On Jan. 9, even as the Saudi government condemned the tragedy in Paris, Raif Badawi, a young Saudi blogger and father of three, received the first of 1,000 public lashes he has been sentenced to receive (in 50-lash increments), along with a 10-year jail sentence and a $250,000 dollar fine. He was found guilty of spreading liberal ideas, criticizing the religious and political elite of the country, and may yet be found guilty of the crime of apostasy, for which he could be executed. His lawyer has received 15 years in jail for his work to promote human rights in Saudi Arabia, and his wife has fled to Canada with their children.
Although it’s not practiced the same way as in the West, Badawi is part of a recent explosion of political and religious commentary that is occurring in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Badawi’s home, has 10 million people between the ages of 15 and 30, and it is these young people that have made Saudi Arabia an enormous global user of websites like YouTube and Twitter. YouTube, in particular, has been a boon to the activist and satirical community of the Middle East, providing a forum for satirical news shows and other social commentary that tends to fly under the radar of the older, and more conservative, generations. Shows like La Yekhtar (roughly translated, “Put a Lid On It”), 3la6ayer (“Taking Flight”) and others, produced in local dialects of Arabic and for a very local audience, have clocked up millions of views in the years of their operation. In the last few years these shows have supported the emergence of entire businesses revolving around producing and distributing YouTube content for Saudis, among them UTURN and Telfaz11.
These initiatives have met with almost unanimously positive public response, and very little government disapproval. This is partly because the government has trouble cracking down on this type of content, since the younger Saudis are web-savvy enough to be able to use proxies and other means to avoid censorship. It is also because these shows’ creators, producers and talent actively use what an early 3la6ayer writer once called “self-preservation self-censorship.” UTURN’s management similarly refers to their prevailing values as “honesty, harmony and halal,” referring to the Islamic term for “permissible.” The creator adds: “We believe there is always room for creativity and storytelling no matter how small the canvas is, but we would rather know where the canvas ends so we don’t paint on the wall.” These, then, are very calculated risk-takers, and thus far, they have been successful in opening up a critical conversation without running afoul of the establishment powers.
However, as Badawi’s case shows, there are hard limits. Although freer than it has perhaps ever been, anybody who criticizes the political or, more often, religious elite in Saudi takes enormous personal risk in doing so. Badawi got in trouble at least partly for criticizing the religious elite. Part of the “self-preservation self-censorship” that modern Saudi satirists use is to keep well away from anything that could be construed as criticism of Prophet Muhammad—a young Hamza Kashgari was imprisoned without trial for nearly two years for his tweets in 2011 about the Prophet. YouTubers, bloggers and activists alike have been threatened and imprisoned for taking too strong a stand in favor of women driving. Across the region, political powers have proven ready and willing to protect themselves from mockery through the use of force.
Freedom of Speech
As George Orwell famously wrote, “Every joke is a tiny revolution.” Humor and, in particular, satire, have been used all throughout history to confront power, appeal to the masses and challenge the status quo. And all throughout history, those who chose to bravely speak truth to power have found themselves and their families arrested, excommunicated, shunned and killed. The world is right to respect the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo for their unwillingness to bend to censorship.
In debating the modern right to freedom of speech, we ought to remember where it came from. It was born out of the Enlightenment, strengthened during the Protestant Reformation, and was fought for by thinkers and revolutionaries who believed that common people should be allowed to have and speak their opinions. Since the Catholic Church was one of the major powers at the time, the right to give religious offence has been an important part of this concept since the start. Today, although enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the legal right to freedom of expression remains a concept uniquely rooted in the individualistic political systems of the West. Though even here there remain debates over what limits on speech can be imposed such as those on pornography, incitement to violence or hate speech, it is certainly true that there are few other places in the world where the right to speak your mind, the right to mock power and to offend sensibilities is so well-protected. We are fortunate.
Unfortunately our great good fortune sometimes traps us into thinking that those operating outside of the Western paradigm somehow do not understand the concept of speaking truth to power, and are not willing to struggle or sacrifice for the sake of their convictions. Islamic history is littered with stories of scholars and thinkers shunned and condemned for their thinking, and in the later Persian sultanates particularly, political and scholarly debates over what types of speech or imagery is acceptable or not echo many of today’s controversies.
Likewise, satire and the use of humor as a means of political and religious commentary are not confined to the West. Satire, particularly in poetry and song, has a long, rich history in the Middle East, despite the fact that freedom of speech is not a right afforded to many in the region today. Those fighting to preserve freedom of speech in the face of internal and external pressures, including monstrous violence, should find common cause with those elsewhere in the world who are fighting for those same rights. Like Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim police officer gunned down outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the vast majority of Muslims reject violence, support speaking difficult truths, and find the justification for that in their faith, whether or not they also find sexualized depictions of a naked Prophet Muhammad to be offensive.
Clearly, the case of Charlie Hebdo is different from the risks faced by activists and satirists in the Middle East. The cartoonists and others murdered in cold blood in Paris were protected by the state, and the people doing the murdering represent a hateful and incomprehensible ideology rather than an institutionalized power. I am not sure whether this makes what happened more or less tragic. In responding to this atrocity, though, we must not run the risk of assuming that Muslims, both those offended by the cartoons and those not, do not understand the value of free speech or the importance of standing up to censorship. As Raif Badawi and many of his countrymen are currently in the process of proving, they understand it very well indeed.