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Raif Badawi, Waleed Abulkhair, Islamic Mercy and Saudi Justice

In Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi remains in prison under threat of 950 more lashes and 9 more years of a 10 year sentence and a further 10 year travel ban upon release, as punishment for “insulting Islam”. Additionally, his trial lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair‎, who set up a human rights monitoring organisation (MHRSA) in Saudi, was also subsequently charged himself for various breaches. Both had their sentences recently increased by half again, not cut or commuted.

Waleed Abu Al-Khair

Waleed Abu Al-KhairAmong other things, Waleed Abu Al-Khair (also written as Abulkhair)‎ was accused and convicted of “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and sentenced to a 15 year prison term in 2014 and a 15 year travel ban upon his release, he was already prohibited from travel since 2012.

Abulkhair had defended many people for socio-religious and political crimes in Saudi, including a British national when he was hired by the British embassy. If political is even a word that can be voiced in a state that is an absolute rather than even a constitutional monarchy. Opposition and democracy are thus, inherently illegal.

He ran, in his own home, a mixed sex politico-religious discussion group or salon called Smood (“resistance”) and used Twitter and Facebook for further discussion, somewhere he felt free at last. Indeed, Forbes magazine listed him as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Arabs on Twitter.

Social media activity is an uncensored medium that has got away from Saudi Arabia, which has the largest number of Arab Twitter users and a Facebook user base second only to Egypt. Perhaps the United Nation’s big #SocialUN gathering on 30 January and discussion of digital diplomacy will foster awareness of those imprisoned for freedom of speech on social media.

Yet, in all this, Waleed knows no hate. As he wrote in his last letter before prison:

“Do I hate anyone?” I wonder, particularly those who have insulted me and my family, using the foulest of words in the course of the investigations? Do I hate those who imposed a travel ban on me for years with no legal reason? Do I hate the judge who ordered that I be put in jail simply because I have a signed a statement calling for fair trials? Or should I hate the Prince, whose emissaries have continuously threatened me with being put in prison for years if I refrain from signing an affidavit? Do I hate men of religion who drafted heinous reports about me to the security agencies – full of lies and proclaiming me an apostate? Or should I hate the people using pseudonyms on new media outlets, so they could lie about me and my family so as to damage my reputation further?

I reach deep within my heart and find that I bear no grudge against anyone. I realize that I rather feel sorry for them, the same way I feel sorry for those who decided to give up their freedom, just like an alcoholic who roams aimlessly after willingly giving up his mind to liquor.

Hamza Kashgari

Freedom of expression on social media hasn’t stopped Saudi reaching beyond international boundaries to extradite and imprison one Hamza Kashgari for questioning Islam via Twitter. Thousands of Saudis backed calls for this young man’s execution for apostasy and support of the Arab Spring.  He served 2 years after apologising but was banned from writing again.

Kashgari described his original actions in the following terms:

“I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom. I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rightsfreedom of expression and thought – so nothing was done in vain. I believe I’m just a scapegoat for a larger conflict. There are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights.”

Raif Badawi

Raif Badawi Raif Badawi was arrested in 2008 and again in 2012 for apostasy and insulting Islam by electronic means, i.e., he set up the website Free Saudi Liberals to enable discussion of religion and politics. Cited charges included “ridiculing Islamic religious figures” and “going beyond the realm of obedience” – whatever that means!

The Saudi court ordered him to undergo 50 lashes every Friday for 20 weeks, publicly outside a mosque on a religious day just after prayers, only the first instalment has been delivered to date, in the middle of the square in front of Al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah where a large crowd gathered to witness the flogging. Last Friday, he was again not caned  – the third time the punishment has been postponed, allegedly due to his previous wounds not having healed enough, but also likely due to international media attention on Saudi following the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the death of King Abdullah.

Religion and Punishment

What kind of religion or state combines faith and flogging, prayer and punishment, in such a way? Well perhaps ancient Judaism might have done. Certainly, biblical texts of the Torah allow for the stoning of those caught in adultery, for instance, or tell of the clinical purging of an enemy for idolatry. That the populace tried to pick up stones, to stone an alleged adulteress, as recorded in the gospels, proves that the law was still known, if not in use, though there’s little record of it being enacted. Jesus intervened, in this case, and it didn’t happen. Likely as not, the Romans would have had a problem with people literally taking the law into their own hands anyway.

So, just because Jesus stopped a public punishment, does that place Christianity above Judaism in ethics? Far from it. Church history records the Crusades and the Inquisition, brutal tortures, executions, burnings of heretics, witches, liberals. Some countries and US states continue to commend the death penalty based upon biblical texts.

Islam – Peace or Violence?

