Prisoners of conscience

A blogger has been jailed and condemned to weekly public whiplashes in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for holding 'liberal' views. Kunwar Khuldune Shahid wonders how the Muslim world reconciles this with the outcry over Charlie Hebdo

Prisoners of conscience
In an article titled, ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’ published in the British publication The Observer on May 28, 1961, Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International (AI) coined the term ‘Prisoner of conscience’ (POC). The article defined a prisoner of conscience as, “Any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) an opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence.”

It is believed that ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’ was written after Benenson found out that two students from Coimbra were jailed in Portugal for “raising a toast to freedom.”

While most countries around the world have had their share of POCs, regardless of the liberalisation of its jurisprudence, it’s the Muslim world that dominates headlines when it comes to imprisoning, penalising and executing people over holding a particular set of beliefs. And of course fewer states – if one can use that misnomer for the Kingdom – come close to the human rights abuse that Saudi Arabia showcases with monstrous regularity.

At a time when ‘liberals’ all over the world, especially in the Muslim world, were deliberating over the role Charlie Hebdo journalists played in their own ‘unjustifiable’ killing, Raif Badawi was given the first instalment of 50 lashes on January 9 in front of a mosque in Jeddah, with hundreds of spectators bellowing ‘Allahu Akbar’ with every flog.

Over the past three years, Badawi, a liberal blogger, has been charged with “ridiculing Islamic religious figures” – probably for calling the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University “a den for terrorists”; “going beyond the realm of obedience”; “founding an online forum that “ propagates liberal thought” and the rhetorical accusation which is conjured at the drop of a hat all over the Muslim world – that of “insulting Islam.”

When one realises the fact that “disobedience” in thought and propagation of liberalism are deemed synonymous with insulting Islam in the country that the Muslim world – at least the Sunni half – continues to identify as its leader, one comprehends the gravity of Charlie Hebdo’s ‘crime’ against Islam.

Back in 2008, Badawi was charged with apostasy, which is used synonymously with blasphemy in many Muslim countries’ jurisprudence, and is punishable by death in 13 Muslim states with imprisonment sanctioned in many others. While Badawi has confirmed in the court that he is a Muslim, his claim that “everyone has a choice to believe or not believe” was enough for the apostasy label to be slashed on his forehead.

Badawi with his children
Badawi with his children

Apostasy, the act of leaving one’s religion, or converting to another religion, is an integral part of freedom of conscience, which has been highlighted in Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights include – among others – Iran and Pakistan, where the law’s ambiguous verbiage means that apostates can be accused of blasphemy, which is punishable by death.

This is precisely why despite a massive surge in atheism in both countries, neither of the two officially recognises atheism and both are among the 13 Muslim states whose jurisprudence can be interpreted to make apostasy, and hence atheism, punishable by death. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, introduced a new law in March 2014, which declares atheists as terrorists.
1% of Pakistanis identified themselves as atheists in 2005, with the figure doubling to 2% in 2012

In a 2012 Gallup Survey, 5% of 500 interviewed Saudis identified themselves as “convinced atheists”. According to the same survey, 1% of Pakistanis identified themselves as atheists in 2005, with the figure doubling to 2% in 2012.

“Atheists” a term used to describe everyone who is irreligious, regardless of their agnostic or deistic beliefs, can become prisoners of conscience should they rally for their universal human right to self-identify as ex-Muslims, atheists, agnostics, or simply nonreligious in almost all Muslim countries.

Atheists in the Muslim world have come to terms with the religious identity as sanctioned by their birth certificate or ID cards. Some consider religious labels irrelevant, while others rightfully fear for their life and continue to identify themselves as Muslims.

Forcing a nonbeliever, who has unlearned the beliefs they grew up with, to carry the tag of same beliefs might not be as offensive in most cases, but legally coercing a believer to shun his beliefs, is an outrageous human rights abuse in a world still dominated by those believing in religion. This makes Ahmadis in Pakistan ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’ of the modern world, who still are legally debarred from not only identifying themselves as Muslims, but “posing” as such as well.

When Ahmadis are jailed for simply reading the Holy Quran, a book revered by over 1.5 billion people in the world, it is ridiculous to see Muslim states passing resolutions against secular online platforms and caricatures.

As long as harsh punishments for blasphemy, and its offshoots for apostasy, atheism and bizarrely ‘liberalism’, exist, prisoners of conscious will continue growing in number. The rise of irreligion all over the Muslim world, and the rising demands for secularism will force the Muslim world to finally overcome the Islamist inertia.

What the Muslim states need to decide is whether this transformation will be carried out peacefully, through owning up to problems in religious scriptures which form antediluvian laws that suffocate basic human rights, or if there will be even more unnecessary suppression and bloodshed. The transformation, however, is inevitable.