Nothing better symbolizes the craziness of the Middle East, and the contradictions of U.S. policy, than the case of the Saudi blogger sentenced to a 1,000 lashes for advocating free speech.
I wrote about Raif Badawi in January after he received his first 50 lashes. Since then, a global campaign by human rights groups and by his courageous wife, who was granted asylum in Canada, has prevented more whipping. But Badawi, who is also serving a 10-year jail term, is now in danger of being retried on apostasy charges, which are punishable by death.
He could be beheaded.
The importance of this story goes beyond the need to rescue a courageous human rights campaigner from a barbaric sentence. The Badawi case makes a mockery of the supposed alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia to end the Islamic State “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.
Badawi was arrested because his blog, the Saudi Free Liberals Forum, dared to critique the harsh Saudi interpretation of Islam – and the role of religion in politics. Yet the Saudi brand of Islam, known as Wahhabism – so evident in the sentencing of Badawi – is not so different from that of the jihadis they despise.
This narrow interpretation is a variant of the Salafi doctrine whose adherents seek to live like the earliest Muslims. It is intolerant of other religions and even other Muslim sects, while decrying all infidels. It calls on Muslims to reject Western values and norms.
For decades, the Saudi kingdom has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to spread its version of the faith across the Muslim world by funding religious schools and textbooks from Central Asia to all the Arab states to Pakistan. Tens of thousands of Syrians and Egyptians, who came to Saudi Arabia as guest workers, also absorbed these ideas. Private Saudis were in the forefront of funding radical Islamist groups in the fight against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad (it is still unclear whether all of this funding has ceased).
The difference between the radical Saudi version of Islam and the jihadis’ is that groups such as Islamic State took their thinking one step further. Whereas Saudi clerics call for total obedience to the ruler, the jihadis label current Arab rulers “infidels” and seek to overthrow them by force.
Badawi, on the other hand, was trying to encourage the kind of peaceful debate that is essential if Arab nations are ever to emerge from the backwardness that fueled the failed Arab Spring.
According to the United Nations’ famous Arab Human Development Report of 2002 – compiled by Arab intellectuals – the Arab world has been held back by a freedom deficit, a knowledge deficit (poor schools, little translation of foreign books), and a women’s empowerment deficit. The report also hinted between the lines at the role that religion may have played in these deficits. Its authors say little has changed since the original report.
These failures drove many young people into the streets for the Arab Spring of 2011. Badawi was only trying to discuss these issues online.
His questions were especially pertinent in Saudi Arabia because they questioned the role of intolerant Islam in stifling Arab creativity. “As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas,” he wrote on Aug. 12, 2010 (as translated by the Guardian newspaper), “you will find hundreds of fatwas that accused 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.”
In September 2011, Badawi decried Saudi clerics like the TV preacher who called for astronomers to be punished on the grounds that they encouraged skepticism about sharia law. Just before his arrest, Badawi wrote about why he was attracted to liberalism, and why extremist clerics turned people against it. “For me liberalism simply means live and let live,” he wrote. This is the opposite of those who claim an “exclusive monopoly of truth.”
Of course, Islamic State specializes in claiming that monopoly and beheading those who challenge it. Anyone who disagrees is proclaimed to be an infidel and must die.
So how can it be that our close Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia, could display similar intolerance toward Badawi? When asked about this, Saudi officials insist they won’t tolerate any interference with their “independent judiciary.” This is a thin cover story designed to stifle debate about the impact of Saudi religious ideology at home and abroad.
Sixty members of Congress have urged the Saudi government to unconditionally release Badawi and other prisoners of conscience, including his lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, who was sentenced to 15 years for daring to take the case. Amnesty International has called for the immediate release of both men.
And the Obama administration should make this point forcefully to its Saudi ally: You cannot fight against Islamic State while promoting a religious ideology that encourages a similar mindset. You cannot threaten to behead an intellectual who seeks the religious reform desperately needed in your country and the region.
So long as Raif Badawi remains in jail, the Saudi campaign against Islamic State is a joke.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.