This week the Saudi Arabian Supreme Court upheld a sentence of 1000 lashes and ten years in prison for blogger Raif Badawi. His crime? Insulting Islam.
Badawi is the founder of the Saudi Liberal Network, a blog and internet discussion forum that facilitates honest discussion about Islam and other issues. He was arrested in 2012 on a variety of charges relating to his founding and operation of the blog. Badawi was originally sentenced to 600 lashes and seven years imprison, a sentence that would later be increased to 1000 lashes and ten years in prison. Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar has fled to Canada because of the threats she has received since Badawi’s arrest.
Badawi received the first 50 lashes in January, after which subsequent lashings were postponed because of both health concerns and to give Saudi Arabia’s supreme court a chance to review his case. His lashings are expected to resume as early as today.
Badawi’s story is just one of many stories of judiciary abuse and human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and many other Muslim countries in recent years. In their 2015 World Report on Saudi Arabia, the Human Rights Watch provides several examples of violations of justice, freedom of expression, migrant workers’ rights, and womens’ rights. Of Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch states:
Saudi Arabia continued in 2014 to try, convict, and imprison political dissidents and human rights activists solely on account of their peaceful activities. Systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities continued. Authorities failed to enact systematic measures to protect the rights of 9 million foreign workers. As in past years, authorities subjected hundreds of people to unfair trials and arbitrary detention. New anti-terrorism regulations that took effect in 2014 can be used to criminalize almost any form of peaceful criticism of the authorities as terrorism.
The Saudi Arabian judicial system operates on a strict interpretation of Islamic law that proscribes corporal and capital punishments, often by beheading, for “crimes” like apostasy, blasphemy, adultery, drug trafficking, and sorcery (that’s right, sorcery). Islamic rules permeate the Saudi judiciary so thoroughly that it carries one of the highest rates of capital punishment in the world. According to the Huffington Post, as of May 27, Saudi Arabia had already executed 88 people under their interpretation of Islamic Law.
It strains credulity to suggest that these official, institutionalized versions of Sharia embraced by the likes of Saudi Arabia, among other nations, have nothing to do with Islam as a religion, yet we are continuously bombarded with assertions that “Islam is a religion of peace” from the secular media, authors, apologists, and government officials alike.
But does the phrase “religion of peace” actually mean anything? Does “peace” preclude the barbaric prescriptions of Sharia law that justify corporal and capital punishment for imaginary crimes? Is it possible that there are those that view these punishments as a necessary precondition for “peace?”
The implementation and maintenance of peace is a notoriously difficult and subjective concept in terms of imperatives. The phrase “keeping the peace” generally refers to organized efforts to maintain public order, prevent violence between citizens, and prevent unlawful activities. Even in the United States and other secular nations, law enforcement officers are generally given some authority to use violent force to prevent crime and apprehend or punish criminals. Even war itself has been propagated for the purpose of keeping or restoring “peace.”
If we view “peace” as a principle primarily concerned with maintaining public order and rule of law, then it is not a stretch to see how violent, martial, and totalitarian forces could be rationally justified in the name of this subjective view of “peace.” In fact, even a rudimentary look back at human history yields countless examples of when violent force was, in fact, implemented for the sake of restoring or maintaining peace. Numerous violent acts of war have been ethically justified by leaders from almost every nation in the name of achieving “peace.”
In a 1945 speech to the British House of Commons, Winston Churchill said the following about the American decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima:
There are voices which assert that the bomb should never have been used at all. I cannot associate myself with such ideas…I am surprised that very worthy people—but people who in most cases had no intention of proceeding to the Japanese front themselves—should adopt the position that rather than throw this bomb, we should have sacrificed a million American and a quarter of a million British lives.
Adolf Hitler himself was known to employ “peace” as an end to justify his actions. In a 1939 speech before the Reichstag, he asserted:
As Fuehrer of the German people and Chancellor of the Reich, I can thank God at this moment that he has so wonderfully blessed us in our hard struggle for what is our right, and beg Him that we and all other nations may find the right way, so that not only the German people but all Europe may once more be granted the blessing of peace.
Indeed, Saint Augustine asserted, “The purpose of all war is peace.”
