Saudi blogger is a political prisoner, not an apostate

Raif Badawi’s wife, who now resides in Canada as a political refugee, argues her husband's prosecution for apostasy has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with politics
Photo: Amnesty Finland

Another Friday has come and gone as Raif Badawi’s loved ones breathe a sigh of relief that he has been spared for just one more week. But the situation is still very grim for the 31-year-old, as weeks ago Saudi courts ordered a retrial with a judge known to have wanted to condemn him to death for apostasy. Without the retrial he would have to complete his sentence of 1,000 lashes over the course of several weeks for “insulting Islam.”

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UPDATE: The Saudi government today demanded Quebec stop meddling in the case, a request met with defiance from the government, which vowed to continue pushing for Badawi's release.

The case has the international community up in arms; governments from across the world are calling for his release and demanding that the Saudi government stop the flogging. But they aren’t the only ones questioning Saudi Arabia’s decision. Many in the Muslim community are concerned about the reasons behind the prescribed punishment and how the judge reached this verdict.

But what is of particular interest is the fact that it was Mohamed Raif Badawi, the father, who triggered the domino effect that would have his son potentially face the death penalty. “His father filed a lawsuit against Raif accusing him of disobedience towards his parents, and this is how the whole situation started in 2008,” Ensaf Haidar, Raif Badawi’s wife, told Ricochet. Haidar and the three young children she has with Badawi have lived in Sherbrooke, Quebec since 2013, after gaining political asylum.

Saudi law dictates that offspring can be accused of disobedience under circumstances of violence or disrespect towards their parents. As there is no prescribed punishment for this accusation in sharia (Islamic law), it is up to a judge to decide how the child is punished, which can range from community service to flogging and prison time.

Insulting Islam, or the state?

Mohamed Raif Badawi has made multiple videos about what he did. “People that don’t fear God have come and taken away my children. Enemies of the state have come and influenced my children to be traitors to their country,” he explains in Arabic in one YouTube video. “My children have become enemies of the state.”

Apostasy, however, was never mentioned at any point in his monologue. When Raif was arrested the first time for his writings, he was let off with a warning after he stood before the court and swore that he was Muslim and believed in Islam. His wife denies any accusations of apostasy but Raif could still stand trial for insulting Islam.

Seeing that the father never condemned his son for apostasy, one wonders how Saudi Arabia came up with this accusation. Raif wrote about government reform and change in the Saudi system, reflecting a growing sentiment in the country. Many have come out and spoken against the way the monarchy deals with internal affairs, arguing that human rights are violated when it comes to women and the country’s Shia minority.

Raif was in contact with Waleed AbulKhair, a human rights lawyer who has criticized the Saudi government many times and heard prison cells lock behind him for his active role in bringing change to his country. Abulkhair also happens to be married to Raif’s sister, Samar Badawi, who also was an advocate for political change in Saudi Arabia.

A warning to dissidents

These aspects of Raif’s case show that he is facing 950 remaining lashes for political, not criminal, reasons. He is being used as a warning; anyone who speaks out against the government may find themselves facing the death penalty as their comrade does today. It’s clear that this situation has little to do with religion and a lot to do with politics and the effects of the Arab Spring.

Taken from a religious perspective, sharia law stipulates that two types of punishment can be passed down on wrongdoers, governed by prescribed laws and discretionary laws. The former are clearly mentioned in sacred text that details how to mete out the punishment. The latter offer no clear ruling on how to deal with related cases, leaving punishment to the discretion of a judge. However, discretionary laws are limited in scope.

“A lot of premodern jurists set a limit on how many lashes a person can receive for discretionary punishments: a well-known position is that it cannot be more than 39 so that it is less than the smallest punishment from prescribed laws, namely drinking in some of the schools,” explains Dr. Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim, professor in Islamic studies at McGill University. What Raif “said about separation between state and religion would not normally constitute apostasy. What does constitute apostasy are things like denying that the Qur’an is the word of God.”

Haidar says that her husband never crossed the line to apostasy in any of his writings. “Raif started the website Free Saudi Liberals in 2006,” she explains. “It was a very popular site in which many people would come and discuss human rights, women’s rights, freedom of belief and thought and opinion. He never discussed any topics relating to apostasy.”

This could be why the government decided on a harsh verdict in Raif Badawi’s case. Concerns about the foundation of the throne and young Saudis no longer intent on following the monarchy blindly could lead to intimidation of the populace through a thousand lashes and a looming death penalty. But youth wish to express their opinions and make decisions about their political leaders — possibly democratically — and a growing movement within the borders of Saudi Arabia is calling for political change.

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