FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 6, 2015 file photo, members of the Austrian Greens protest against the punishment for Saudi blogger Raif Badawi in front of the KAICIID in Vienna, Austria. Saudi Arabia's Supreme Court upheld a verdict against a liberal blogger who was flogged in January after being found guilty of insulting Islam and breaking technology laws, state-linked news websites reported Sunday, June 7. (AP Photo/Hans Punz, File)

Here’s Why Blogger Raif Badawi Deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

“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 Hebdoattack. 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 was measured:

“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.

Why Atheists Like Me Grieve for the Chapel Hill Shooting Victims

The execution-style shooting of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill is tragic, disgusting, and should be denounced by every human being of conscience.

The killer, who was reportedly motivated by a parking dispute, also happened to be a vocal atheist.

Being an anti-theist who grew up in three Muslim-majority countries — as part of a Muslim family I love, respect, yet frequently disagree with — I want to tell you why I’m grieving today for Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and their families.

I rejected religion precisely because I wouldn’t accept “holy” books like the Quran or Bible that prescribe killing, fighting, and eternally torturing those who think or believe differently.

Atheists who adopt the same approach to others are no different from the violent religious groups they claim to be opposed to. And if there were a “holy” book of atheism that prescribed killing others (which there isn’t), I would unequivocally condemn and reject it too.

This is why I repeatedly stress how crucial it is to distinguish between anti-Muslim bigotry (which targets real human beings) and legitimate criticism of Islam (which targets ideas in a book).

Again: human beings have rights, and are entitled to respect. Ideas, books, and beliefs aren’t.

Many of my friends and family are religious, wear the hijab, or fast during Ramadan. We disagree on ideas, often vehemently, but we don’t hate each other. We engage in dialogue, we argue, we learn from one another — and then we go out to dinner. Most human beings are much more than what they believe. We all have much more in common as human beings than not. That basic principle, by definition, is what lies at the heart of humanism.

The right to believe freely is universal. I don’t want to engage with people who think the right of anyone to live, think, or say as they want — whether believer or atheist — is negotiable. I want to call out bad ideas, not blanketly demonize an entire people. That’s why I rejected religion in the first place.

Does this incident mean we should stop criticizing irrational beliefs? No. The idea that we shouldn’t criticize religion because it may encourage hate crimes against the religious is as absurd as saying we should never criticize U.S. foreign policy because it could lead to attacks on innocent Americans overseas. We should call out bad ideas everywhere — whether they come from holy books that instruct us to kill, or from the mind of an atheist murderer who, in this case, thought it was okay to kill those who believe in them.

Atheism is not a belief system or a doctrine. It is simply a rejection of irrational beliefs. Those who treat it as anything more, as Craig Stephen Hicks may have, should be condemned by all — no excuses.

My thoughts are with the three young victims of this horrific crime.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

How Terrorism Won

Here’s part of an internal CNN memo sent out by senior editorial director Richard Griffiths last Wednesday:

Although we are not at this time showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet considered offensive by many Muslims, platforms are encouraged to verbally describe the cartoons in detail. This is key to understanding the nature of the attack on the magazine and the tension between free expression and respect for religion.

And this was from the BBC’s editorial guidelines before its recent revisions:

Due care and consideration must be made regarding the use of religious symbols in images which may cause offence. The Prophet Mohammed must not be represented in any shape or form.

The NY Daily News even made the bizarre decision to blur one of the cartoons:


Add to this the rest of the major news networks in the United States: ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox all said they will not show the cartoons for which 12 innocent people were murdered in cold blood this week.

There you have it. The United States is now living under Islamist blasphemy laws.

These are the Sharia-driven blasphemy laws that terrorists violently and effectively implemented in Paris on January 7. And most Western mainstream media outlets are obediently complying with them.

In his statement, President Obama hailed America’s commitment to free speech, and referred to the terrorists as “cowardly.”

Unfortunately, he had it the other way around. News outlets covering this story without showing the cartoons aren’t curbing terrorism — they’re victims of it.

Disappointingly, some on the left are discussing the merits of the content that provoked this murderous attack — which is a lot like talking about what a rape victim was wearing to “provoke” her rapist.

Let’s be clear: our opinions about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons (which satirized all religions, not just Islam), like our opinions of the movie The Interview, are completely and utterly irrelevant in this context. If your condemnation of these attacks on free expression is followed by a comma and a “but…”, you may be part of the problem.

The CNN memo references “the tension between free expression and respect for religion.”

The next time you’re in a hotel room, pick up the Bible and read through Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Or pick up the Quran and read Surah Tawbah or Surah Anfal. Then, think carefully about your definition of “respect.”

Religion isn’t a person. It is a set of ideas in a book. It doesn’t have rights. It doesn’t have emotions. It doesn’t have a family or children. Those cartoonists were living, breathing human beings. They had rights, emotions, and families. Which of these deserves your respect?

In verses 8:12-13, the Quran endorses killing disbelievers. In Leviticus 24:16, the Bible calls for the killing of blasphemers. Both of these books are revered and respected by billions of people around the world. As for those who criticize and satirize them — their weapons are pencils and laptops. Who should really be offended here?

Why is the content of the cartoonists’ work even remotely relevant? If we truly want to make this a conversation about the content of the cartoons, let’s be fair and also bring the content of these religions’ canonical texts into the debate.

I was on a HuffPost Live segment this week discussing the aftermath of the Paris shootings. One of the guests said there is a “fine line” between free speech and offending people’s sensitivities. My response was simple: the whole point of freedom of speech is the freedom to offend. This is the reason free speech is so ardently protected. Most of the revolutionary changes in history — from the civil rights movement to the advent of major religions — started with a lot of offended people. This is why Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. It’s why Jesus was crucified, and Muhammad was expelled from Mecca by the Quraysh. Without the freedom to offend, there is no freedom of speech.

I recently received news that my friend Raif Badawi, currently in a Saudi jail, is going to start being publicly lashed 50 times every Friday after prayers at a Jeddah mosque. (Update: The first set of lashings happened Friday, January 9). This will continue every week until his sentence of 1,000 lashes is completed. His crime? Blogging. He is officially charged with “adopting liberal thought” and “insulting Islam.”

Simply condemning these actions isn’t enough. If we don’t actively support and promote the right of writers and artists to express themselves freely, we are doing people like Raif and the slain Charlie Hebdo staff a great disservice. As Jonathan Chait put it:

The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.

If my fellow liberals don’t stand up to Islamism now, the void is bound to be filled by truly xenophobic fascists who don’t distinguish between rabid anti-Muslim bigotry and legitimate criticism of Islamic ideology. The rising influence of far-right parties like Marie Le Pen’s National Front will only further alienate the more moderate Muslim majority that the left claims to support, potentially priming more of them for recruitment by Islamists. Shying away from honestly criticizing Islamism does them no favor.

Terrorism is terrorism, whether it kills people or kills our values. We’re losing on both fronts.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

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