On Wednesday I was invited onto the BBC World Service programme ‘BBC World Have Your Say’ to discuss Raif Badawi’s PEN Pinter Prize and the issues experienced by bloggers in Saudi Arabia. Also on the show were Evelyne Abitbol, Chief Execuitve of the Free Raif Badawi Foundation and Saudi Arabian journalists Essam Al Ghalib, Eman Al Nafjan of Saudi Woman, and Abeer Mishkas.
The World Have You Say team also produced a 2 minute video, featuring an exchange between myself and Essam. I noted that political progress is very often won by people who refuse to keep quiet, when those in power tell them to shut up. Essam made the pragmatic point that Badawi’s blogging and imprisonment has not yet produced any change in Saudi Arabia.
This may be true in the short term but I think that Badawi is, like other civil rights activists (think Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi), playing a very long game. Rights are won slowly and no single person will effect substantial, lasting change all on their own. But a vanguard of pro-democracy activists is necessary if change is ever to come about. In this, Raif Badawi is not alone: English PEN has recently been campaigning for Wajeha Al Huwaider, for example, and also Waleed Albulkhair (Raif Badawi’s brother in-law and lawyer). There are many others arguing for freedom in the Kingdom.
Later in the show, the Saudi panellists also suggested that the campaign to free Badawi might actually be hampering the chances of his release. This is an extremely difficult thing to hear when English PEN has invested so much into campaigning on Raif Badawi’s behalf.
There are two responses to the charge. The first is that to keep silent would be to endorse and entrench the position of the men who are brutalising Raif Badawi. To seek to appease them through our silence is to accept the power structures, and so, to accept defeat. Raif’s wife Ensaf Haidar has clearly decided that she will not be subjugated in this manner. That would be a surrender that the authorities hope to provoke.
The second response is to question the premise. Raif Badawi received an incredibly harsh sentence, and he was even lashed 50 times in January. It is noteworthy that, since the protests outside Saudi Arabian embassies, the flogging has not resumed. One of King Salman’s first acts on his succession was to refer Badawi’s case to the supreme court for review. This suggests that the global campaign has had some effect on the Government of Saudi Arabia, even if it has not secured Raif Badawi’s release.