Contextualising Cosmic Danger

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We all delight in some measure of fright. There is some allure in taunting the reaper, something endearing about the dark, deserted and blood-stained that we can’t quite explain. But it’s there. This weekend, fittingly around Halloween, our appetite for horror was indulged by yet another close encounter with a giant mass of rock hurtling through space. If it were to collide with earth, the impact of a meteorite this size would quite literally threaten our species with extinction. However, is such a scenario probable? To what degree has that appetite for horror caused us to distort the degree of danger posed by close encounters of the cosmic kind?

The object in question this time is called Asteroid 2015 TB145, although that may prove to be a misnomer. Some within the scientific community have begun to postulate that TB145 is in fact a comet. As a point of clarity: asteroids are the rocky remnants of planetary formation and orbit the sun, primarily in a belt between Mars and Jupiter. Comets, on the other hand, formed beyond the frost line, far from the warm embrace of our star. They are hence composed of rocky nuclei, blanketed in layers of ice which, upon approaching the sun, birth brilliant tails of dust and plasma. TB145 conspicuously lacks this characteristic coma, pointing to the conclusion that if our visitor is indeed a comet, the sun has eaten into its envelope of ice. The traveller from exile at the fringes of our solar system has, this time around, arrived as a corpse.

At closest approach, TB145, nicknamed Spooky, will pass a mere 480 000 km from our home planet. This ‘close shave’  is what has motivated the recurring narrative of earth narrowly escaping global devastation. Granted, on a scale of Astronomical Units, light-years and parsecs, the distance is indeed relatively miniscule, in much the same way that Alpha Centauri is a relatively close star. However, in assessing the danger, it is imperative to remember that on this astronomical scale, Earth is indeed a speck. To illustrate: suppose that Spooky’s orbit crossed into the space between its actual closest approach and the earth. The odds that it would, at random, collide with the earth can be conceptualised by imagining a ‘dartboard’ of radius 480 000 km, with earth as the bull’s eye. The probability is therefore approximated by taking the ratio of the area of the earth to that of the cosmic ‘dartboard’. From figure 1.1, it is apparent that this probability lies far below 1%. The danger, it seems, has been gravely overstated.

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1

Admittedly, this model is simplistic and fails to account for the intricacies of celestial mechanics. The probability yielded then, is merely an order of magnitude approximation. It aims to illustrate the tremendous vastness  and pervading emptiness of space – the truth that, in the cosmos, the void reigns supreme. However, even when accounting for these shortcomings, it is evident that the chances of a collision within the closest approach are overwhelmingly slim. Moreover, Spooky – and scores of others like it – were on trajectories which we knew would never result in an impact with our home planet. Declaring that each one of these ‘nearly hit’ us is therefore akin to standing a hundred meters from the edge of a motorway and yelling that you narrowly avoided an accident each time a car whizzed by. When placed in proper context, the sensationalism sounds somewhat like the panicked ramblings of a paranoid mad man. Nonetheless, we cannot afford to be lulled into a false sense of security.

Much of the reason why events of this kind are met with alarm is not because the probability of impact is high, but rather because the consequences of such an improbable impact are so extraordinarily dire. Aware of the fate of those great reptilian beasts who roamed and ruled this planet before us, we know too well that an impact may lead to our extinction – an abrupt end to the anthropocene. Efforts, informed by data from objects like TB145, are underway to craft protocols that deal with the possibility of an asteroid impact. From nuclear detonation to a more understated, trajectory-altering nudge, plans are being developed to save earth from catastrophe. For the mad man, in all his crazed rambling, speaks in the spirit of a threat that, while improbable, is real: we simply cannot afford to find ourselves in the headlights of a car that has veered off the road.

