Raif Badawi has been punished for the crime of thinking differently. In Saudi Arabia, the crime of thinking differently can land you with 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison. The consequences of thinking differently endanger not only the physical health of dissidents like Raif Badawi but the very concept of an intellectual culture. Freethinkers, atheists and liberals can’t express their moral convictions. Individual conscience – the bedrock of a free and open society – dissolves completely under conformity.
What can be done to save Raif Badawi? Not much. Saudi Arabia is a geopolitical ally and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
What can be done to challenge the ideology that justifies Badawi’s oppression? A significant lot.
Civil society in the west is insufficiently hostile to Islamism because it assumes criticism of ideas is equivalent to bigotry against people. It assumes that a progressive case against fascism with a brown face is a contradiction in terms. It assumes, most of all, that Islam is a defamed religion and further criticism of it intensifies this defamation. In its desperate plea to eschew racism, the left has nourished de facto blasphemy law – and its primary victims are Muslims like Raif Badawi who think differently.
When gender segregation is condoned by some, and when the niqab is celebrated as a symbol of empowerment, and when student groups cheerily align with theocratic fascists, something stunningly clear emerges: In fetishising Islam as the religion of the oppressed, the left has lost sight of the people Islamism oppresses.
This is the great travesty of our age, for there are many like Raif Badawi out there. Freethinkers, feminists and liberal Muslims, embedded within communities in fear. Of course they do not face the severity of Raif Badawi’s punishment. But they face the shame and loneliness. They face the challenge of confronting a toxic ideology that has been enabled by those who should be the first to resist it. They face ostracism from people who want to kill them for thinking differently, and people who care more about western oppression than the plight of their fellow citizens who face intimidation and threats for thinking differently.
It’s important to support groups like the council of ex-Muslims. And support progressive Muslims like Tehmina Kazi and Sara Khan and Maajid Nawaz. We should challenge Islamism whenever we see it, and defend liberalism whenever we don’t. It is important to celebrate our right to think differently – for it is our most precious freedom, and it should be extended to all.