“If anyone hurts one’s feelings, he will be punished by the law,” said Inspector General of Police Shahidul Haque last month, addressing free speech advocates at a press conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “None should cross the limit.”
Haque’s colleagues came under fierce criticism from protesters for their inaction after blogger Niloy Neel, 40, was brutally hacked to death by men armed with machetes. Neel was found beheaded in his home, with his hands cut off. Shortly before his death, he had filed a report with the police saying he was being followed and threatened. The police did nothing.
It should have, argue the protesters. Niloy Neel was the fourth blogger to be hacked to death in Bangladesh in just six months. In May, Ananta Bijoy Das was killed in broad daylight while walking to work. In March, it was blogger Washiqur Rahman Babu. In February, it was American writer Avijit Roy, murdered as he and his wife walked back from a speaking engagement at Dhaka University.
It has been an extraordinarily successful year for opponents of free speech. The year 2014 ended with movie theaters caving to North Korean threats, forcing Sony to pull the movie The Interview
. On January 7, Islamists massacred 11 people in the Charlie Hebdo
attack. Two days after that, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was publicly lashed 50 times outside a mosque in Jeddah, as a crowd yelled
“Allahu Akbar.” The next six months saw the killing of the four Bangladeshi bloggers. And three Al Jazeera English journalists, including a Canadian and an Australian, remain jailed in Egypt.
The Dhaka police chief’s response to the bloggers’ killings — that they should watch what they write — was unsurprisingly repugnant.
But before being shocked, recall how everyone from Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau to 145 members of PEN — who protested the group’s honoring of Charlie Hebdowith its freedom of expression courage award — submitted their own “I condemn the murders, but…” statements. Remember how, even here in the West, much of the discussion around The Interview revolved around the content of the movie, how appropriate it is to show a sitting head of state being assassinated on film, and other concerns that are completely and utterly irrelevant to the issue at hand.
Now, Bangladesh is officially a secular country that has finally started rounding up some of the Islamist murderers who claimed responsibility for the attacks. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, however, are a different matter. In these countries, it is the government itself that kills you for thinking differently.
Last year, Iran executed Mohsen Amir-Aslani for insulting Jonah and “making innovations in religion.” Soheil Arabi is still imprisoned for his Facebook posts. And Jason Rezaian, an American correspondent for The Washington Post, remains in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison on charges of espionage and “propaganda against the establishment.”
Rezaian’s brother, Ali, hopes that the new Iran deal will help the U.S.-Iran relationship and improve the chances of Jason being released and returning to his family. I hope he’s right.
But the release of Rezaian and three other American political prisoners in Iran wasn’t even on the negotiating table in Geneva. President Obama, known to be a realist on international relations, has explained why bringing up the issue could have weakened the United States’ negotiating position and compromised the deal.
And so, as four Americans remain imprisoned in Iran with their government unable to do much to get them out — what hope is there for everyone else?
When Fareed Zakaria asked the president in January if he would bring up the case of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi with Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, King Salman, Obama’s response
“What I’ve found effective is to apply steady, consistent pressure, even as we are getting business done that needs to get done. And oftentimes that makes some of our allies uncomfortable. It makes them frustrated. Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.”
Last week, for King Salman’s first visit to Obama’s White House, his entourage bought outthe entire Four Seasons hotel for the weekend, brought in crates of gold furniture — gold mirrors, lamps, hat racks — and laid out red carpets everywhere, even in the parking garage.
A lot has happened since their last meeting. The Saudi government, which hasn’t taken in any Syrian refugees, has banned the adoption of Syrian children. Over 100 people have been executed by beheading or firing squad for crimes that include apostasy, heresy, and even sorcery. And Raif Badawi’s prison sentence of 10 years and 1000 lashes has been upheld by the country’s highest court.
But none of these issues came up for discussion last week. The purpose of the meeting was to allay the Saudis’ fears about the Iran deal, and this was a success. The United States again let the Saudis know it has their back.