These close encounters then, are a reminder from the cosmos that we cannot afford to neglect our space program, if we wish for our species to survive. They nudge us forward into a space-faring age, in which the repository of human potential will not be concentrated on a single planet. Perhaps most importantly, they provide us with a potent reminder of the vulnerability of our terrestrial home and allow us to contemplate our perilous existence upon it. As each asteroid streaks past earth, the message sent to us is clear: our cosmic neighbourhood, while alluring, is hostile to human life. With each near miss, our resolve to preserve this planet should be bolstered. We must realise that these threats of an existential kind needn’t come from the heavens.

Mesmerised by profit, we continue to deplete earth’s resources. Recklessly, we fuel a runaway greenhouse effect that drives climate change and global warming. Nuclear and biological weapons continue to sit in our stockpiles, straining for release. For as long as these characteristics of the human age continue to exist, the destruction of our species is in no need of any help from a rogue asteroid. So the next time the excessive panic machine begins to rumble, remember that after the threat has disappeared into the void, a danger lingers to our continued existence on this planet. And it springs directly from the sins of our species.

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Suspension has Ended: Revolution is Returning

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The fierce urgency of now. This was the phrase, coined by Martin Luther King Jr., that I scribbled onto a piece of paper on Friday afternoon, while camped in solidarity inside an occupied Senate House. Surrounding me were scores of students – sisters, brothers, comrades, the dispossessed and their allies – sitting in the nucleus of a movement that was in its third day of a successful shut down of Wits University. A few meters before me was the student leadership, donning the shirts of parties accustomed to rivalry between themselves, negotiating with Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib. Habib had suggested he leave Senate House to convene with council and was met with thunderous objection from the crowd gathered. Eventually, the people decreed that they would not wait – council would meet that day, in Senate House, in full view of the students whose lives were impacted by their decisions. No closed doors. No secrets. Direct accountability. Habib agreed. At that moment, Dr King’s declaration echoed in my mind: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today”. We were indeed confronted with the fierce urgency of now – and it was glorious.

This departure from the lethargic politics of bureaucracy and delay was invigorating. Inside the dimly lit, vast chamber of Senate House, we were a revolutionary collective. Although student leaders (crucially, female leaders who were pushed out of the spotlight too often) spearheaded the movement, they were aware of their role as a proxy for the people. They stood on the shoulders of the students, and weren’t allowed to forget that without popular support, they could not stand up to the powers that be. Every decision, down to the organisation of food, was ratified by popular consensus. The spirit of democracy danced among us. A healthy suspicion of authority sat in our ranks. Hierarchy slowly dissolved in the acid of persistent mockery, directed towards power structures and their petty manifestations. Inside our contingent collective, the vice-chancellor wasn’t afforded his title. Civility remained, but decorum was discarded. We refused to engage in the fruitless spectacle of ceremonial flattery and political theatre. In contrast to the town hall meetings hosted by political representatives, where citizens queue for the opportunity to ask a question of an aggrandised figurehead, the engagement with Habib did not give him much leeway to engage in tactics of diversion and duplicity. Although he was not being held against his will, he was under pressure to engage with students possessed by an uncompromising political will. The ordinary, impotent mode of discourse had been turned on its head.

The Senate House I sat in was radically different from the one I’ve walked into countless times before. Of course, it was materially indiscernible – the same brown and blue university banners hanging from beams spanning the high ceilings, the same concrete pillars climbing to the skies, the same set of converging stairs rising like a peculiar altar from the polished floor and descending into a crypt below. However, the first time I walked into that foyer of the executive, the fumes that clung to the walls of my nostrils were those of polish from the gleaming floors. On Friday evening, it was the choking stench of pepper spray. The space had changed.

