Week for week, Saudis in Jeddah can get a good idea of what happens to those who deviate from the path of righteousness. After fulfilling their duties of faith on Fridays at al-Jafali mosque, people may bear witness to a punishment carried out on Raif Badawi.
Tied up, the Internet activist and blogger is meant to kneel on the ground and receive 50 lashes. A court had sentenced him to endure this every week until he had received 1,000 lashes, but this part of the sentence has not yet been carried out.
Saudi courts convicted Badawi because he dared to criticize the religious authorities of his country on his website "Free Saudi Liberals" - an Internet platform for debate on the role of politics and religion in Saudi life. For this and giving other Saudis access to such a forum, the judges handling his case deemed corporal punishment alone would not suffice. So, after seeking an appeal to his sentence of 600 lashings and seven years in prison, he was sentenced in May 2014 to a total of 1,000 lashings, along with 10 years imprisonment and a fine of 1 million riyals, equivalent to nearly 200,000 euros, for "violating Islamic values and propagating liberal thought."
Criticism = terrorism
The sentence is "extremely harsh," said Ali H. Alyami, head of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. According to Western legislation, Badawi did nothing wrong. He did nothing other than start a forum on the freely accessible Internet - that Alyami said was aimed at "a new generation of Saudi young men and women, who want to express themselves in a way that they can counter the overwhelming majority of clerics and religious people."
When it comes to such stiff sentences, Badawi is definitely not the only activist to receive such treatment, according Alyami, who condemned the official Saudi position as "extremist" and said the rule of law was absent in the country.
"The Koran is the constitution and Sharia is the law," he said, adding that anyone who criticizes religion, the royal family or the country's clerics is, according to the Wahhabi clerics and the Saudi regime, in breech of Islam. "Of course, this is ridiculous because this man did not say anything against Islam."
Change in political culture
For years, the trend towards free access to information has been growing in the Saudi Arabia. Badawi, who was born in 1984, belongs to the first Saudi generation that grew up with satellite television and the Internet. Young Saudis are accordingly well informed on global events and can compare different systems, values and world views with each other. The competition of ideas has begun and the question is how long the Saudi government will be able to withstand pressure open up from younger generations.
Regardless of how long it may take, this trend cannot be stopped, Saudi artist Ahmed Mater told the Goethe Institute. But he added that he hopes that this change of the times continues peacefully. "We need balance between stability and change," he said. "My country has changed immensely over the past 20 years, and I don't believe we, as a society, have taken the time to reflect on this change."
Now, young Saudis are making up for this lack of reflection. They use online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to share their views. Saudi Arabia's is among the largest "Twitterspheres" in the world. Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Saudi royalty also feels threatened - not only ideologically, but from terrorists as well. Many of the pilots who carried out the terrorist attacks in 2001 were from Saudi Arabia. Terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the new "Islamic State" have declared war on the Saudi regime and vowed to replace what they see as Saudi Arabia's decadent system with one that reflects their view of a true Islamic theocracy.
As a result, Saudi Arabia has already implemented a number of laws. But the state is not only using them against armed jihadis but also against liberals and bloggers like Raif Badawi - people who have completely different goals and are attempting to attain those through peaceful means. Words are their only weapons. Words of criticism.
But the Saudi state doesn't seem to see the difference. Badawi's sentence was based on legislation enacted in early 2014 and which gives the state despotic powers. The legislation permits courts to criminalize just about anyone whose views are not perfectly in line with those of the state as a terrorist, according to Human Rights Watch. Any statement against the state's order can be stamped as "terrorism."
Saudi citizens, according to Alyami, are becoming increasingly indignant about their government and its politics.
"Saudi people are very resentful of their government and its policies, its exploitation of their wealth and it's denying them the right to express themselves peacefully," Alyami said, adding that he expects this discontent to turn into protests soon.
That's exactly what the Saudi regime fears, because the basis of and reasons behind the protests have changed - not only in Saudi Arabia, but throughout the entire Arab world.
For the first time, Arabs are seeing their problems as homegrown ones. They aren't blaming the Israelis or colonialism this time - not the United States or Europe. "They see their own part in this development," Alyami said. "The Arabs have lost their fear and once you have lost fear it never comes back. That's where the Arab people are today."
The public protest, he believes, could possibly cause Badawi to be released early from prison. That would be an important step - but only one of many that need to be taken. Alyami said Saudi Arabia's prisons are full of inmates who have been sentenced on similar charges but whose cases have not made it into the public eye.