JANUARY 13, 2015 — You might say Raif Badawi got off easy. When the Saudi blogger was arrested, authorities charged him with crimes that included apostasy — which in Saudi Arabia carries the death penalty. In the end, he was convicted of setting up a website that allegedly undermined security and ridiculed religious figures. Far from being put to death, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Oh, and 1,000 lashes.
No, we’re not talking about radical extremists of the Islamic State or Iranian ayatollahs meting out revenge against their enemies. We’re talking about a long-ruling government that is an American ally — against, now that you mention it, both the Islamic State and Iran. Saudi Arabia has often been helpful to America in Iraq, and lately it has been helpful in weakening Iran and Russia by producing so much oil that the price has plunged.
But the Saudi monarchy is fiercely repressive toward dissenters, religious or political. Badawi is the unlucky victim of a particularly ferocious response. He is already serving his prison term, and on Friday he endured the first round of physical violence — 50 strokes with a large cane on his back and legs in a public site next to a mosque.
It was an extreme reaction to dissent even for Saudi Arabia, and it provoked a protest from the U.S. State Department, which said it “calls on Saudi authorities to cancel this brutal punishment,” imposed merely for “exercising his rights to freedom of expression and religion.”
That request came Thursday. The flogging, the first of many, took place Friday, indicating that the Saudis feel no need to accommodate American views on human rights or penal sanctions. They have their own ways of running a society — medieval ways — and they are not about to change them.
Still, the Obama administration was right to highlight this barbaric persecution of peaceful activists whose only “crime” was to post material finding fault with religious authorities. King Abdullah shouldn’t assume the U.S. will turn a blind eye no matter what.
This case has been taken up by human rights groups, including Amnesty International, which said, “Raif Badawi is the latest victim to fall prey to the ruthless campaign to silence peaceful activists in Saudi Arabia. The authorities seem determined to crush all forms of dissent through every means at their disposal, including imposing harsh prison sentences and corporal punishment on activists.”
At a time when Islamist radicals are carrying out violent jihads against those who dare to mock their faith — or fellow Muslims who happen to follow different religious traditions — the behavior of the Saudi regime stands out. That’s not because it is so different from the others, but because it is done under the auspices of law.
The massacre of staffers at a satirical publication in Paris was a reminder of the divide in the modern world between those who accept freedom of speech and diversity of opinion and those who think they are ordained to silence anyone whose view of the truth is different from theirs. In this historic, critical struggle, the Saudi government is proudly on the wrong side.