It was not just the halls of Senate House that had transformed. During the three day peaceful occupation of the university, it was all too apparent that business as usual had ceased. Some areas of campus were left almost eerily deserted; others were filled with the vibrant energy of rhythmic protest. Seeing the university in this radically different light is, if I may be so bold, a variation of Camus’s Absurd, spawning a peculiarly pleasant kind of Sartrean Nausea. The buildings on campus ordinarily wear the garment of the Institution. The occupation disrobed it. It divorced the space from the veneer of authority and the presumptions of power which usually pervade it. It illuminated our agency to radically redefine it. The realisation of radical freedom may be existentially unsettling, but it is politically liberating. Looking upon an institution that has departed starkly from its usual character, an aura of anarchism meets the eye: the university is not inherently imbued with any indomitable hierarchy, nor is the society which surrounds it structured in a manner that is unchangeable. Its people have no concrete, pre-ordained telos. We are the agents who define the essence that existence precedes. This movement is the product of a generation’s realisation of its own power. And, when we stand together, worker and student hand-in-hand, powerful we are indeed.

Later on Friday evening, while the pepper spray dissipated in the packed halls of Senate House, key members of the council convened. Feverish negotiation followed, stretching deep into the night.  As the sun was only just beginning to peer out from beyond the horizon the next morning, an interim agreement was signed: the decision to raise fees will be suspended, no students or workers who participated in the protests will face punitive measures and crucially, the university will not be at liberty to revert to its original position if negotiations break down. In a vindication of protest tactics, the students had emerged with a clear path towards victory. Those perched atop their privilege, who spent much of last week trying to justify their inaction or opposition by cynically criticising the occupation, were forced to face the concrete results those tactics had produced. In our hands, we held a declaration of our own power – a testament to the strength of our political will.

The Student Awakening is spreading. As sparks from the fire raging at Wits find kindling at UCT, Rhodes University, and the others that will most certainly follow, it’s clear that our generation is shedding its image as the one born outside of Apartheid and inside of Apathy. As we move forward today to hear from council, we are mindful of the fact that our struggle will not end here. The decision to raise fees was not taken in a vacuum, but rather in a climate of marginalisation, commercialisation and dispossession that has excluded the poor for too long. It was the flashpoint, the prelude to a paradigm shift that must occur. Reasons to resist have not evaporated: from the exploitation of outsourced workers, to wealth inequality that is staggeringly high; from dwindling government subsidies, to the fact that even without increases, fees remain too high for too many. Struggle, therefore, should not cease. No longer can we allow our universities to perpetuate a status quo they ought to challenge. If we conserve this momentum, we can become the custodians of a force Victor Hugo deemed indomitable: an idea whose time has come. South Africa’s students have awoken, and we’re ending the suspension of its revolution.

Dear Aylan: A Poem on the Human Tragedy of the Refugee Crisis

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Dear Aylan

Aylan,
You slipped through fingers
– tyrants and terror of zeal
How fear must linger
infant eyes, begging: Feel.
 
Hope lies on the oceans,
guarded by tempests and beastly gale
Forced by fate through the motions
with wretched Death you set sail…
 
Body of humanity
lying lifeless in Turkish sands
slain by wars and nationality
that sealed shut selfish hands
 
Aylan –
criminalised, traumatised,
dehumanised
 
Aylan –
innocent, brave,
Human
 
Aylan, Aylan
washed up on a tide of tears
murdered by the war machine’s gears
An untimely meeting with an embrace of waves
for we saw not people in those countless graves.
 
So if we see not in your coffin a child, a son,
certain we are that of hearts we have none.
 
Aylan,
it will matter not that we wail
If we follow fear’s orders
and bolster our borders,
your memory we will fail.

Raees Noorbhai

Progress beyond Paper: On the Need for De Facto Feminism

No law or edict, just or unjust, moves the elements by virtue of its existence alone. It must be dutifully enforced by servants of the order and acceded to by subjects of the system. Legislation, therefore, cannot cure a social ill without the aid of civil society. An agenda of progress, if it is to succeed, must move beyond paper.

