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Middle East

'Yes, this book should be published': Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi's writings go West

People all over the world are campaigning for the release of imprisoned Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi. The first collection of his writings has just been published, and were edited by a former DW correspondent.

DW: You have just returned from Canada, where you visited Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, who is in exile. Did you find out how Badawi himself is doing? Does his wife stay in touch with him regularly?

Constantin Schreiber: They remain in contact sporadically. She is usually called from the prison, mostly spur-of-the-moment, and then put through to him. That's how he finds out if there's anything new and she, of course tells, him about the worldwide acts of solidarity. He is physically and mentally in poor shape according to information last week. But he also says the international solidarity gives him renewed strength. He also knows, for example, that many people in Germany are campaigning for him - he even mentions this specifically in the foreword of his book. I think that's why he and his wife have also decided to have German publishers work on this book project.

In Arabic, only elementary forms of Badawi's writings can be found on the Internet - Saudi Arabian authorities have deleted or blocked most of them. Now there are at least publications planned in English and other languages; the German version will be the first one released. Why should German speakers, of all audiences, be interested in Badawi's ideas?

A yellow book cover shows Raif Badawi

The collection of his texts will first be released in Germany

Many of the subjects he addresses are also relevant in Germany. We now have a relatively high percentage of Muslims in the population. He is interested in how a traditional Islamic lifestyle can merge with a modern lifestyle. Another subject that interests him, in addition to women's rights and religious freedom, is progress and access to knowledge and education. He always compares with Western countries. And he clearly says: these are our shortcomings. He does not only refer to the Islamic world but he also many Muslim communities. They are issues that we are also concerned with in Germany: how do we succeed at cultural integration as equals?

All fine and good - but wouldn't an Arabic edition be more important?

Yes, from a political and social point of view, this would be absolutely desirable. The question, of course is: What reactions would it cause? The Arabic world is strongly polarized over such issues. There of course several people, like Raif Badawi, who are hoping for a liberalization of state and society. They are people who are hoping for support like this. But the overall mood is becoming all the more conservative. That means that the reactions to a book like this in Arabic would not be generally positive. That is why a publisher or editor has to ask: How close to the line of fire in such discussions can I take this book project? In many countries, publishers battled to get the license, like in France, Italy or England. Not one publisher in the Arabic world has been among them at this point.

You are the editor, and have read the book. What impressed you the most?

Constantin Schreiber meets Badawi's wife Ensaf Haidar (Photo: private)

Constantin Schreiber met Badawi's wife Ensaf Haidar (Photo: private)

The texts bear an unbelievably poetic force. And they are very varied. They cheerfully veer between humoristic elements and profound, analytic and complex thought processes, especially when he writes about the Arab Spring. I am also impressed by his high level of knowledge on the subjects he writes about. What is also very obvious to those who are familiar with the region and the religion, are the - at times - precise verbal attacks against Islam, when he accuses religion, for example, as being the source of ignorance or backwardness. And above all, very brave! It must have been clear to him that the state and the authorities would react strongly to this.

Does Raif Badawi have a vision for the future?

Not directly. But he is not only preoccupied with the criticism of Islam and religious freedom, as one would assume - there's much more to it than that. He also, for example, writes about his own concerns, like how more and more fine minds are leaving the Arabic world and moving to the West, where they are freer and have more opportunities in life, without state repression. This is a recurring subject. Sometimes he also writes about economic and scientific subjects, or he picks out subjects from his own life, or reflects on the traditional Saudi Arabian lifestyles, of which he says: They are not as strict as the authorities demand them to be nowadays.

Many German readers actually do not know about that, of course.

Yes, and that is why his wife is very happy that the book is being published in German. But there was a slightly irritating incident during the work process.

You mean media outlets citing German diplomatic recommendations against publishing the book?

Yes, the reason why the German foreign ministry recommended not publishing the book was that it could hinder behind-the-scenes efforts to release Badawi. We took this seriously, and told Badawi's wife about this. She spoke to her husband and they both quickly agreed: Yes, this book should be published, said both of them.

The book in German, entitled "1000 Peitschenhiebe - weil ich sage, was ich denke" ("1000 lashes - because I say what I think") will be published by the German publisher Ullstein Verlag and released on April 1. The editor, Constantin Schreiber, is a presenter and managing editor for the German news broadcaster n-tv. In the past, he worked as a correspondent for DW.

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