Last year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head for standing up to the Taliban. 2010 recipient Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned for standing up to the Chinese government. 2003 recipient Shirin Ebadi was repeatedly threatened for standing up to Iran’s ruling mullahs.
This year, it is Raif Badawi — jailed, publicly lashed, and fined for standing up to the Saudi monarchy — who is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside his also-imprisoned lawyer and brother-in-law Waleed Abulkhair. In January, 18 Nobel laureates wrote to the president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Makkah Province, urging Saudi academics to stand up for the blogger.
Standing up for your values is most difficult when those closest to you are violating them. It’s easy for Western leaders to condemn the Taliban, the Islamist Charlie Hebdo shooters, Iran for its free speech restrictions, China for jailing Liu Xiaobo, or the murderers in Bangladesh.
But going up against Saudi Arabia — chief exporter of both oil and Islamism — is the real test. Who will do it?
The United States won’t. The superpower whose most recent Republican president famously held hands with the late King Abdullah as they strolled through his ranch, and most recent Democratic president apparently bowed to him, is terrified of offending the Saudis.
Other Western countries won’t do it either. David Cameron, recently praised for his insightful speech on combating Islamism, flew the union flag at half-mast to mourn the death of King Abdullah in January. Similarly, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, also seemingly “courageous” in his denouncement of Islamism, simultaneously conducted a $15 billion arms deal with the kingdom that’s contingent on secrecy.
Refreshingly, for a little while this year, Sweden was the exception to all this. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, who had denounced the Saudis’ outrageous treatment of Raif Badawi, triggered a diplomatic firestorm when she wrote a speech for Arab leaders, calling them out on human rights abuses and their treatment of women. A day later, Sweden also revoked a decade-long weapons export agreement with Saudi Arabia, infuriating the Saudis.
Accusing Wallström of “flagrant interference,” they blocked her speech and recalled their ambassador to Stockholm, severing diplomatic ties. They stopped issuing visas to Swedish businessmen, and refused to renew the visas of Swedes who had them. They even refused to accept four Amazonian monkeys from Sweden for a Riyadh zoo. Ultimately, Wallström was compelled to backtrack and assuage Saudi authorities, telling them her speech wasn’t meant to insult Islam, and the Swedish government wants to restore good relations with Saudi Arabia (Swedish exports to Saudi Arabia totaled $1.3 billion last year). Wallström drew a significant amount of criticism from the Swedish business community and its lawmakers for her stance. This is the cost of trying to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, even for one of the most progressive social democratic countries in the world.
And that brings us to the United Nations. Will it stand up to the Saudis?
Probably not. Saudi Arabia has been given a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council. This year, the Saudis — who ban churches, temples, or the practice of any religion except Sunni Islam in their country — even hosted a human rights summit on freedom of religion, happily attended by the president of the Human Rights Council himself. And one of the main reasons Sweden scrambled to normalize relations with the Saudis during the Wallström affair was to prevent damaging its chances of re-election to the U.N. security council. The U.N.’s priorities on this seem pretty clear.
That leaves the Nobel committee. At times, the Peace Prize has been given not just to recognize people’s achievements, but also to pressure them to do better. Giving Raif the prize would do both. It would recognize the efforts of all those around the world who have been jailed or killed this year for intrepidly speaking out in places where it’s needed the most. And it would also send a strong message to Saudi Arabia from the rest of the civilized world — a message that neither the U.S., the U.N., or any other Western country has yet had the courage to properly convey.
It really has been a notorious year for writers, cartoonists, bloggers, and journalists. They haven’t just been censored, but imprisoned, publicly whipped, massacred in cold blood, and hacked to death with machetes. They need to know how much the rest of us value their contributions, sacrifices, and courage.
By going up against the Saudis’ human rights abuses and free speech restrictions, Raif Badawi has done what even Barack Obama won’t do. Yet, of the two, it is Obama who has a Nobel Peace Prize.
This year, the Nobel committee needs to change that.
Originally published on The Huffington Post.