This disparity between written proclamation and implementation is one that is apparent in the contemporary feminist movement. When legislative battles have been waged and won, the movement finds itself on the frontline of a culture war. Make no mistake, the battle to overthrow entrenched legal sexism is by no means over. Too many of our sisters around the world, in countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran, are strangled by the hands of authoritarian states that seek to control and subjugate them. Their testimony is disregarded in court, they are mandated to obey their husbands and seek his permission to leave the home, they cannot travel unaccompanied by a man, they cannot seek a divorce…the list is indeed too numerous to be included here. They are shackled by the law to the whims of the patriarchy. Our endeavours to aid them in ending their servitude will not cease until they are afforded the absolute equality that should never have been denied to them. However, even in secular democracies like our own, where gender equality is guaranteed by a progressive constitution, the patriarchy and misogyny thrives. It is the disease that breeds beneath the skin of the law and causes the body to fester. It is high time we eradicate it.

How then do we diagnose this blight while the legal skin is seemingly without blemish? The state is a human invention that shapes human experience, but in its absence, human experience will not cease to exist. In the absence of suppressive laws, civil society may fill the repressive role. Let us not sell ourselves the illusion of progression by buying the delusion that only the state stood in its way. In the same way that the end of Apartheid in South Africa did not automatically and wondrously vanquish racism within its borders, ushering in a race-blind meritocracy, the end of institutionalised sexism did not spell out the demise of the patriarchy. If the lived experience is to change, the societal perceptions – the somewhat subtler sexism – must change. This is our project.

Conformists to this doctrine of subtler sexism are conditioned to think that women ought to fulfil a pre-ordained role in society. They hang an expectation of domestication above her head. As she grows up, they teach her to cook and clean with the expectation that her husband, inexplicably incapable of sharing the load, will require it of her some day. This, says the particularly regressive wing of the patriarchy, is the place of the woman – managing the affairs of the home, birthing and raising children, while the man goes out to seek work and sustain their livelihood. These reactionary voices masquerade as magnanimous, by citing a principal of separate but equal – the notion that the respective natures [a problematic concept on its own] of the male and female prescribe their particular roles, which, while different, are equally valuable. This extends to the caucus of misogyny in the professional world that believes certain spaces in the workplace are to remain a male-only club. Even the scientific community is not immune from this scourge, as Nobel laureates express appalling sexism concerning the presence of women in the lab. This is egregious. There is no justification for, and indeed no nobility in, stifling the potential of one’s fellow and confining her to a box. Of course, this is not to say that women who fill traditional gender roles are party to an inherent evil. Rather, it is the normative expectation and the intolerance of deviation from it with which we take issue. A woman’s place, we assert, is wherever she chooses it to be.

This normative expectation extends to the woman’s place in civil society. She is expected to embody typical ‘feminine qualities’ and is criticised heavily for losing her ‘ladylike composure’ when she becomes too assertive for the tastes of male-dominated society. Her sex life is held to a different standard than that of an equivalent male – she is shamed for being sexually active, while he is lauded for it. Debates even rage on what is appropriate for her to wear, as if the way she clothes her body is a matter of public interest that ought to be decided by legislators and religious clerics. Under the banners of ‘modesty’ on one side and (ironically) ‘freedom’ on the other, her choice as an individual is subordinated by the cultural and religious norms of the group. Indeed, her body is seen as an entity in the public domain and so she is charged with protecting it from the predatory male gaze. An intolerable culture of cat-calling means that she is forced to face the carnal impulses of perverse men on a daily basis. If she is harassed or even raped, she is blamed for dressing ‘inappropriately’, for being a ‘temptress’ oblivious to the inherent dangers of the world. This is a view which sees the woman as a sexual object that must be protected, as opposed to a person who must be respected. Through its lens, sexual violence is seen as a predator in whose shadow we must quiver and from whom we must seek refuge. When the beast mauls a woman, she is seen as foolish for not taking the necessary precautions. While seemingly well-intentioned, this view is tremendously counter-productive. We are all too capable of slaying the barbarous beast.

The extent to which the sexist mindset has embedded itself into the public psyche is, at closer inspection, rather daunting to those of us who wish to challenge it. The subordination of women is so engrained within our culture that many of us have become blind to it altogether. Think of the notion that the purported Designer of the Universe, who is believed to govern the totality of existence (and presumably must be genderless), is afforded a male pronoun, by default. Or that when the title of doctor, or lawyer, or engineer is mentioned, the prevalent mental picture is that of a male. How then shall we overcome this entrenched social ill?

A culture of silence appeases ignorance. If we allow patriarchy’s spokesmen to have a monopoly on debate, we will have lost the culture war. We need to stand by the ideals enshrined in our progressive laws and defend them when they are attacked by the reactionary impulse. Ours must become a culture in which sexism is seen as toxic. Those who espouse patriarchal ideas must be challenged, whether they are political candidates or religious leaders or any other figure in the public eye.  Our arguments are stronger than their voices are loud. We cannot afford to let them bury us beneath heaps of vitriol.

At a time when feminism – the project to achieve gender equality by championing the historically suppressed woman – is slurred as a machine to generate hatred towards males, it is imperative that as men, we reaffirm our commitment to the movement. We must acknowledge our privilege and create a climate of solidarity where we stand by our female counterparts to battle sexism and misogyny. As beneficiaries of a historical injustice, our apathy is inexcusable. It only serves to perpetuate a status quo that, in the end, harms us all. We are not calling for a doctrine of censorship and false moral outrage to defend political correctness. Instead, we call for a paradigm shift in the way society views women, for a re-evaluation of the gender roles we have come to take for granted and for the dismantling of the patriarchy.

It is time for us to peel the words from the pages of our progressive laws and forge from them blades to sever the ropes that bind us.

Raees Noorbhai

This manifesto was written to coincide with ‘Still We Rise’, the Amnesty International Wits campaign focusing on the creation of a feminist culture and challenging gender norms. An event will be held by Amnesty between 4 and 6 p.m this week Wednesday (12th August), focusing on these themes. It will take place in Central Block Lecture Theater 15 on Braamfontein East Campus.

Update: The Amnesty International event originally scheduled for the 12th of August has been postponed. It will be held on the 31st of August instead.

An Invitation to Dream Again, in our Age of Cosmic Apathy

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And on the 14th of July, the storm that was brewing within them burst forth. It shook the foundations of an Old Order long-assumed to be unshakable. In time, it would come to shape their world.

Last week, at the edge of our planetary neighbourhood, New Horizons made history. For nearly a decade, the small spacecraft has barrelled towards the fringes of our solar system, with a helpful nudge from the colossal gravity of Jupiter. Beyond the orbit of Neptune, lies Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, tidally locked into a perpetual stare as they whirl in a grand cosmic waltz. Back on earth, we watched through the lens of New Horizons as this captivating image slowly grew sharper. On Bastille Day this year, it whizzed by Pluto, returning the clearest images ever of the mysterious icy world. Once again, the public eye was allowed to feast on the majesty of a world never before seen in such dazzling clarity.

The momentous nature of this occasion has not been lost on the public. The flyby has been treated with the reflective nostalgia one would expect from the final addition to our solar system’s family portrait. A family which stubbornly clings on to its misfit of a ninth member. As understandable as this attachment to the ‘nine we all learnt in school’ may be, the notion that the last box has been ticked is a problematic one. The issue is rather aptly highlighted by Dennis Overbye, who recently wrote in the New York Times, “None of us alive today will see a new planet up close for the first time again.”

Overbye’s assertion underlines a gloomy, despondent perspective – that the trailblazing eras of space exploration lie either behind us, in the moon landing euphoria of the 60s and 70s, or so far ahead of us that we will have perished before it becomes a reality. By this seemingly prevalent perspective, we are the Limbo Generation – born too late to witness the excitement of manned missions to the moon, but too early to witness us traverse interstellar space. Apathy is the well-fed beast that sleeps at our feet. Indeed, if we concede to this perspective, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But why concede now? Despite all our affection for the public’s planetary underdog, it would be foolish to allow our nostalgia to obscure reality. There are worlds beyond Pluto, in the icy wasteland of the Kuiper Belt, that have as much a right to being called planets as Pluto does (one of the reasons for the dwarf planet’s infamous demotion). After the hype has died down, New Horizons will continue to hammer on into the Kuiper Belt with the intention of further discovery. Those worlds beckon us, as do our neighbours, their moons and the endless potential they hold. Within the solar system, there are still many worlds for us to explore, many caves for us to bravely enter, many more oceans into which we will boldly set sail. The most groundbreaking discoveries then, lie ahead of us, well within our reach (something which, to his credit, Overbye acknowledges as a possibility). Still, why concede to the notion that we are confined to the solar system?

