The Human Cost of Free Speech

In 2012 a man was arrested in Saudi Arabia for setting up a blog that encouraged free speech, particularly for engaging in discussions about religion. His name is Raif Badawi, a citizen of Saudi Arabia, whose case garnered international attention. He was charged in 2014 for insulting Islam and violating Saudi technology laws by creating an illegal website. Saudi officials sentenced him to 1000 lashes, ten years in prison, a fine of over $250,000 US and a media and travel ban, all for expressing his own opinions. In January he was flogged fifty times, but deemed medically unfit for future sessions. He has not endured another flogging session since January due to medical concerns.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia upheld Badawi’s sentence despite disapproval from the international community. Politicians worldwide condemned Saudi’s actions against Badawi. The United Nations and Amnesty International have tried to intervene, but the decision to free Badawi is ultimately up to the Saudi government and King Abdulaziz. Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar and their three children were granted asylum in Quebec, Canada a year ago. They fled to Canada as refugees because they faced constant persecution in the Arab world. Canada has attempted to intervene in the matter, granting Badawi an immigration selection certificate. However, this certificate will not alleviate Badawi’s charges, but it will speed up the immigration process. Further, Canada is ultimately powerless in Saudi’s decision because Badawi is not a Canadian citizen. Even the Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia has tried to intervene on behalf of the Canadian government, but his pleas were rejected. Saudi Arabia has communicated its displeasure in foreign intervention in the country’s affairs.

Badawi’s case has brought awareness to the issue of free speech. It is true that some of us are fortunate enough to live in modern countries that recognize and uphold fundamental human rights. However, a percentage of the world’s population are not granted basic rights. Many of us, upon hearing Badawi’s sentence, struggle with the reason as to why an individual would be punished for simply stating an opinion. What we fail to realize is that Saudi Arabia is an autocratic regime in which religion is paramount.

Similarly, other bloggers have been accused of crimes and many have been killed for expressing their opinions. Such as the case of Bengali blogger and US citizen, Avijit Roy who was killed in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh in February. He started his Atheist based website in 2001 which encouraged the discussion of religion and politics. He, along with other users on the discussion board, questioned the fundamental practices and beliefs of religion, particularly Islam. His ideals angered extremist groups, leading to his death. Roy represented a new movement for freedom and liberalism in Bangladesh and his death left a huge mark on the community. Many in the Bangladeshi community and around the world revered him as a leader.

The attack on the Bengali bloggers as well as the punishment of Badawi sends a chilling message. Questioning the integrity and the fundamentals of religion will not be tolerated by the state and will not go unpunished. Islamic states prove that religion is more important to them than fundamental human rights such as the freedom of speech. Although those who have spoken out against oppression have been silenced, it does not deter communities from fighting for the cause. The international community is aware of the problem of oppression and now has the opportunity to solve it.