Ironically, whilst Islam means “submission” it stems from the same root as the Arabic salām سَلاَم‎ meaning “peace”. Numerous people have referenced its over 100 verses suggestive of killing varieties of “unbelievers”, yet it also condemns the taking of a single “innocent life” as equivalent to murdering the whole world. Like all religions, it seems, there is plenty of Scripture to cut and paste and formulate one’s own intolerant beliefs, or to foment and indoctrinate via human interpretation.

Just compare the negative Quran quotations with some of the more positive verses, including:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error; whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And God hears and knows all things.” – Qur’an, Al-Baqarah, 2:256

Indeed, all three monotheistic religions have scriptures calling for tolerance, mercy, love and peace. What we choose to focus on, judge by, is therefore, a function of our beliefs, not something we can justify by selective religious reasoning.

State Sanctioned Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy of not only Saudi Arabia, but those nations and leaders that visited the country in the wake of the recent death of the king, even flying flags at half-mast, like England but not Scotland, is visible to all. Transparently and desperately trying to get in with the new king to gain access to oil, defence, and trade agreements.

As Abulkair has written:

“As long as the oil keeps flowing, the world will turn a blind eye if Saudi Arabia continues to crack down on freedom and human rights.”

Saudi’s own hypocrisy lies in not exercising mercy and tolerance in order to deserve the same, principles cited by Muhammad himself:

“No mercy would be shown to him who does not show mercy”, Muhammad in Sahih Al-Bukhari and in Sahih Muslim

“Be tolerant to be tolerated”, Muhammad narrated in Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Musnad 1/248.

Tolerance, or samah, in Islam is considered to also mean leniency.

Furthermore, it has been pointed out that they extreme flogging sentence breeches even the grounds and interpretation of Quranic and Sharia punishments.

Human Rights Campaigns

Various Change.org and Amnesty International campaigns are keeping the pressure up, but governments are turning a blind eye to Saudi, tolerating one form of extremism over another, Islamic State. Mainly, it seems, because IS (ISIL/Daesh) is missionary, i.e., wanting to expand and conquer, whilst Saudi is content to rule its own citizens with an iron rod, beheader’s sword and flogger’s cane.

Other international human rights, humanitarian, peace and journalists organisations have continued to publicise Badawi and Abulkhair, giving them prizes and awards to draw attention to their plight and honour their fight. For instance Badawi has been awarded the PEN Canada One Humanity Award 2014, the Reporters without Borders Netizen Prize 2014, and Aikenhead Award 2015 of the Scottish Secular Society.

Whilst the حديث‎ ḥadīth or saying(s – technically أحاديث ʾaḥādīth is the plural) of the Prophet are outside the Quran, they like the Mishnah and Talmud for Jews, form a significant part of traditional interpretations for Muslims. Indeed, much Shariah law is derived from the Hadith. For those campaigning for the release of Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair you could do no worse than to quote the following hadith to them:

“It is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing.” – Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1011.

In fact it is an injunction of one hadith to call Islamic oppressors to account:

Allah’s Apostle said, “Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or an oppressed,” A man said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I will help him if he is oppressed, but if he is an oppressor, how shall I help him?” The Prophet said, “By preventing him from oppressing (others), for that is how to help him.” – Sahih Bukhari 9.85.84

The latest Amnesty International petitions can be found here: http://amn.st/6182IYIa and http://amn.st/6185IYIL. Twitter campaigns here: #FreeRaifBadawi and #FreeWaleedAbulkhair

Abulkair finished his final letter pending imprisonment with this:

“…freedom is cultivated, its seeds are those who have sacrificed a lot and have made the sky the limit to their sacrifice… There will always be free souls in this world who will not be silenced by oil!”

Please, and especially in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, do not forget those in prison for standing up for freedom of expression in the Arab world. Keep the pressure on governments, agencies and media alike to Free Raif Badawi and Free Waleed Abulkhair.

Extremist, ethnic, economic conflict in Nigeria and the value of African lives

Boko Haram & Nigeria’s War of Terror

African language families Wiki Nigeria outlined
African language families with Nigeria outlined

The extremist war of terror in Nigeria continues to claim more victims. Reports are coming in of around 600 more schoolgirls being captured. In April around 280 schoolgirls were abducted and in May several attacks killed dozens in the villages of northern Nigeria and over 120 died from two bombs in the central Nigerian million-plus population cosmopolitan city of Jos, J-town, or “Tin City”. Jos has been the scene of intra-community violence since 1994 between its Christian, Muslim, and minority residents, killing thousands of people, hardly the “home of peace and tourism” as the Plateau State is known.

Two decades of escalating violence

Jos has been the scene of intra-community violence since 1994 between its Christian, Muslim, and minority residents, killing thousands of people, hardly the “home of peace and tourism” as the Plateau State is known.

