Yesterday, I joined six of my colleagues on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in an open letter (see below) to the Saudi ambassador in Washington concerning the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who is being punished for expressing dissenting views on religion and politics. He was originally sentenced to seven years in prison and six hundred lashes. On appeal, his sentence was raised to ten years in prison and one thousand lashes, as well as a hefty fine of one million riyal, the Saudi currency. (A freelance writer has a good summary of the case and a roundup of news links here.) The lashing, which began a couple of weeks ago, is to be carried out in installments of fifty lashes, each Friday for twenty weeks. (The UK’s Daily Mail covered the first round of the beatings here.) Round two of beatings, to be held this past Friday, was delayed because he had not healed sufficiently from the first week’s beatings to withstand another one quite so soon. I suppose the authorities might find themselves a bit red-faced if he died before they had barely gotten started, but some observers think there is a good chance this will kill him before it’s over in any case.
In the letter to the Saudi ambassador, the seven of us call on his government to halt this brutal, unjust punishment, and, failing that, we offer to each take one hundred of the lashes. When this idea was originally floated, my first thought was that I was too scared (cowardly?) to sign on. My second, more comforting thought was that the Saudis would never call our bluff, as it were, so it was a safe gamble in our attempt to bring enough negative attention to the case that they might reconsider their cruelty. (There’s also a slim hope that the publicity will move President Obama and Secretary Kerry, who are understandably embarrassed at the absence of high-level US officials from the recent, massive rally in France—where, by the way, many carried #IAmRaif placards—to involve themselves in this matter.) My third thought, though, was that I should not sign the letter unless I was genuinely committed to taking the lashes if the Saudis took us up on our offer. Especially in light of the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day earlier this week, I’ve been thinking what it means to sacrifice for others, to go to the Cross, as some might say, in the fight for justice. Similarly, for those who believe it is something to be emulated and not just admired, what does it mean to say, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”? What is our responsibility for this man who is suffering for nothing more than exercising his freedom of speech and freedom of religion?
PDF version of our letter: Standing in Solidarity with Raif Badawi
(Worryingly, the website of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, led by one of the signatories, went down right after posting the letter. I’m told that signs point to a cyberattack, but I don’t know more.)