So what happens when the law itself is violent and irrational? It should be clear that the concept of “peace” isn’t necessarily mutually exclusive with violent prescriptions in the law. The late Saudi King Abdullah said the following:
Muslims are not bloodthirsty people. Islam is a religion of peace that forbids the killing of the innocent.
Yet, Saudi Arabia’s laws still allow for capital and corporal punishment for, among other things, blasphemy, witchcraft and sorcery, “waging war on God”, insulting Islam, fornication, and homosexuality. Clearly, the Saudi concept of “peace” is very different from our own western, liberal ideas on the subject.
Public polling of Muslims further supports the idea that “peace” is a very subjective and fluid concept. In late 2014, the Russian news outlet “RT” published a poll that showed marginal support for ISIS among young European Muslims, especially in France where 27% of Muslim youth and 15 to 16% of French Muslims overall had a favorable view of ISIS. This is far from a majority, but still represents a significant number of Muslims in France.
A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center suggests that significant quantities of Muslims around the globe support making Sharia the official law of the land in their countries. The study shows that about 84% of Muslims in South Asia, 77% in Southeast Asia, 74% in the Middle East, and 64% in Sub-Saharan Africa support making Sharia, with all of its religious prescriptions and punishments, the official law of the land.
To be fair, the same Pew study also suggests that the vast majority of Muslims do not support suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians, but support is still alarmingly high (25 to 40%) in countries like Afghanistan, Palestine, Egypt, and Bangladesh.
Now, I am not arguing that these numbers conclusively identify Islam as an inherently violent religion. I am suggesting that “peace” is far too subjective a concept to be a meaningful measuring stick in our conversations about Islamic violence. The phrase “Religion of peace” is a platitude that does not accurately represent the realities and nuances of the issues surrounding Islamic extremism. It is a conversation stopper, an appeal to the (admittedly positive) propensity for tolerance inherent in secular liberalism, but it prevents real, meaningful conversation about the real world social consequences of bad religious ideas.
Ex-Muslim activist Sara Haider discussed the urgency and importance of this conversation at the 2015 Conference of the American Humanist Association. She decried the double standard of the left in openly criticizing Christian authoritarianism, but ignoring Islamic authoritarianism for the sake of tolerance. She said:
Those who oppose Christian authoritarianism will find that the broad majority of liberals, religious or non-religious, side with them and will offer their support in the fight to push religious morals out of our politics and public life. Even religious liberals sometimes look upon the politically-charged religious right with distaste and some work with secularists to keep them out of our politics…Atheists and secularists can feel secure in the knowledge that their allies on the liberal Left will stand with them when their target is the far-right Christians. It makes sense, liberals don’t share much, many common values with the religious right. But when the same scrutiny is applied to Islam, you find that inexplicably some people on the Left begin to align instead with the Islamic religious right. The consistent exception has been the secular and atheist communities.
Sarah Haider: Islam and the Necessity of Liberal Critique (AHA Conference 2015) | Video Credit: American Humanist
Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote:
For more than thirteen years now, I have been making a simple argument in response to such acts of terrorism. My argument is that it is foolish to insist, as our leaders habitually do, that the violent acts of radical Islamists can be divorced from the religious ideals that inspire them. Instead we must acknowledge that they are driven by a political ideology, an ideology embedded in Islam itself, in the holy book of the Qur’an as well as the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad contained in the hadith. Let me make my point in the simplest possible terms: Islam is not a religion of peace.
I will be the first to admit that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims living in relative peace and tolerance with their neighbors of all religions and no religion at all. I would never purport to forward the idea that all Muslims are inherently violent, intolerant terrorists. We will leave such ridiculous assertions to the American right-wing. My argument is that it is in the best interest of all people, religious or otherwise, to have honest conversations about the consequences of bad ideas, to stop ignoring the social implications of Islam (and religion in general), and to stop pretending that acts of violence have nothing to do with Islam and it’s scriptural prescriptions.
Indeed, the phrase “religion of peace” is a platitude that fails to adequately capture the subjectivity of peace itself. It means nothing to say “Islam is a religion of peace” when supposedly peaceful countries, like Saudi Arabia, are punishing bloggers for imaginary crimes like blasphemy. Let’s have an honest conversation about religion and its consequences without resorting to meaningless phrases under the guise of tolerance.
- Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
- The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris
- God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
- Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali