Religio-political blogging is a pretty much a thankless task. You air your opinions in public in the hope that others will take note, listen and learn. If just a handful of readers come away challenged or inspired, then it’s done some good, but for every person who shares their gratitude via a supportive comment or re-tweet, there are a good deal more who would prefer it if you would just shut up and go away. Some are more than happy to tell you this, and the language is not always civilised.
At least here in the UK we don’t usually have to cope with much more than a few insults and disparaging comments. Rather that any day than the utterly appalling treatment of Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, who earlier this month had his sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison upheld. Badawi’s ‘crime’, according to Human Rights Watch, was his “involvement in setting up a website for peaceful discussion about religion and religious figures”. The Saudi court had a significantly different opinion, finding him guilty of founding an Internet forum that “violates Islamic values and propagates liberal thought”.
As this case proves once again, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is, frankly, appalling. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the matter of Badawi’s punishment came up during questions to Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay in the House of Lords a few days ago. Following a query from the Bishop of St Albans, she gave this curious response:
My Lords, I think we have to recognise that the actions of the Saudi Government in these respects have the support of the vast majority of the Saudi population. Against that background, we maintain our view that freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression are core rights that lead to long-term stability and good governance.
These are indeed core rights, which make it all the more difficult to understand how in any way public opinion could trump them. It’s a dangerous argument which has been used in the past to exclude various sections of society in many countries, and carry out blatant programmes of persecution. The UK is a signatory to the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Article 18 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom.” So on what basis do we decide that governments may be allowed to play fast and loose with it in order to appease their citizens or satisfy their own autocratic need for control?
Sadly, it’s too easy to watch other countries flouting their obligations and blame it on religion or culture, rather than hold a firm line and potentially damage international and domestic multicultural relations. Sensitivities toward different groups and peoples can be important in building trust and respect international ties, but the fear of being accused of Islamophobia, shouldn’t stop leaders addressing the widespread persecution of minorities in predominantly Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran.
It’s too easy, as well, to think of this is a problem which other less enlightened countries have: “Yes, the outworkings of the hardline, ‘Wahhabi’ strain of Sunni Islam predominant in Saudi Arabia is not to our liking, but Muslims in our country are so much more tolerant and moderate..” It’s a convenient line of thinking, because it conveniently refuses to acknowledge tensions found in and between religious communities, and leads to inaction through denial. Religious illiteracy, which is widespread throughout government departments and beyond, fosters the assumption that liberal democracy as a foundation for society has all the answers, and that religious beliefs should be able integrate fully into it.
Raif Badawi,’s case is a form of apostasy. We are fully aware that in Islam it is a grave offence to leave the religion or disagree with it. In many countries the penalties for such actions are high: imprisonment or even death may be expected. But how do we deal with it in our country if such views are expressed? A 2007 poll found that 31 per cent of UK Muslims aged 16-24 believe that if a Muslim converts to another religion they should be punished by death. To convert from Islam to another faith (or none) is still incredibly difficult in the UK. Those who leave it are highly likely to face rejection by families and communities, or become the targets of abuse and death threats.
Nissar Hussain is one such example. He is a British man who, following his conversion from Islam to Christianity in 1996, has experienced violence and intimidation in the area of Bradford where he lives. This is the letter he wrote to his MP following last month’s General Election:
Dear Naseem Shah MP,
Can I congratulate you on behalf of myself and family on your stunning victory and we can’t express our delight as our newly elected MP for the Ward of Manningham and wish you every success for the future. On a serious note can I express our utter misery and dire situation as Christian converts from a Mirpuri/Muslim* background since 1996.
We were forced out of our previous home after over several years of suffering as converts and in short my family and I endured ‘hell’ by my fellow Pakistani young men in the form of persecution which entailed assault, daily intimidation, criminal damage to property: smashing house windows and also 3 vehicles written off whilst the community looked on and even endorsed this. One of vehicles was torched outside my home. Despite witnessing another vehicle being rammed deliberately by a man who I knew, the Police did not even take a statement never mind an arrest. Finally after being threatened to be burnt out of my home these young men deliberately set the neighbours’ house (which was vacant) on fire in the hopes that our house would catch fire. When I had reported it to Police prior to this happening the Police sergeant’s response was: “Stop trying to be a crusader and move out!” In short the Police had wilfully failed us so as not to be labelled racists or seem to cause the Muslim community offence at our suffering and expense.
After being forced to move out in June 2006 we settled in St Paul’s Rd and set about rebuilding our lives, which was going well and had no issues and forged good relations with neighbours until we contributed in a Dispatches documentary called ‘Unholy War’ highlighting the plight of converts from Islam to Christianity in September 2008. Then our problems began, largely posed by the A. family who have been engaged on a campaign to drive us out our home given their bigoted attitude and thoroughly unscrupulous conduct and since last July they have embarked upon criminal damage to my vehicle to the point I have now had my vehicle windscreens smashed for the fourth occasion. The most recent incident occurred on 24 April when I had my vehicle smashed in the early hours of the morning and cannot express the financial impact also as I have to wait 3 weeks at a time for the glass to be ordered from the States as my vehicle is American. And again as in our previous experience the Pakistani community has looked on at our suffering and turned a blind eye whilst others have been openly hostile, while they enjoy freedom and liberty religious or otherwise whilst imposing their will rule and reign upon us and we are treated as second class citizens.
As a result of the latest criminal damage, and after weeks of having no car until it was repaired, I took the liberty of parking my vehicle away from outside my home for peace of mind, as given the misery over the last several years I have been diagnosed with PTSD and my wife and family also suffer stress and anxiety. When I went this morning to get my car I was mortified to discover that my car has been smashed deliberately yet again. Clearly we cannot go on living like this; … our lives have been sabotaged, we fear for our safety and suffer anxiety daily, not to mention the financial costs to all of this wanton criminal damage.
I cannot express in words the Police failure over the years which has led to our suffering and have no confidence in them whatsoever and am desperate for your help.
*Mirpur is an area of Azad Kashmir in northern Pakistan.
It’s very easy to be judgmental of the authorities in Saudi Arabia, but at the same time not apply the same standards to ourselves; to bitterly criticise injustices abroad, but allow related forms of persecution to continue here because they are too awkward to address. The alternate danger is that we excuse human rights abuses elsewhere because of cultural norms and then in turn, subconsciously or otherwise exercise a level of appeasement domestically.
None of this can be acceptable. If we are to uphold our commitment to human rights then our politicians and authorities cannot allow themselves to act in a complicit manner with those who break our laws and cause the suffering of others in this way. Freedom of belief is a fundamental moral principle that needs to be defended without compromise. If we are not willing to stand up for it in this country, then, at one level, we are no better than the Saudi authorities who have condemned a lowly blogger to a brutal and inhumane punishment.