My selfish nature kicked into overdrive when I read about Raif Badawi. At 32, he’s roughly my age; two years older. He likes to write, just like I do. He values the human right of free thought and choice, just like I do.
For his troubles, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of our country’s closest allies.
Ten years and 1,000 lashes? For writing about the necessity of free thought and secularism? Surely my eyes deceived me, especially on today, December 10, Human Rights Day?
My persistent hectoring of the ideology of religion has felt – dare I say – God given throughout my life. I grew up in an extremely religious town in Illinois called Wheaton (which I used to refer to as “Whitetown” among my friends. Gotta kill boredom somehow, right?). No one was ever beheaded in Wheaton as they so frequently are in Saudi Arabia, but students at Wheaton College are punished for sex and vices, such as drinking, smoking, and until about 10 years ago, dancing.
Fewer things have given me more joy than having conversations about God and the concept of religion with people, freely expressing my own opinion. In many ways, I took it for granted. The conversations growing up were quite pleasant, on the whole, as it turns out most people are happy to give you their side of the story and hear your side.
For years, I didn’t know I could do this. Toe the line and go to church a few times a year, was the message from my family. Speaking up against god? That’s sinful. In church, we were taught to help people because that’s what god wanted, not because it was a good thing to do for another human. When bad things happened, god was angry. For this, god gained the reputation of something of a sensitive, temperamental, and angry upstairs neighbor.
I reeled from the death of my mother during my teen years. Mindless days of depression gave way to curiosity about the paucity of a god. There was no god who had left me alone, I realized; god was never there to begin with, and if there was a god, it was something closer to nature, something in all of us.
I openly questioned the ethics and concepts of religion. Faces twisted into a mangled mess and voices pitched up or down multiple octaves until I learned to question a bit more tactfully. Sometimes the faces twisted into smiles and I knew I had made a new friend.
Badawi wrote on topics that kept me sane and surely made him feel free, even if momentarily. The humor found in a lack of God when everyone arounds you believes in nothing but god still makes me chuckle, as I hope he still can time to time despite his situation.
I’d have surely gone insane during many parts of my life without secularism and free thought, the two finest cornerstones of America. There were moments where an amazing article activated my adrenaline gland and made my heart beat faster; it made me want to write even more and made me believe in the power of the word.
Songs have pulled me out of depressed moments and put life’s beauty and pain into context; sometimes I wanted to die before a song played and was lulled to complacency, even love of life, by its end.
Pieces of art lured me into new views of the beauty and horror of life; sometimes one can best see what man is capable of through a cinematic look at a monster or the painted beauty of life through someone else’s eyes.
Yet Badawi gets 1,000 lashes, a possible death sentence, and a decade of his life taken away for the mere discussion of these values.
In May 2012, just before he was arrested for “insulting Islam through electronic channels,” Badawi wrote about what liberalism meant to him:
“For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live. This is a splendid slogan. However, the nature of liberalism – particularly the Saudi version – needs to be clarified. It is even more important to sketch the features and parameters of liberalism, to which the other faction, controlling and claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means. They have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet. But their hold over people’s minds and society shall vanish like dust carried off in the wind.”
Again: 10 years and 1,000 lashes. For a belief in truth. For wanting minds to roam as free as they please.
When you boil it down, you realize that all Badawi wants is for his people, all people, to be human, to use their thoughts and minds in ways that are exciting, scary, and above all else, freeing. But his government, one of our closest allies, would rather see him whipped and locked away in a cage.
My heart breaks for Badawi and aches for everyone who believes in free thought, yet cannot express it, as in Badawi’s situation. At times, I grow disappointed at those of us in the West who see that our ability to think freely is readily accessible, yet choose fundamentalism over the possibility of being proven wrong or hearing what we consider to be an offensive statement. That feeling seems as if it will soon travel all the way to the executive branch.
Perhaps we’re more like our allies than we think. Perhaps we would prefer our thoughts be locked down and our wildly free voices caged. But I cannot let this moment slip by and I will readily say that our closest ally and their religious excuse for caging a free voice is absolute, inhumane nonsense.
Their fear, however, is founded: With a country full of men and women like Badawi, there would be no Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for a republic would grow in its place.
Writer’s note: In the future, I will write more about those who are punished for writing in an effort to bring their stories to more people. I believe it is every human’s right to write, say, read, think, and believe what they see fit to. Why? Because in a truly free society, the best ideas win. The most humane ideas win, ideas are separated from people, and we take care of ourselves even as we criticize our own.