Over the last 5 months more than 2000 people have been killed in Nigerian violence and thousands more displaced, according to Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). From 2009-2013 under 4000 were killed, so there has been a definite escalation in the violence. Perhaps, this may be a response to Nigeria’s belated heavy-handed response to Boko Haram that has included alleged deaths in custody of probably over 1000 suspected Boko Haram fighters last year. Leaked information from a senior Nigerian army officer suggested 950 had died in the first half of 2013 alone. Back in 2009, Boko Haram’s then leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in police custody after a police raid.

Education targeted by terror

Much of the violence appears indiscriminate, even if at times it has been directed at Christian or Muslim, churches or mosques, it often ends up being directed at schools, colleges, markets, wherever civilians gather and indiscriminate violence can have its most terrifying effect.

“Attacks against schoolchildren, teachers and school buildings demonstrate an absolute disregard for the right to life and the right to education.”Lucy Freeman, Amnesty International’s deputy Africa director.  

The full report by Amnesty on the terrorising of education in Nigeria makes one wonder whether Boko Haram would go to Taliban-like extremes of restricting access to education, especially of teenage girls. Indeed, Boko Haram in Hausa allegedly means “Western education is sin/prohibited (haram)”. The boko element can also mean “fraud”, “bogus” or “inauthentic”. Even locals, are not entirely sure what it means! It is less of a mouthful than its Arabic title: Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, or “Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad”.

Complicated causes, not just religious

The apparent war between religions and ideologies masks more basic rivalries over resources, land, power, and tribal identities. Religion just exacerbates the incendiary melting pot.

Benjamin A Kwashi, the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, has said that:

“those who have in the past used violence to settle political issues, economic issues, social matters, intertribal disagreements, or any issue for that matter, now continue to use that same path of violence and cover it up with religion.”

An excellent Al Jazeera report into the origins and rise of Boko Haram concluded that:

“Unabated violence, a feeling of marginalisation by the federal government, unemployment and poverty however remain the primary seeds of discontent…” – Yvonne Ndege and Azad Essa, Al Jazeera

Ethnic or Economic Tensions?

Chris Kwaja is a lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Conflict Management at the University of Jos in Nigeria and writes:

“[A]s is often the case with identity conflicts in Africa…socially constructed stereotypes…are manipulated to trigger and drive violence in Jos. They veil deeper institutional factors within Nigerian law that are abused and exploited to deny citizens access to resources, basic rights, and participation in political processes—factors that, left unaddressed, have the potential to trigger violence across the country.” (p2)
“The ethnic or religious dimensions of the conflict have subsequently been misconstrued as the primary driver of violence when, in fact, disenfranchisement, inequality, and other practical fears are the root causes.” (p4)

Nigeria's ethnic breakdown
Nigeria’s major Ethnic groups (Source: Ulrich Lamm)

Nigeria is as riven and driven by identity politics, ethnic “indigene” and/or religious affiliation as many xenophobic groups are racist against black Africans in the predominantly white West.

“In a survey conducted by Ellsworth in 1999, titled Re-imagined Communities, it was discovered that ethnicity and religious attachment are the two top ranked identity makers for a vast majority of Nigerians than other indices such as National, ECOWAS and African. The xenophobic tendencies that quietly run in our system is further compounded when the religious card is flashed, as is typical of Christian/ Muslim conflicts throughout most of the north, which is usually about anything (politics, economic control and competition after scarce resources, ethnicity).” Rotimi Maye, Nigeria and Indigeneship Question

Invariably, the victims are drawn from all religions and not just one, and from multiple indigenous and immigrant ethnic groups, of which Nigeria has some 500, 70% made up of Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, and Falani.

Economic Growth

Nigerian States by GDP
Nigerian States by GDP (2010)

Nigeria has, this year, become Africa’s largest nation and economy, and is now ranked 26th in the world, thanks, in part, to its oil wealth, mainly in the south – something that is also fought over. Not only is Africa a divided continent by perhaps 3000 languages and ethnic groups, so too it is divided by wealth and opportunity, health and oil.

Boko Haram origins, Sharia law

Almost half of Nigeria, mainly in the north, now has some form of Sharia law. Over the last decade the extremist Islamist group Boko Haram has sought to impose Sharia and depose the existing rule of law.  It is even against other muslims and one of its founding leaders firmly believed in a flat earth fundamentalism. Many Nigerian Muslim groups have condemned it. One Nigerian Muslim leader, The Sultan of Sokoto Sa’adu Abubakar, called Boko Haram “anti-Islamic” and “an embarrassment to Islam”.

