Global Citizen versus Theocracy - A Review of Raif Badawi's Book - by Sascha Feuchert

Global Citizen versus Theocracy - A Review of Raif Badawi's Book - by Sascha Feuchert

Saudi Blogger Raif Badawi is imprisoned for offending Islam and still threatened with weekly flogging. Now some of his texts are published as a book. Review by Sascha Feuchert, Professor for German literature in Gießen, Vice –President of PEN Germany and Chairman of PEN Germany’s “Writers in Prison” programme, supporting persecuted writers all over the world.

Translation into English by Friederike Mussgnug
Original to be published in German on www.faz.net
published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 4 th April 2015, p 11


At first sight, slogans scribbled on the walls of a loo seem to be about the most irrelevant cultural testimony one can think of. But no-one less than Ödon von Horvath in his play “Italian Night” has written a line for the part of the “host” pointing out that those scribbling above and next to the urinal are almost as good as any opinion poll: if those lines rise above the erotic or patriotic and become political a state had better look out for danger. Insofar it is not surprising that as a careful an observer as the Arabian blogger and author Raif Badawi will notice – in as unlikely a place as a jail toilet – that amongst the many obscene scribbles there is written something that is nothing less than dynamite in a theocracy: “the answer is secularism”. His discovery did not only “utterly astonish” Badawi. “I was intensely astonished and happy about this short, beautiful phrase, which fell so glaringly out of its context. To get to read this meant that somewhere in this prison there must be someone who understands me. Someone who understands what I fought for and what I am imprisoned for”.

In the last months Raif Badawi has become a worldwide symbol for resistance against the Islamic theocracy and its absolute claim for power. Ever since 2012 he has been imprisoned in Jeddah, sentenced to a ten year term in prison, a fine of 1 million Rial (about 194.000 €) and incredible 1000 whip-strokes of flogging, that are to be publicly executed in weekly doses. On 9th January he was flogged for the first time, “surrounded by a jubilant crowd that kept calling out “Allau Akhbar””. Ever since – for Saudi-Arabia rather uncommon – punishment has been suspended. This may be due to an international storm of protest, in which German Human Rights organizations and politicians were intensely involved.

Referral to the Principle of religious tolerance

The punishment has not been quashed though, and each Friday millions of people fear for and with Badawi. They did so even while they could not exactly know what the blogger actually had written that was judged to be an “offence against Islam” and for what he was declared an “infidel”. Indeed that is a not infrequent dilemma of activists for freedom of expression: they support imprisoned authors without being able to read their works.

For Badawi this has changed now: with the help of Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar and the journalist Constantin Schreiber the Ullstein–edition has published a slender compilation “1000 whip-lashes. Because I tell my opinion” that contains 14 central texts of the internet-activist. Along with those there is a preface that Badawi has dictated to his wife piece by piece on the phone and that addresses directly the German reader. According to reports the Foreign Office had cautioned against a publication at the present moment. But 31 year old Badawi bravely went on with the plan. Not least because he and his family urgently need the money that is to come to them by this non-profit-project.

The compiled short prose-texts (put into context by brief notes from Schreiber) all had been initially published online between 2010 and 2012. By now they have disappeared from there and turning to a seemingly outdated medium became necessary to bring back Badawi’s texts to its audience and most of all to secure them for the long term and to archive them. This remarkable change of medium towards the printed book – enlightenment’s medium per se – is entirely consistent if you consider what Badawi deals with – for himself and for his readers. The author develops and defends fundamental principles of enlightenment against a religious narrow-mindedness that the state tries to protect with harshest measures. “Questioning Islam” in Saudi-Arabia – after all – can easily lead to capital punishment.

Against this Badawi invokes – obviously trained amongst others in the European model – natural and human rights and refers to himself “first of all as a global citizen”: “Whether we like it or not, we are part of mankind and therefore the same duties apply to us as to all other men. And we have the same rights. In the same measure as the others respect our being different we have to respect their being different from us”. Especially religious tolerance is his central issue:  “Respecting the religious principles of men, their decisions and their inborn right to freedom of religious belief demand from us a certain generosity. How would it be if we did like the others and tried to build up a humanist civilization and normal relations with 6 million men, 4.5 millions of whom do not belong to Islam?” Badawi is not a theorist but his sometimes simple sentences, made authentic by all the distress he is subjected to, do not miss their mark. “Sensible and rational humanity are the one and only catalyst and motor for building a society under the sign of tolerance, creativity and technological progress. No religion whatever can work human progress. That is no fault to be fastened on religion; this is quite simply due to the fact that religions will be religions and as such personal and intimate spiritual relations between an individual and its maker.”

By now the western model itself is in danger

With great verve Badawi explains the idea of liberalism that for many Muslims “is tantamount with blasphemy, apostasy, moral decline, nudism, homosexual marriage”. Against this Badawi emphatically holds forth: “Liberalism offers everything that guarantees existence to individual freedom. It guarantees freedom of to practice your religious belief as well.  However it does neither by dictation nor by tyranny force one specific spiritual concept onto society.  And that is a gain – no gratification or compromise.”

As a western reader one might be tempted to think Badawi’s seemingly unbroken belief in progress naïve, especially if he praises the development of the west as a model for the Arabian world. One might fear Badawi to be on the way to an uncritical ideology of enlightenment that is so preoccupied with theocracy that it doesn’t want and cannot see where the western project had its stumbling stones or even got terribly mislead. But the blogger is neither naïve nor blind. He knows only too well that the West undergoes a deep crisis. “By the climate of a dominant culture and the nature of a new economical orientation the so-called western model threatens the future of modernity and democracy. It threatens the values of enlightenment and the principles of the French Revolution”.

He saw the radicalization of Islam

Consistently, the small book ends with a call for a genuine Arabic enlightenment, an upheaval that has no historic model to follow: “We will begin only when we fully understand that we need to start neither from where our equals have halted nor where our predecessors have started from. We have to start from where we have to take it. That is from the afresh.” He saw first signs of this in the Arabian Spring of 2012.  One would long to know how he assesses the present situation, but apart from his preface the reader has yet to wait for more contemporary texts from Badawi. At any rate his brief text “Dreams about a Caliphate” plainly shows that he already saw the radicalization of Islamic terrorists.

It may be left to be seen whether Badawi’s work really can become an “imperative for muslims living in Germany” as the editor Constantin Schreiber writes in his introduction. One thing however it definitely is: a small and yet great book. 

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