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  • Nothing could uplift the universal image of Saudi Arabia and King Salman more than if today he issued a pardon. World leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who has so far been silent on the issue, should immediately speak out -- as should the media and human rights groups.

  • There was no insult of Islam, of the prophet, or of the Quran, in what Badawi wrote; and, truth be told, God, Islam and the prophet are all beyond insults, and beyond the reach of profanity that occasionally spills forth from the bigoted or tortured minds of individuals.

  • The treatment of Raif Badawi stands out, not merely for its cruelty, but how it has come to symbolize the grotesquely repulsive nature of the Saudi kingdom and what it represents behind the mask of religious austerity.

Tomorrow, Friday, the virtual death sentence by 1000 lashes, delivered "very harshly" according to the flogging order, fifty at a time, might continue for Raif Badawi, a 31-year-old Saudi blogger and father of three, for allegedly "insulting Islam."

The flogging sentence, plus ten years in prison, was upheld last week by Saudi Arabia's supreme court, and can now only be overturned by a pardon from King Salman.

Although Badawi, who is ill and frail, would most certainly perish, in Saudi justice there is little concern for sentences to be proportionate to the crimes for which the accused are found guilty, or for adequate legal representation. Badawi's lawyer, Walid Abu al-Khair, was also jailed, effectively for the crime of representing him.

Badawi was accused of insulting Islam in his blog posts. In a country where thinking is forbidden, Badawi had expressed forbidden thoughts by questioning the nature of his society and going public with them.

Badawi, for instance, had written, "Muslims in Saudi Arabia not only disrespect the beliefs of others, but also charge them with infidelity -- to the extent that they consider anyone who is not Muslim an infidel. They also, within their own narrow definitions, consider non-Hanbali [the Saudi school of Islam] Muslims as apostates. How can we be such people and build... normal relations with six billion humans, four and a half billion of whom do not believe in Islam?"

Raif Badawi and his children, before his 2012 arrest.

There was naivety in putting such thoughts in writing, as Badawi did, and drawing the attention of Saudi thought police. In another post, Badawi suggested, "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."

It appears Badawi wrote in the first blush of what seemed to have been a breath of fresh air, characterized as the "Arab Spring," that wafted across the politically bleak landscape of the Arab world in early 2011. There had come news of a Tunisian vendor who had put lit himself on fire protesting police brutality, and had died as a result; his death sparked a movement against Arab despots.

The anguish of the Tunisian vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, was genuine. His tragic death brought people into the streets, and the Tunisian strongman, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, eventually fled into exile in January 2011. The Tunisian protest stirred Egyptians to rise against their strongman, President Hosni Mubarak, and succeed in toppling him in February 2011.

The "Arab Spring," for those brief few weeks in early 2011, held forth the promise of change for better across the Arab world. And young men like Raif Badawi could be forgiven for imagining that they, too, in Saudi Arabia, could no longer be denied freedom, democracy, and secularism -- the accepted norms in the West.

But the hard realities of the Arab world turned the promise of the "Arab Spring" into the nightmare of religious terror and counter-terror. Saudi Arabia is the incubator and citadel of Islamic fascism, otherwise known as Wahhabism. And here in the land of the two holy cities of Islam -- Mecca and Medina -- religion and politics are inseparable, and anyone who trespasses either does so at the risk of losing his head -- literally -- in the public beheadings that are the hallmark of the Saudi kingdom.

Raif Badawi was arrested, and has been held in prison in Jeddah since June 2012. The arrest of Badawi and Souad al-Shammari came after they together set up the web site called Saudi Liberal Network. It was promptly closed by the authorities when Badawi posted criticism of the Saudi religious police.

The initial sentence for Badawi by the Criminal Court in Jeddah for mischief and subverting public order was for 600 lashes and seven years in prison. He appealed, and the court returned the verdict by raising the sentence to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison. The Saudi supreme court has upheld this sentence.

In the interim Badawi was given 50 lashes in a Jeddah public square in January of this year, while further lashings were suspended on medical grounds. Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, fears the lashings will resume -- according to court order the 1000 lashes are to be completed in 20 sessions in front of a mosque -- and could be fatal for her husband.

* * *

There is very little the outside world can do to change the nature of the Saudi regime, or for that matter the regime in Iran, which is indistinguishable from the Saudi regime in terms of tyranny and the cruelty to which, in both countries, dissidents are subjected.

After Raif Badawi was arrested, Ensaf Haidar and her children found refuge in Quebec, Canada. Across Quebec there has been heartfelt popular support expressed for Raif Badawi, and condemnation of his punishment. Quebec has officially protested Badawi's sentence, while demanding his release from Saudi Arabia so that he might join his family where they have settled.

In response to a Quebec National Assembly resolution, passed unanimously in February, condemning Badawi's lashings in Jeddah in January 2015, the Saudi ambassador to Canada wrote a letter to the Quebec politicians. The same letter was also sent to the Canadian government in Ottawa.

The letter, signed by the Saudi ambassador, Naif Bin Bandir Alsudairy, was obtained by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). It states, "The Kingdom does not accept at all any attack on it in the name of human rights especially when its constitution is based on Islamic law, which guarantees the rights of humans and preserves his blood, money, honour and dignity."

