Book Review: 1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think

For a bulk of it, 1,000 Lashes seems like a compellingly dull book. If its passages were published in, for example, The New York Times, they would probably come off as the last breath of consensus liberalism. Intellectuals are overpraised for their independence from extra-mental factors. The idea of a secular state disentangled from religion is assumed to be simply a slight bureaucratic affair. Opposition to an absolutist free speech position is not argued against, because it’s assumed all decent people have nothing to argue about. The enlightenment is an uncomplicated event from the past as well as the guiding light towards the future. And resolving social antagonisms is a simple matter of respecting others. The book, then, is in many ways premodern, or at least pre-twentieth century, and thus unhelpful for dealing with contemporary issues.

Like its many editorial counterparts, 1000 Lashes provides no real answers to the problems of environmental catastrophe, money-making militarism, or the discursive arthritis that is welfare politics. Unlike its counterparts, however, 1000 Lashes was written by Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who is currently in prison for its content and awaiting his next round of public floggings.

Arrested for cybercrimes as well as apostasy in 2012, Badawi has in the past few months become an international human rights case which has united the concerns of Sweden, Amnesty International, and National Review, to name only a few outstanding examples. The apostasy charge has been dropped—or at least legally diluted when a lower court referred it to a higher court and then the higher court referred it back down—which is very good for Badawi since the punishment for apostasy in Saudi Arabia is death.

After receiving numerous anonymous death threats from inside the kingdom, Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar and their three children are now living in Canada as political exiles. Worried that Badawi might be retried for apostasy and thus sentenced to death, she nonetheless remains hopeful that they’ll be reunited someday, although she doesn’t know when that will be. As it now stands, his punishment for insulting holy clerics and endangering state security is ten years in prison, one thousand public lashings, and a fine of one million riyals (267,000 dollars).

This brief background sketch isn’t really to provide context for the book—any reader who’s bothering to read a review of it already knows at least as much and probably much more—but rather is there in order to bring to the forefront why one couldn’t possibly give an unbiased examination of Badawi’s thoughts. That isn’t to say an attempt to criticize shouldn’t be tried, however, for as Badawi makes clear many times, this is how he believes progress is made. It is just to be sure about the circumstances surrounding this book and the effects those circumstances have on one’s commentary.

As is, 1000 Lashes is a collection of fifteen blog posts originally published on Badawi’s website “Free Saudi Liberals” (many have already pointed out the ironic tragedy of its title). The posts cover a broad spectrum of topics—everything from the initial protests that set off Egypt’s part in the Arab Spring to the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education’s decree that female scholars studying in England must have a male escort with them at all times. But each piece orbits around the same general principle: a more secular and liberal Muslim society and culture. This is not the same as calling for a more secular and liberal Saudi Arabia, or even more secular and liberal Middle East, for Badawi is just as concerned about the Islamic forces of reaction in England and the United States as he is about those in his own country. As he points out about the Ministry of Higher Education’s edict:

The Ministry of Higher Education singled out the female scholars in the UK, despite the thousands of female scholars in the many other countries around the world. This is a very dangerous indication that the fever of extremism has found its way into the minds of our female scholars in Britain.

While it’s unclear why the edict would indicate a recidivism in the minds of Saudi female students in England, given that they weren’t imposing it upon themselves, the passage nonetheless shows that Badawi’s emphasis simply isn’t a nationalistic one.

Likewise with his post on the at-the-time controversial building of a Muslim community center two blocks from where the Twin Towers once stood (facetiously called the “Ground Zero Mosque”). In perhaps the weakest section of the book, Badawi argues that the building of the community center would be insulting to American sensibilities and a “clear challenge to the American collective memory, as well as to humanity’s collective memory.” It’s instructive just how missed the structure of the argument against the community center was—basically that it was seen as a larger gesture which many Americans found to be an affront to their personhood. The perpetually offended crowd is, then, like most unseemly things, bipartisan.  In fact, they’re a self-sustaining one. Is there after all anyone really more morally phony than the person on constant patrol for those filled with phony moral outrage?

That isn’t to say gestures don’t have larger (and often more deleterious) meanings, of course— only that the way of fighting those larger meanings isn’t to cry for the censor out of reservations over “bad taste.” But, while on the topic of bad taste, it seems at the very least rather erroneous to assume the “Ground Zero Mosque” will, as Badawi says, “undoubtedly hatch new terrorists.”

The romanticized view of intellectuals in the book is also something less than desirable—as well as a clear example of the difficulties in trying to rid oneself of born-and-bred ecclesiastical thinking. While denouncing the necessary clerical hierarchy of a religious state, Badawi appears to have no objection in principle to truths being handed down from on high:

Throughout the past centuries, nations and societies advanced through the work of their intellectuals, who present their ideas and philosophies. The people, thereafter, can pick from that pool of viewpoints whichever intellectual style suits them.

He goes on to make a similar claim later on in the book: “Every intellectual has the right to promote and discuss his own philosophy. This gives the people the right to pick what they like from these views and methods.” One would probably suspect this viewpoint comes more out of necessity, as Badawi was at the time literally fighting for his life to say what he believed, rather than as a genuine favorability toward a dual-system of speech freedoms. But it still reeks of an isolated intellectual caste, which Saudi Arabia already has enough of. Accompanied with this romanticized view of intellectuals is an idealized view of Western civilization, where since the French Revolution (and the author makes mention of the French Revolution voluminously), humanitarian and enlightenment forces have been on a fatigueless winning streaking against those who’d foolishly stand in the way of democracy and egalitarianism. How strange and charming an innocence.

1000 Lashes boasts a foreword by Lawrence Krauss and a preface by a German journalist Constantine Schreiber. Schreiber is also credited with editing the book, which is assumed to mean he is the one responsible for the lousy endnotes. Example: there is a note explaining that “monotheism” refers to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—which isn’t sufficiently true anyway but, regardless, insults the intelligence of the reader by putting it in there. A translation of Allahu Akkbar is provided as well. And the Arab Spring is called the “so-called Arab Spring”—an obviously limp-wristed normative evaluation. As if England, the United States, France, and Russia weren’t dungeons after their revolutions—made even more so for the same reason the Middle East now find itself as a revamped hell hole.

All of that said, one does get the feeling after reading this collection of blog posts that just the idea of believing in an independent intelligentsia, absolutist free-speech rights, common decency, and secular republicanism does have its positive effects, even if that fraternity of idea always fails living up to the reality.

It’s been said that a pessimist isn’t defeated by the suffering of evil but by the inadequacies of joy. Reading this book, one’s reminded of the adequacies of these old principles. Depressingly, however, one’s also reminded that Badawi is sitting in a prison cell, where the vultures of reaction and superstition still wait for his flesh to heal so that the whole godawful process may begin again. That, despite the slogans of today’s street, where there is no justice there can be peace—just no peace of mind.