her husband had been sentenced to death. She later clarified to CNN that a judge has recommended he be tried for denouncing Islam, or apostasy. Apostasy carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty International....

Badawi's legal troubles started shortly after he started the Free Saudi Liberals website in 2008. He was detained for one day and questioned about the site. Some clerics even branded him an unbeliever and apostate.

Human rights groups accuse Saudi authorities of targeting activists through the courts and travel bans. Amnesty International has said Badawi's "is clear case of intimidation against him and others who seek to engage in open debates about the issues that Saudi Arabians face in their daily lives."...

Badawi's wife and the couple's three children now live in Lebanon.
Whether or not Badawi actually winds up getting executed, the most important piece of information in this story is a taken-for-granted feature of the situation, namely that apostasy—specifically, turning against Islam—is a crime in Saudi Arabia, and in principle a capital crime.

This situation is not unique to Saudi Arabia,  It's true that few other countries countries match the extreme levels of legally institutionalized religious intolerance found Saudi Arabia, where public manifestations of any non-Muslim religion are strictly prohibited (and adherents of non-Wahhabi forms of Islam are tolerated to a degree but are also targets of systematic discrimination and intermittent persecution).  But in a large number of Muslim-majority countries—not all of them, but a sizable proportion—converting from Islam to another religion is, at the very least, legally problematic (as carefully documented, for example, in Ann Mayer's excellent and totally non-Islamophobic book Islam and Human Rights).  It is perfectly OK to convert from a non-Muslim religion to Islam, of course, but converting from Islam to another religion can get you into serious legal trouble (here's one relatively mild example) and/or make you a target for unofficial violence (which is likely to go unpunished).  And in several of these countries, including Iran (which happens to be much more religiously tolerant than Saudi Arabia, despite discrimination against non-Muslim minorities and the ferocious persecution of some of them, like the Baha'i), Muslims who convert to Christianity do get charged with apostasy and face possible execution.

Furthermore, getting legally charged with apostasy doesn't necessarily require actual conversion. Sometimes it's enough to advance interpretations of Islam that some people find insufficiently orthodox, or to express views that are deemed excessively secular or anti-clerical. In most cases, such actions merely trigger charges of blasphemy (which can be lethal enough), but in other cases they can get you labeled an apostate, which is even more serious. If these dangers were ever unclear to Raif Badawi, he must be vividly aware of them now.

If Voltaire or Thomas Jefferson or David Hume had been told that this sort of thing would still be a common occurrence in the 21st century, I wonder what they would have thought. I suspect that Voltaire and Jefferson would have been skeptical, but probably not Hume.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  It's probably worth adding that legal prosecutions for blasphemy are by no means limited to Muslim-majority countries (though their governments have taken the lead in promoting world-wide anti-blasphemy legislation in international forums).  On the other hand, I don't know of any non-Islamic countries where apostasy is now treated as a capital crime.  Are there examples that I'm not aware of?