The stand taken by the Quebec government apparently rattled the Saudi kingdom sufficiently to have its ambassador write a letter addressed to members of a provincial legislature.

* * *

It is one of the anomalies of our age that when, by a fluke of nature, large deposits of fossil fuels are discovered in a country, as in Saudi Arabia, it is accorded attention and respect by other countries in excess of anything it has done, or achieved, or by the record of its conduct in human affairs.

Apart from the oil reserves of the kingdom, the House of Saud is indistinguishable from the House of Kim ruling North Korea, and it is as deserving of the same contempt.

Oil has not only made the difference for Saudi Arabia, it has also made the West complicit in the evil that Saudi Arabia does at home and perpetrates abroad: spreading its pre-modern and perverted culture as Islam or, more appropriately, Wahhabism; and funding terror as jihadism.

The treatment of Raif Badawi stands out, not merely for its cruelty, but how it has come to symbolize the grotesquely repulsive nature of the Saudi kingdom and what it represents behind the mask of religious austerity.

Saudi Arabia is possessed with the opposite of the "Midas touch": wherever its money buys influence, there, the natural goodness in society is stained and corroded by its touch.

The tragedy surrounding Raif Badawi is both the savage treatment meted out to a young man by the Saudi regime for simply expressing his thoughts, and of how innocence, when it goes against the culture of Saudi intolerance, is mocked, abused, and strangled.

Raif Badawi is also the face of why "official" Islam -- the one portrayed by Saudi Arabia and the other OIC member states, and to which the West routinely defers – is so terribly retarded. Freedom of thought is anathema to "official" Islam and its defenders, as it once was in the former Soviet Union; it is the defining characteristic of a closed, totalitarian society.

Raif Badawi is a young man, and the thoughts he expressed were the unsullied thoughts of the young that are at once universal in expectations and desires, as they are innocent and unburdened by the hardness of life's experiences.

There was no insult of Islam, of the prophet, or of the Quran, in what Badawi wrote; and truth be told, God, Islam, and the prophet are all beyond insults, and beyond the reach of profanity that occasionally spills forth from the bigoted or tortured minds of individuals.

"Official" Islam is an insult to Muslims and non-Muslims alike -- for "official" Islam is politics devoid of any redeeming quality found in faith, which nourishes the spiritual yearning of people and uplifts them in a broken world. Through betrayal and hypocrisy, "official" Islam insults God, Islam, and the prophet, every minute of each day, and has become a torment to Muslims.

It is "official" Islam, and Wahhabism in its most perverted expression among Sunni Muslims, that has turned God -- Allah in Arabic -- repeatedly invoked in the Quran as the "Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful," into a vengeful and capricious deity.

The Quran states that on the Day of Reckoning the prophet will speak forth, "O my Lord! Lo! mine own folk make this Qur'an of no account" (25:30). In another verse, the Quran instructs the prophet to tell the wandering Arabs of the desert that they have merely submitted, but they have no belief "for the faith hath not yet entered into your hearts" (49:14). And then there is the verse stating categorically, "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256).[1]

When religion is reduced to politics then it is the logic of politics, hence power and coercion, that takes precedence. In Albert Camus's striking formulation, "Politics is not religion, or if it is, then it is nothing but the Inquisition."[2] In Saudi Arabia, religion is a daily dose of inquisition, and the executioner with his sword is both the reality and the symbol of the vengeful deity that bears little resemblance to the merciful and compassionate God of the Quran.

Raif Badawi's innocence betrayed him. Age and experience would have taught him the hard reality of his culture, veiled by the mask of "official" Islam. This hard reality of Arab culture has been best understood by Arab poets through the years of Arab and Muslim history. Here is one example of a poet's disgust with the hard reality of his country's culture and politics. These are lines from a poem of Nizar Qabbani (1923-98), a much-loved Syrian-Arab poet:

When a helmet becomes God in heaven
and can do what it wishes
with a citizen – crush, mash
kill and resurrect
whatever it wills,
then the state is a whorehouse,
history is a rag,
and thought is lower than boots.

When a breath of air
comes by decree
of the sultan,
when every grain of wheat we eat,
every drop of water we drink
comes only by decree
of the sultan,
when an entire nation turns into
a herd of cattle fed in the sultan's
shed, embryos will suffocate
in the womb, women will miscarry
and the sun will drop
a black noose over our square.[3]

The Sultan's power is vainglorious, whimsical, easily insulted, and secured by perpetrating fear, and the realm he rules by decree is by necessity a slaughterhouse.

If Raif Badawi survives the thousand lashes in the slaughterhouse that is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it will be a testimony of how an individual's courage, born of innocence, might well defy the Sultan's decree.

Nothing could uplift the universal image of Saudi Arabia or King Salman more than if today he issued a pardon.

World leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who has so far been silent on the issue, should immediately speak out -- as should the media and human rights groups.


[1] Verses quoted from the Quran are from The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, translated by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall (New York: Alfred A. Knopf and Everyman's Library, 1930, 1992).

[2] A. Camus, The Rebel (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1956), p. 302.

[3] Nizar Qabbani, "From The Actors" in Salma Khadra Jayyusi (editor), Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), pp. 378-379.

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