“While Boko Haram is a religious organisation, it is almost impossible to separate the activities of the group with the political, economic and territorial struggles in northern Nigeria which, in spite of a secular consitution, is often divided on religious lines. Established in 2002 in Maiduguri, Boko Haram spent 2002-2009 consolidating its base, spreading its disdain for Western education and government corruption, culminating in the creation of alternative schools and attacking symbols of state power…” – Al Jazeera report

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born feminist, activist and founder of the eponymously named AHA Foundation which seeks to protect women in the West from being subjected to religious or cultural oppressions including forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and honour violence. For her the conflict in Nigeria, at least that part for which Boko Haram can be held responsible, is about religion – or rather the patriarchal putting down of women, and jihadist suspicion of the liberal West. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Ali wrote that:

“The kidnapping of the schoolgirls throws into bold relief a central part of what the jihadists are about: the oppression of women. Boko Haram sincerely believes that girls are better off enslaved than educated. The terrorists’ mission is no different from that of the Taliban assassin who shot and nearly killed 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai—as she rode a school bus home in 2012—because she advocated girls’ education. As I know from experience, nothing is more anathema to the jihadists than equal and educated women.”

#BringBackOurGirls, Western ignorance about Africa

Boko Haram were behind the kidnapping of some 276 Chibok schoolgirls last month which attracted international attention with the social media Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls. Again, somewhat indiscriminate as though the majority were Christian, several were Muslim, around 50 have subsequently escaped. Indeed, some images used to highlight their plight were not even of the kidnapped girls, or even Nigerian.

Malala Bring Back Our Girls
Malala #BringBackOurGirls

The West only kicked up a fuss when it was schoolgirls that were kidnapped, much as Live Aid in the 1980s fed off the famine of Africa’s starving using emotional images to stir up interest in a continent we were otherwise willing to ignore. US television networks ignored Boko Haram this last year despite 1500+ recent killings because African lives are worth less or, perhaps, even considered worthless. News stories for just 4 missing British sailors, a child-saving cat, or the latest UKIP xenophobic “Bongo-Bongo land” own-goal, dominate over any news from the “Dark Continent“, a reference originally not to race or colour, but to Africa’s remote and mysterious unknowns. To this day, for many, it remains a great unknown.

“The more Westerners learn about Africa from Africans, the better.” – Robert Bates

“Unfortunately…most westerners form their opinions of Africa based on the reporting and news in their own countries” – Louise Mushikiwabo

Africa's languages around Nigeria
Africa’s languages around Nigeria

In a 2010 Guardian article, Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, went on to say that “In a globalised world we need to know more about each other than ever and the absence of genuine engagement only serves to exacerbate suspicion, and may affect the lives of the very citizens whom we all ultimately serve.” This could apply to any ethnic or ideological group, not only Africa and its 53 nations and thousands of languages.

Indeed, to every headline there is often a complex contextual backstory, no less so than in Nigeria. For instance, this AllAfrica report by Margaret Kimberley, editor and senior columnist at Black Agenda Report, cites the background to the Boko Haram kidnapping:

“Boko Haram members were detained by the police in 2011 and 2012 and that the group swore revenge. Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau said in one of his many videos, “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women… to your own wives according to sharia law.” The kidnappings of the past two years are a direct result of the government’s mistreatment of its people and its failed efforts to fight Boko Haram.” – Margaret Kimberley, Nigeria: How Not to ‘Bring Back Our Girls’

Boko Haram, may also turn out to be behind this week’s most recent terrorist bombing atrocity, similar to their double car bombing Christmas Day attack of 2010 in Jos – though they have not yet claimed responsibility.

Goodluck Jonathan

Nigeria’s oxymoronically named President Goodluck Jonathan has described them as “enemies of human progress and civilisation”, a “tragic assault on human freedom”.

President Jonathan, whose wife is called Patience, are Christians from the Ijaw people of southern Nigeria. He holds a Masters degree and a PhD in Zoology and prior to entering politics and becoming President had worked in education and environmental protection. His people, the Ijaws, since the late 1990s had been involved in mainly peaceful protest against the oil companies‘ exploitation of their homeland and suffered state and military crackdowns of their actions.

Nigeria has all the potential to become an economic powerhouse – if it can control its ethnic and religious tensions, not to mention the international oil company exploitation and corruption. The President has faced calls to resign over the handling of, and seeming inaction over, the schoolgirls kidnapping. One critic wrote:

“It is all because those at the helm in the nation attach no value to the lives of others”.

That may well be true, but the “zero value” attached to human lives can surely be laid at the door of Boko Haram and others too. In the past Jonathan has instituted peaceful and progressive policies, so one hopes he will continue to reform and stabilise the country, and face his critics with renewed action on issues that divide the nation. Nigeria’s leader needs to be a leader of the people and of all its peoples. [Update: Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency is over and #365DaysOn we are now closer on #BringBackOurGirls]

Related articles/further reading


Image Credits

WikiMedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:African_language_families_en.svg
Nigeria outline added
Mapping Nigeria’s Diveristy, source: Ulrich Lamm, modified by http://africacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/AfricaBriefFinal_14.pdf