Following Saudi Arabia’s decision to flog a dissident blogger 50 times on a weekly basis for the next five months, seven of the nine members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have asked the Muslim nation to whip them instead.
“Compassion, a virtue honored in Islam as well as in Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths, is defined as ‘suffering with another,’” wrote vice-chair Robert P. George and his colleagues in a letter addressed to Adel bin Ahmed Al Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. “We are persons of different faiths, yet we are united in a sense of obligation to condemn and resist injustice and to suffer with its victims, if need be."
In May 2014, the Saudi Arabian government sentenced Muslim blogger Raif Badawi, 31, to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for operating Free Saudi Liberals, a website which sought to encourage debate on religious and political matters. On Thursday, for the second week in a row, a medical commission postponed his scheduled Friday flogging on health grounds.
“If your government will not remit the punishment of Raif Badawi, we respectfully ask that you permit each of us to take 100 of the lashes that would be given to him,” the commissioners stated. “We would rather share in his victimization than stand by and watch him being cruelly tortured. If your government does not see fit to stop this from happening, we are prepared to present ourselves to receive our share of Mr. Badawi’s unjust punishment.” [Full letter below.]
George, a Princeton University professor, posted a copy of the letter to his Facebook page. The letter has not been published on USCIRF’s website, though all of its signatories are commissioners. Katrina Lantos Swett, USCIRF’s chair and also a signatory, previously condemned the attacks in a statement released earlier this month as a “cruel and barbaric act... unfortunately, business as usual in the Kingdom.”
Joining George and Lantos Swett as signatories were Mary Ann Glendon of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; M. Zuhdi Jasser, the president of American Islamic Forum for Democracy; and Daniel Mark, a political science professor at Villanova University. Hannah Rosenthal, the CEO of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, and Eric Schwartz, a dean at the University of Minnesota, both added their names after the letter was originally posted. USCIRF’s two other commissioners, Thomas Reese at the National Catholic Reporter, and James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, have not signed the letter.
Saudi Arabia, one of the US State Department's eight "countries of particular concern," ranked 12th on Open Doors’s 2015 World Watch List and ranked ninth on a Freedom House study on internet freedom, a metric some have argued is vital for religious freedom. (Saudi Arabia was also one of the biggest objectors of expanding the list of possible website endings to include faith-based domain names such as .church and .bible.)
In 2012, Saudi Arabia deported 35 Ethiopian Christians for a prayer vigil. That same year, a top Saudi cleric declared that all churches in the Arabian Peninsula should be destroyed. In 2013, the country sentenced two Christians to prison and hundreds of lashes for converting a coworker to Christianity.
CT has theologically explored the idea of substitutionary atonement as raised in George's letter in a a 2006 cover story describing it as the "essence of Christianity" and a 2012 essay which argued that it explained the cross better than other theories. CT has looked at the spiritual dimensions of suffering and compassion, including how God's power is made perfect in weakness, where God is when it hurts, and how Jesus feels your pain.
Here is the full letter:
January 20, 2015
Adel bin Ahmed Al Jubeir
Ambassador to the United States
Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
We were pleased to see officials representing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia participating in the recent March in Paris to protest the brutal murders committed in the name of Islam at the Hyper Cacher market and the offices of Charlie Hebdo. The March was a demonstration in support of human rights and civil liberties, including the liberty to criticize religion, particular religions, schools of thought within religions, and religious figures and leaders. The Saudi presence was an important statement from the Kingdom about basic rights and liberties enshrined in international covenants and agreements to which the Kingdom has, to its credit, subscribed. And yet, we note with sorrow that in the Kingdom itself Raif Badawi stands condemned under rules that flagrantly violate these human rights and civil liberties and is being subjected to an unspeakably cruel punishment of 1000 lashes. We call on the government of the Kingdom to put a halt to this grave injustice. We are informed that Mr. Badawi has already endured 50 lashes and will soon be made to endure 50 more. We are deeply alarmed by the prospect of his continued and grave suffering.
Compassion, a virtue honored in Islam as well as in Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths, is defined as “suffering with another.” We are persons of different faiths, yet we are united in a sense of obligation to condemn and resist injustice and to suffer with its victims, if need be. We therefore make the following request. If your government will not remit the punishment of Raif Badawi, we respectfully ask that you permit each of us to take 100 of the lashes that would be given to him. We would rather share in his victimization than stand by and watch him being cruelly tortured. If your government does not see fit to stop this from happening, we are prepared to present ourselves to receive our share of Mr. Badawi’s unjust punishment.
Robert P. George
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence
Mary Ann Glendon
Member of the Board,
Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
M. Zuhdi Jasser, MD
President, American Islamic Forum for Democracy
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science
CEO, Milwaukee Jewish Federation
Dean, Humphrey School of Public Affairs
University of Minnesota
Katrina Lantos Swett
President, Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice