By Tom Gjelten
Some of the most deadly terrorist attacks have been Muslims killing Muslims. Earlier this month, a truck bomb targeted Shia Muslims in Baghdad, killing some 300 people. ISIS considers them apostates. In Bangladesh, radicals have gone after Muslims they suspect of blasphemy. NPR’s Tom Gjelten reports on how a liberal Muslim in Saudi Arabia found himself facing such charges.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Eleven years ago in Saudi Arabia, a restless young man named Raif Badawi set up an internet forum. It was a place where he and other Saudis could share thoughts about the social order in their country. In English, the site was called Free Saudi Liberals. Inevitably, it got Badawi in trouble with the religious authorities. Four years ago, he was arrested. He remains in a Saudi prison today.
ENSAF HAIDAR: (Foreign language spoken).
GJELTEN: Ensaf Haidar is Badawi’s wife. She speaks here through an interpreter.
HAIDAR: (Through interpreter) As it is written in the judgment, he has been accused of creating an internet website, adopting liberal thinking and ridiculing some religious figures as well. And he also liked a Christian page.
GJELTEN: That was on Facebook. Haidar fled Saudi with their three children and now lives in Canada. In her book, “Raif Badawi: The Voice Of Freedom,” Haidar says that her husband is a good Muslim but that he promoted a live-and-let-live philosophy. That’s a perspective conservative Saudi clerics consider un-Islamic.
HAIDAR: (Through interpreter) There was a fatwa issued against him from 150 religious figures in Saudi Arabia. So this was the main thing that created the problem for him.
GJELTEN: A serious problem. In a Saudi court, Badawi was charged with blasphemy and apostasy. For conservative Muslims, blasphemy is when someone insults Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. Apostasy is when a Muslim rejects Islam altogether. Badawi was accused of abandoning his faith for liberalism. Assim Al-Hakeem is a hard-line Saudi sheikh famous for lecturing in English.
ASSIM AL-HAKEEM: The consensus of all scholars that if a person changes his religion from Islam to any other religion, the punishment should be execution, death.
GJELTEN: Badawi was indeed condemned. Under international pressure, Saudi authorities later reduced his death sentence to 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes. But his case raises vital questions. Who gets to judge what constitutes blasphemy or apostasy? And is this what Islam really teaches? Sheikh Assim, while defending the death sentence for apostates, says in one of his online lectures that it can be imposed only by the government of an Islamic state on the advice of scholars.
AL-HAKEEM: It is not for Tom, Dick or Harry to carry out this punishment. This cannot be done without following the procedure, meaning if someone says that he doesn’t believe in the Prophet (speaking Arabic), can we go and chop his head off? The answer is no.
GJELTEN: Sheikh Assim says ISIS leaders do not follow the required procedure, so their killings are not justified. He defends the Saudi approach. But in her book, Ensaf Haidar says that system often amounts to vigilante justice.
HAIDAR: (Through interpreter) In terms of who can accuse a person of apostasy, unfortunately, it’s anybody who has a long beard.
GJELTEN: The men with long beards are the ones with influence. The version of Islam prevailing in Saudi Arabia is Wahhabism, an uncompromising fundamentalist ideology dating from the 18th century. Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, says Raif Badawi’s live-and-let-live philosophy doesn’t fit with Wahhabism.