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The Old man and the Youth, painting by Reza-ye Abbasi (ca. 1565 – 1635) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

“There are limits…”

Pope Francis was in the Philippines recently and commented on the concept of freedom of expression. He said:

“‘There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.’

He gestured to Alberto Gasparri, who organises papal trips and was standing by his side, and added: ‘If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.’

Cautioning against provocation he said the right to liberty of expression came with the obligation to speak for ‘the common good’.”

Pope Francis

Pope Francis (The Guardian, UK)


Raif Badawi and “The Common Good”

Yes, there are limits to freedom of expression, but Raif Badawi respected these limits in that he spoke for “the common good” and did so “peacefully.” He is in fact an excellent example of what seems too repressive a judiciary in Saudi Arabia. According to Amnesty International, he is “detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression,” which makes him a prisoner of conscience.

Raif Badawi: a “Gratuitous, violent sentence”

Mr Badawi was originally sentenced to a seven-year term in prison and 600 lashes: flagellation. Upon appeal, he was condemned to a ten-year term in prison, a fine of approximately $266,000, and to nearly double the number of lashes: 1,000. Both the original and second sentences puzzle me.

If an appeal for clemency leads to a harsher sentence, one may have reason to believe that the harsher sentence is a “gratuitous, violent sentence,” as described by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) (See Raif Badawi, Wikipedia.) Furthermore, one is also led to suspect that the initial sentence was a “gratuitous, violent sentence.” I fail to see how Mr Badawi insulted Islam and, in this regard, the discrepancy between his two sentences may point to a wrongful conviction, not to mention vindictiveness.

Moreover, if flogging Mr Badawi on Friday 16 September could have imperiled his life, it would be my opinion that the remaining 950 lashes would have killed him. Torture is a violation of human rights, but in Mr Badawi’s case, it would appear that flagellation conceals a death sentence: death by flagellation, which is, in the extreme, a “gratuitous, violent sentence.” As I wrote in an earlier post, Raif Badawi was not sentenced to death. If torture leads to Mr Badawi’s death, justice will not have been served.

Raif Badawi

Raif Badawi (Courtesy Amnesty International)


Mr  Badwani’s Case referred to the Supreme Court

However, given that Mr Badawi’s case has been referred to the Supreme Court of Saudi Arabia, I should think that both his earlier sentences no longer have any validity and that the Supreme Court has a clean slate, i.e. the Cartesian, René Descartes‘  tabula rasa. (See Le Discours de la méthode, deuxième partie, the Discourse on the Method, second part.[1] The text can be read online in both the original French and in translation. See Sources and Resources.  


Pope Francis stated that “the right to liberty of expression came with the obligation to speak for ‘the common good’.”  All Mr Badawi advocated is more tolerance and leniency towards liberals in Saudi Arabia, which was a legitimate request. Remember La Fontaine‘s “The Oak and the Reed.” The sturdy and mighty oak is felled by a powerful storm, but the reed bends, and it does not break: “Je plie, et ne romps pas.”

I am confident that once the Supreme Court of Saudi Arabia has reviewed Mr Badwani’s case, king Abdullah and Saudi officials will free him. King Abdullah’s status in the United Nations allows me to think that having been apprised of the facts, he will be “reasonable” and release Raif Badawi. I cannot presume otherwise.

It may be unrealistic, but I hope countries everywhere will soon live in harmony: no terrorists, no strikes, no warmongers…

There are limits!


Sources and Resources

The Discourse on Method, Internet Archive, Chapter 2, p. 15 (EN)
Le Discours de la méthode is a Gutenberg publication [EBook #13846] (FR)
The Discourse on Method is a Gutenberg publication [EBook #59] (EN)


[1] René Descartes, textes présentés par André Bridoux, Œuvres et Lettres (Gallimard, Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, 1953), p. 137.
tabula rasa means a table that has been cleared up


Painting by Reza-ye Abbasi (MMA, NY)

© Micheline Walker
19 January 2015