“Raif Badawi in books” – thoughts about two books by and about Raif Badawi

I want to share in this post some thoughts about two books which were published last year: Ensaf Haidar’s book: “Freiheit für Raif Badawi, die Liebe meines Lebens” (“Freedom for Raif Badawi, the love of my life”) and a collection of Raif Badawi’s blog posts “1000 Lashes because I say what I think”. Both are great sources, if you want to know more about Raif Badawi and Ensaf Haidar’s struggle for her husband. 

1. I wrote my last post about Raif Badawi about a year ago. It was published on 24 March 2015 on the Raif Badawi website and you can also find it here in my blog.  I asked myself in it

Why do I think every day of Raif Badawi, even so I do not really know a lot about him?”

I still think about and tweet for Raif Badawi every day, but the basis of information about him has luckily changed. A year ago you could only find one or two of his blog posts in an English translation. In addition the Guardian had published an article with a couple of excerpts of his posts. Also the personal information about him was sparse. There were a number of articles and the information on the Amnesty website, but nothing more comprehensive.

The situation has completely changed, because of the publication of two books since my last post:

a) The first publication was in April 2015. Ullstein Verlag, a German publishing house, published the book “1000 Peitschenhiebe, weil ich sage, was ich denke”. It is a collection of 15 blog posts by Raif Badawi in German translation. During the course of the following months also an English translation of the book followed and now it is available in addition in French, Italian and Dutch. This book enables us to finally read the posts which led to Raif Badawi’s severe punishment.

b) The second book is by Raif Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar and was published in October 2015. The book is so far only available in German under the title “Freiheit für Raif Badawi, die Liebe meines Lebens”, but the English translation will follow in the next days (on 16 March 2016). The book is a biography about Raif Badawi and tells the story of Raif and Ensaf’s love, their live together and her struggle for his freedom and his life.

2. Ensaf Haidar: “Freiheit für Raif Badawi, die Liebe meines Lebens” (Freedom for Raif Badawi, the love of my life)

a) The book “Freiheit für Raif Badawi, die Liebe meines Lebens” starts with a short chapter about Ensaf Haidar’s current life in Sherbrooke, Canada and her involvement in campaigns for Raif. The following chapters tell chronologically their story from their first encounter until the presence.

It was chance that Ensaf Haidar and Raif Badawi got to know each other. Ensaf’s sister Hanan receiRB 2ved a mobile phone as a present for her wedding. However, she thought that she would not really need it as a married woman and passed it on to her younger sister Ensaf. Ensaf was at the end of her Koran studies at university and her sister thought she could use the phone when the driver is late picking her up from university. One evening she saw that someone had tried to reach her. She had registered her number with the job centre because another sister Egbal had urged her to do so. She called back after business hours and expected to leave a message on the answering machine. However this was not the job centre who had tried to reach her, but Raif Badawi whom she did not know. Apparently also one of her brothers had used the phone and Raif Badawi dialed the wrong number. Initially she was very hesitant and did not want to speak with him, because to speak with a man who does not belong to the family is not accepted behaviour in Saudi Arabia and actually even dangerous because they could be punished for it. Raif was very persistent and in the end they spent the whole night on the phone speaking about their favourite music and their lives. It is very poignant to read how they saw each other the first time. On a Friday when her brothers were at the mosque, Ensaf went to their room which had windows to the street. Raif came to the house as arranged and was standing in front of the house looking up to the window to see at least a glimpse of her. Ensaf threw down a carnation which Raif picked up and kept like a treasure.

After this first opportunity to see each other briefly and from afar a period of secrecy and many more calls followed. Two months later they decided that they could only be together, if they got married. Raif spoke with her father and proposed marriage. For her father Raif was not a suitable husband. He did not come from a respectable family and her father outright ignored Raif ‘s proposal. He did not even considered him worthy to receive an answer. It took 18 months for Ensaf to convince her family that they should accept the marriage proposal and it seems they only finally accepted because she threatened to do something forbidden and bring shame over family.

Ensaf Haidar tells about her wedding and their honeymoon in Syria and in Lebanon and how she enjoyed the freedom in these countries. She also tells about their first flat together in her home town Jazan in southern Saudi Arabia. The relationship between the newly-wed couple and her family remained difficult and after their first child Nedschua was born they decided to move to Jeddah to escape the constant interference from her family. Raif started an institute to teach women English and the use of computers. Ensaf Haidar is very open when she tells how lonely she felt in this city in which she did not know anyone and that she was even jealous, because Raif spent so much time in the institute and did not seem to be very interested in her any more. During this time he also started his Internet forum in which he discussed liberal thoughts. He did not speak with Ensaf about it, but she saw one day his computer and decided to sign up for the forum herself under a pseudonym. She even wrote comments to some articles. She was very fascinated by this other side of Raif which she did not know. At the end of the year 2007 after the birth of the third child Miriam the police came the first time and seized his books and computers. This was the first incident in which they realised that the authorities did not like the liberal thoughts which were discussed in the forum and much worse should happen. They even thought at that time about leaving Saudi Arabia and stayed for some weeks in Malaysia. None of them spoke Malaysian and everything was more difficult than expected, therefore they went back to Saudi Arabia.

