Freedom shouldn't be the exclusive domain of white people


Ruby Hamad

Thousands gather in Paris for a solidarity march.

Thousands gather in Paris for a solidarity march. Photo: Getty Images

The debate over the Charlie Hebdo murders rages on. As we struggle to come to terms with What It All Means, there does seem to be one thing on which we can agree: the stunning display of self-congratulatory hypocrisy on the part of world leaders in Paris over the weekend.

Joining the more than 1.5 million Parisians who marched in support of freedom of speech, were Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov who recently jailed a blogger for "insulting a government servant," the prime ministers of Ireland, where blasphemy is a criminal offence, and Turkey, which jails more journalists than any other country, and Israel's shamelessly opportunistic leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who, momentarily forgetting the seven journalists his government killed in Gaza last year, thought a national tragedy would be the ideal moment to urge French Jews to "come home" to Israel.

But for sheer audacity perhaps nothing tops Saudi Arabian officials joining a rally defending the freedom to lampoon religion just two days after the Saudi regime meted out 50 lashes to blogger Raif Badawi for the crime of "insulting Islam."

The Saudi regime meted out 50 lashes to blogger Raif Badawi for the crime of "insulting Islam."

The Saudi regime meted out 50 lashes to blogger Raif Badawi for the crime of "insulting Islam." Photo: Amnesty International

Badawi's transgression was to found a website, Free Saudi Liberals, that called for "open debate about interpretations of Islam." Contrary to the government's claims, Badawi's intent was not to insult but to ignite much-needed conversations about the current state of Islam and where it is headed. According to his lawyer, it was Badawi's comments calling for a relaxation of Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of religion that ultimately led to his arrest.


Badawi will be subjected to another 50 lashes this Friday. And then another 50 next Friday. And the Friday after that. Every Friday he will whipped 50 times until he receives the proscribed 1000 lashes. This is torture, both physical and mental. It is also a not-so-subtle warning to other would-be dissenters.

This is what progressive Muslims are up against. When placed in this context, the simplistic calls for Muslims to condemn terrorism -as if words alone can quell the human desire for power and violence- do not take into account that, for those Muslims who do wish to liberalise their faith and communities, it is not just insurgent terrorist groups they are battling but their own governments. Governments that  suppress their people's legitimate opinions on matters of religion, even as they have the awe-inspiring chutzpah to march in honour of the right of western journalists to draw crude pictures of Mohammed.

As western commentators debate over whether Islam is "inherently violent" or a "religion of peace," seemingly without ever entertaining the notion that Islam is both peaceful and violent because people themselves are both of those things, let's not forget that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism is a relatively recent phenomenon.

While the US has been busying itself with its war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, staunch western ally Saudi Arabia has been free to export Wahhabism, its severe brand of Islam, across the globe. Dating back only to the 18th century, the austere ideology was adopted by the House of Saud as a means of -surprise surprise- consolidating power. According to Reza Aslan, "Saudi Arabia has spent over $100 billion in the past 20 or 30 years spreading this ideology throughout the world," which is behind many of the world's most notorious terror organisations, "whether we're talking about Boko Haram, or ISIS, or al Qaeda, or the Taliban."

It is not only terror organisations adopting this unforgivingly regressive brand of Islam. Those who are adamant that Islam is violent at its core should ask themselves why it is that the Sultan of Brunei decided to wait until 2014, to introduce hardline Sharia into that country's penal code. Similarly, Indonesia's Aceh province, the only region in the world's most populous Muslim nation to introduce Islamic law, only adopted Sharia in 2001. It is in Aceh that a woman, "Yasmeen," is due to be punished with nine lashes for the crime of being found alone in the same house as her then-boyfriend (now husband). The village men who "caught" them had already taken it upon themselves to "punish" Yasmeen by gang-raping her.

And all this continues even as the debate centres on whether Muslims pose an inherent threat to the west. As terrifying as the recent events in Paris and last month's Sydney siege are, it is Muslims themselves who are the biggest victims of both Islamic terrorism and state-sanctioned despotism.

But the efforts of liberal, progressive Muslims like Raif and Yasmeen (who, though not a political actor, was nonetheless daring to live according to her own values in an atmosphere hostile to them), are drowned out. Rather than highlight how Muslims themselves are challenging the radicalism and intolerance in their midst, they serve merely as opportunistic examples of why Islam itself is to blame.

It is an unbearable fact of human existence that the very thing that brings comfort and meaning to the lives of so many is the same thing that is used to oppress them. If the cases of Raif and Yasmeen tell us anything, it is that freedom of expression and freedom of religion are in themselves privileged concepts that completely disregard the lack of choice in environments such Aceh and the Saudi Kingdom. Even more excruciating is the twisted contemporary definition of freedom of speech. What should be the safeguard of political dissent is now merely the right of the privileged west to mock and ridicule a population it has already relegated to the margins of society. As if freedom itself hinges on the ability to depict Muslims as hook-nosed, hirsute savages.

Freedom should not be the exclusive domain of white people. Progressive Muslims need the support, not the mockery, of the west. I have said many times and no doubt will say again, any change to Islam must come from within Islam and it will come from people like Badawi and Yasmeen, who directly or indirectly challenge government-sanctioned fundamentalism. Their voices must be amplified.

Forget arguments about the essential nature of Islam. Put aside for one moment your personal opinion of its prophet. The real issue we should be debating is, why western governments who profess to support democracy in Muslim-majority countries are allied with the very regime that is doing the most to suppress it.