It is no secret that Saudi Arabia, still a chief American ally in the Middle East, has a horrible reputation on human rights, speech, and its policies regarding internet use. Most recently, they have attempted to put a stranglehold on internet communications via VoIP services. Don’t forget as well that any citizen of Saudi Arabia that deigns to use Twitter has given up their claim on their immortal soul, which is sort of an odd stance to take given that members of the Saudi royal family have invested in the microblogging service. And, of course, as any conservative theocracy, they aren’t particularly interested in having critical discussions about the state religion, despite having recently made statements suggesting otherwise.
Actions speak louder than words, as the saying goes, and as one Saudi court has dealt an activist blogger 7 years and 600 lashes, I think we can say Saudi Arabia still sucks at free speech. Raif Badawi had been imprisoned for the past few months for the apparent crime of starting a liberal blog seeking to start religious dialogue within Saudi Arabia.
He is accused of, among other things, breaking Sharia law and starting a website that infringed on religious values.
According to Haidar, her husband just wanted to encourage discussion about religion in his homeland. But starting a liberal Internet forum in conservative Saudi Arabia can be a dangerous pursuit.
It’s a lesson in a great many things for us here in America. First, some of our allies have an awful lot of blood on their hands. Second, allowing any special interest groups, not just religion, to get their meat hooks into the censorship of speech is a dangerous precipice on which to teeter. Finally, free speech, secularism, and the enlightenment should be a global goal, not a local one. For instance, take the difficulty of getting Badawi any representation from the legal community into account.
“No one wanted to take his case,” said Waleed Abualkhair, Badawi’s attorney. “Because they believed that anyone who’d take this kind of case, that means he destroys his (own) reputation. But I don’t believe in that. I believe that everyone has his right to have a lawyer. And I believe that Raif is innocent.”
Abualkhair is more than just Badawi’s attorney. He’s also his brother-in-law and a fellow human-rights activist also on trial in Saudi Arabia.
When the only person willing to represent you in a case about speech is himself on trial for his speech as well, you have a massive problem. Perhaps, like me, your first thought in reading this was to wonder what you could do to help. A noble thought, to be sure, but my first thought is what are the people we elect to represent us doing to help. They should be on this already, not relying on human rights groups.
In the end, if Saudi Arabia wants us to believe their noise about becoming more open to change, it would be best if they started by freeing this peaceful blogger.