Ensaf Haidar describes in some detail the persecution and harassment by the police which got worse and worse over time. Raif was interrogated by the police and the court and they even froze his accounts and all his assets and withdraw all his citizen rights. One important factor was that Raif Badawi’s father Mohammed Raif Badawi hates his son. He made videos and put them online and later also gave interviews on the Saudi Arabian television in which he claimed that his son had abandoned Islam and was an apostate. Conservative clerics shared this opinion and declared a fatwa against him. Life got more and more difficult and the threats against him and his family got more and more severe. On one evening he was attacked by someone with a knife who tried to kill him. After this assassination attempt they knew that they were not any longer safe in Saudi Arabia. Ensaf Haidar first went with their three children to Egypt, but then decided to go rather to Lebanon because of the uncertain political situation in Egypt. Between Egypt and Lebanon Ensaf and the children went briefly back to Jeddah for one week. This was the last time they saw Raif. They stayed in Lebanon and still  hoped that Raif would be able to follow them soon. Sadly this was not the case because he was not allowed to travel any more and then on 17 June 2012, he was arrested on the charge of “insulting Islam through electronic channels”, later also apostasy (conscious abandonment of Islam) was added which carries a mandatory death sentence in Saudi Arabia. Ensaf and Raif realised quickly that the family would also not be safe in Lebanon. Ensaf got calls from unknown persons who threatened her. In addition her family started on her behalf (and against her will) proceedings to get her divorced from Raif Badawi. When she did not agreed to these divorce proceedings, her family disowned her. Ensaf  and Raif decided it would be best, if she applied for political asylum at the United Nations. Finally they got the information that Canada had offered them political asylum. This decision come just in time, because Raif’s father tried to get custody for the three children.

In the last two chapters of the book Ensaf Haidar tells about her journey from Lebanon to Canada and her first impressions of Canada. Again she is very open about her feelings. She is relieved to be in safety and to know that her children are not at risk anymore to be taken from her. On the other hand the culture is very different from anything she knew. They arrived in November and it was winter and much colder than they were used to. But she also speaks about all the people who help her to take care of all formalities and her first contacts with Amnesty International in Sherbrooke. Things were even more difficult, because she hesitated for a long time to tell the children that their father is in prison. She occasionally had a chance to speak with Raif and he urged her not to inform their children about his current situation. Only when the pressure on her got greater and greater and also the newspapers started to report about Raif Badawi’s fate, she could not conceal the truth any longer. She was in a similar dilemma when Raif Badawi was flogged on 9 January 2015. She did not want to tell their children, but had to realise that everyone else knew about it (including all their class mates).

The book finishes in a positive tone. Ensaf Haidar emphasises how grateful she and also Raif are for all the support they receive from people all over the world and all the prices he was awarded. She ends with the hope that King Salman will grant mercy in and will pardon Raif Badawi and she imagines what they would do when they are finally reunited again.

b) I can highly recommend Ensaf Haidar’s book. It gives an interesting insight in her life with Raif and their story. I am particularly impressed how she describes her own development and also Raif Badawi’s development.

At the beginning of the book Ensaf seems to be reasonably happy with her life. She had studied, but she knew that she would probably never work. She was even reluctant whether she should register with the job centre at all. She was looking forward to long holidays where she would live with her family, stay up late and sleep long until her family decided that she should get married and then she would take over the duties of a wife. Her attitude to life changed after she got to know Raif Badawi and fall in love with him. She decided to fight for a future together with him and also finally got the consent to marry him. After her marriage it took time for her to make her own decisions and become more independent. It was for her a gradual process and you get an understanding how this inexperienced girl from the beginning becomes a woman who organises her life and the life of their children and now even speaks with the press, the public and politicians about her husband and leads the campaign for his freedom.

Also Raif Badawi changed a lot over time. He was certainly in love with Ensaf when the first got to know each other and made her many presents, but his idea of a relationship was a rather traditional one. He did not tell anything about his work at home and also made all decisions by himself without even consulting Ensaf. This changed slowly when he starting writing in the forum. Ensaf describes that she read his posts in which he spoke about women’s rights, but that he still behaved at home as always and she did not really see him to put his words into practice. She challenged his behaviour and slowly he really also did change his behaviour, spent more time at home with their children and with her. He also started to discuss his thoughts and his articles with her and was interesting in her ideas.

An other aspect which I found interesting was her remarks about the relationship of the house of Saud and the Wahhabism which goes back almost 300 years to an agreement between Muhammed ibn Saud, the head of the family at that time, and Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. In this agreement Abd al-Wahhab provided the house of Saud with a religious legitimation for their claim to the throne of Saudi Arabia and the Saud family promised to spread and support the extremely conservative ideas of Abd al-Wahhab. That is what they are doing until today and this extreme conservatism is also a reason for Raif Badawi’s medieval punishment.

Finally it was intriguing to read all the background information about Raif Badawi and his father. I knew before that it was a troubled relationship and that the father condoned the punishment of Raif and even asked for the death penalty for Raif, but I was not aware how long back this hostility went. His father beat Raif and his sister and when Raif was 13 he was even sued by his father for disobedience and spent six months in a prison for children. I think this information puts a lot of slander and claims you occasionally read on Twitter in perspective.

3. Raif Badawi: “1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I think”

The second book is a collection of 15 of Raif Badawi’s blog posts. All posts were chosen by Ensaf Haidar and were originally published between 2010 and 2012. They had to be reconstructed with her help, because it is apparently difficult to find Raif’s posts still online.

RB 1The articles cover a great variety of different topics. There are some articles which focus on Saudi Arabia and its laws and customs. One of these articles is “Let’s Lash Some Astronomers”. Islamic scholars claim that the view of astronomers about the earth and the universe are not compatible with the Sharia view of the world and argue that astronomers are therefore heretics. Raif Badawi praises sarcastically the “Sharia  Astronomy” and suggests that the USA abolish NASA. He recommends also scientists in other fields to stop their studies and learn from the “glorious preachers” in Saudi Arabia who always have the final word in everything. Other articles like “A Male Escort for Every Female Scholar”, “Mixed or Divided” and “The Book” all deal with the role of women in Saudi Arabia. In each of these articles Raif Badawi argues passionately for equal rights for women and men. I thought it was particularly interesting to read his arguments in “The Book”. The article is about the International Book Fair in Riyadh. For the first time it was open for men and women at the same time without segregation. Raif Badawi applauds this decision and also argues that the mixing of genders is not forbidden under Islamic law. He explains further that historical documents show that also at the time of the prophet Mohammed men and woman worked, prayed and lived side by side. I find it remarkable that he does not seem to criticise in such articles Islam as such, but rather the – from his perspective – wrong interpretation of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

Another group of articles are about specific themes and topics which go beyond Saudi Arabia. Interesting are “No to Building a Mosque in New York City” and  “Yes! I Will Fight Theists and Religious Thoughts”. In the first article “No to Building a Mosque in New York City” he criticises the intention of the New York Muslims who wanted to build a mosque on the area where the World Trade Centre stood. He tries to put himself in the shoes of an “ordinary American” and argues that Saudi Arabia would certainly not build a church or synagogue, if a Christian or Jewish person had attacked Saudi Arabia. He then continues to explain that Saudi Arabia refuses to build churches altogether. He uses this example to call for freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia and more religious tolerance from Muslims and sees this as a prerequisite for a positive relationship with everyone irrespective of the religion.

To respect the opinions of those who stand against you is nothing short of courageous. We need to be champions in accepting the beliefs of others and their right to make their own decisions and believe in their own religions“.

(Raif Badawi)

Also the article “Yes! I Will Fight Theists and Religious Thoughts” is remarkable. It starts with the statement that he would be the first person to fight against Hamas, if they would ever “liberate Palestine” and “wipe Israel off the face of the earth”.  He clarifies that he is against the Israeli occupation but at the same time declares that  he is also against an Islamic religious state which might replace Israel in such a scenario. He uses this article to argue against any state which is based on religion and emphasises instead the importance of the individual and of individualism.

There are also general article about freedom of speech and liberalism. In “Let’s Talk about Enlightenment” and “Is Liberalism Against Religion?” Raif Badawi defends and champions liberalism. He strongly advocates a free society in which all ideas, believe systems and philosphies are in competition with each other. He also defends liberalism against the critisism that liberalism is against religion. Raif Badawi argues that one element of liberalism is to provide indidual freedom including freedom of religion. In a liberal society religion is a personal choice which everyone can make, but no one is forced to make.

Liberalism means to simply live and let live. We should all acknowledge our respect for traditions and personal behaviour of others, as long as they don’t cross the line for others and invade their personal space … your freedom ends on the outskirts of the freedom of others.

In summary also Raif Badawi’s book “1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I think” is definitely worth reading to understand Raif’s motivation and his thoughts. In addition to Raif’s 15 articles, there are in the English translation three “prefaces” in the book which are well worth reading. The “foreword” is by Lawrence M. Krauss, the “preface” by Constantin Schreiber and an “introduction” by Raif Badawi himself. He dictated this introduction to Ensaf Haidar in several calls. My only criticism against the book is that it is too short. The book has only about 60 pages and I would definitley love to read far more of Raif’s articles.

4. Finally I would like to provide you with the bibliographic information for both books (in German and English):

Raif Badawi’s book is a non-profit project and all proceeds from the book will be donated to Raif Badawi’s family in aid of their efforts to free Raif. Therefore if you buy the book you will not only get an insight in his thoughts, but also directly support the campaign for his freedom.

 

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