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Saudi Arabia has long meted out punishments for blasphemy, which according to the Washington Post range from using ‘un-Islamic terminology’, such as ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, to ’mocking religion after discussing the Bible in class’. Punishments for blasphemy include lengthy prison sentences, physical torture in the form of public flogging and, occasionally, death sentences. A textual penal code does not exist. In other words, judges who preside over blasphemy cases tend to rule according to subjective interpretations of the Koran and on a case-by-case basis, instead of referring to a codified constitution. Anything that challenges the Wahhabi understanding of the Islamic faith (such as the sanctity and holiness of the Prophet’s companions) is subject to criminalization under the banner of sacrilegious behaviour.
Mansor Almaribe, a 45-year-old Australian who in 2011 visited the holy city of Medina to make the Muslim pilgrimage of hajj, was detained while praying and reading in a group. He was accused of insulting the Prophet’s companions, convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in jail and 500 lashes until the Australian ambassador in Saudi Arabia intervened in a ‘bid for leniency’. The Arab Spring, with its rising democratic sentiments and widespread use of social media, winnowed the fear of the Saudi regime, which has tried to extend its blasphemy laws beyond its borders. For instance, in 2012 Saudi officials demanded that Malaysia deport a 23-year-old Saudi journalist, Hamza Kashgari, who tweeted that Prophet Muhammad was human not divine, in order to charge him with blasphemy and put him on trial in his home country.
Apostasy in Saudi Arabia is considered a crime worse than blasphemy. Those who reject their Muslim faith, ridicule Allah or denounce core tenets of Islam have been sentenced to death. This was the case for Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, who in 2013 was detained by Saudi Arabia’s morality police after a discussion in a café in Abha, in the south-west of the kingdom, ruffled some feathers. The charge referred to his poetry and claimed it promoted atheism. He was detained on 1 January 2014. In May 2014, he was given a four-year prison sentence and 800 lashes. The specific crime itself was unclear. Fayadh was held without trial for more than a year on the ostensible charge that he had ‘insulted the Godly self’ through his poetry, as well as ’having long hair’. During the detention, an additional crime appeared after officials confiscated his phone, claiming that the poet ‘conducted illicit relationships with women and stored some of their photographs on his mobile phone’. In November 2015, Fayadh was retried by a new panel of judges who condemned him to death.
Upon hearing the news of the death sentence, Fayadh’s 82-year-old father suffered a fatal stroke, prompting the poet to write his first verse since his imprisonment, reflecting upon the pain of his father’s passing and his unjust incarceration. Fayadh’s death sentence caused a global outcry, and human rights groups and cultural figures all over the world rallied for his release. The International literature festival Berlin even organized a campaign on 14 January 2016, in which Fayadh’s poetry was read at 122 events in 44 countries, in the hope of pressuring Western governments to halt the execution. The campaign succeeded in its primary aim, and on 2 February 2016, a Saudi court reduced the death sentence to an eight-year prison term and 800 lashes. Fayadh, who remains in jail, has won the 2017 Oxfam Novib/PEN Awards for Freedom of Expression, which he shares with Indian journalist Malini Subramaniam.
Behind the vague charges of apostasy and/or blasphemy in Saudi Arabia is a political inclination, one that views reformers, secularists or anyone else outside the approved faith (such as Shia or mystical Sufis) as a challenge and a threat to the monarchy and its regional status – a position that is augmented and sustained by its control of Islam’s holiest locations. The Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs makes it clear that ‘blasphemy charges are made exclusively against those who criticize Salafism or the Saudi monarchy, or who practice any faith other than non-Salafi Islam’. Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, explains that “the Saudi government uses these laws primarily to silence its critics”.
A notable example is Raif Badawi, a Saudi writer and co-founder of the website Free Saudi Liberals. Initially, Saudi officials only harassed Badawi for his online editorials, which challenge religious mores and aim to create an open dialogue around the politicization of faith in the country. In early 2008, Badawi was arrested, questioned and released a day later. The following year, the Saudi government banned him from travelling and suspended his business interests. In 2012, he was arrested and charged with a variety of offences, including insulting Islam and showing disobedience. The case for apostasy was made by a judge in a lower court, who cited Badawi’s activity on Facebook (particularly, pressing the Like button on a page for Arab Christians) as proof. Instead of a death sentence, he was given a seven-year prison term and condemned to 600 strokes of a whip in 2013. However, an appeal a year later increased his punishment to a ten-year prison sentence, 1,000 lashes and a fine of 1 million Saudi riyals (around $267,000). On 9 January 2015, prosecutors caned him 50 times, the first batch of 20, near a mosque in Jeddah. Although the flogging was meant to occur on a weekly basis, it was stopped after the first week. Journalists have cited Badawi’s poor health as well as the public outcry at the spectacle of corporal punishment as possible reasons. In November 2015, Yves Rossier, Switzerland’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, informed Swiss newspaper La Liberté of a forthcoming royal pardon that would alleviate Badawi’s plight. Nevertheless, to date, Badawi remains in prison.