Admittedly, the assumption that we are limited to our planetary neighbourhood is not without reason. With our current technology, attempting to cross the chasm of nothingness which separates us from even the nearest stars would take longer than the age of human civilisation. It makes about as much sense as Magellan grabbing an old broomstick as his oar and opting to circumnavigate the globe on a four-poster bed with some floaties strapped to it. For now, interstellar space travel is beyond our capabilities. However, that may change more quickly than we expect.

At the turn of the twentieth century, when the Wright brothers first gave humanity wings, it was scarcely imaginable that we will have walked on the moon before that century had ended. The New Horizons mission, trekking across an astronomical distance so vast that it takes light more than five hours to make the same trip, was once confined to the territory of science fiction – as interstellar exploration is now. It takes a level of undue boldness, masquerading as rationality, to declare that the jump from science fiction to science fact will not occur in our lifetimes. Unfortunately, the impulse to smugly dismiss even a visit to an exoplanet is one that is frequently indulged in our time. Somewhere along the line, we seem to have lost something.

Space is the great repository of human dreams. As the Cold War ended and the momentum from the moon missions died down, our dreaming masses seem to have tragically dwindled. Cynicism has seeped in and our exploratory endeavour has been displaced by distraction. While skepticism has its place, it is high time we hand power back to the imagination. It would be a grave judgement on our species if we are incapable of caring about the exploration of the universe in the absence of a beating war drum and an adversary on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

The Cold War is over, yet our world is no utopia in its wake. One may ask then why we should turn our eyes to the stars when our own terrestrial home is in such fantastic disarray. While the pursuit of space science has many a benefit to a nation and economy, not least of which is the creation of a realm in which dreams can be pursued (as championed gloriously by Neil deGrasse Tyson), the desire to explore space runs deeper. We wade into the dark cosmic waters, because it is who we are.

We are the clay, mixed by the hands of giants long fallen, birthed from the remnants of stars long dead, moulded by the grand forces of sex and death. We were brought forth in chaos, from the precision of randomness. We are a manifestation of the universe’s self-contemplation – “A way for the Cosmos to know itself,” as Carl Sagan famously declared. We are drawn to discovery, enchanted by exploration. The will to wander is written into our DNA. In our age of cosmic apathy, we must rekindle that will…

***

Pluto and its moons are named after the deities, features and creatures of the Ancient Greek underworld. In the final lines of his famed work, Inferno, Dante Aligieri emerges with the Poet Virgil from Hell, that popular underworld of Christian mythology, to rebehold the stars. As New Horizons sails away from Pluto, we too must unshackle our capacity to dream and turn our faces to the stars. Once again, we must indulge our will to wonder about wandering.

No Brotherhood with Bloodlust: A Poem of Protest against Xenophobia in South Africa

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No Brotherhood with Bloodlust

You, South African

You, filled with cancerous hate

Merciless sealer of innocent fate

You, persecutor of the ‘other’

You are not my brother

 

You, South African

You, filled with fatal fear

Who kills with conscience all too clear

You, beating until hands blister

You are not my sister

 

You, South Africa

You, country of my birth

Fierce fire of freedom’s hearth

You, stubborn hope in my heart

You stand not from Africa apart

 

You, find humanity, children of stardust

Speak louder and declare:

No brotherhood with bloodlust

 

Raees Noorbhai

Release Raif: Letter to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

Je Suis Raif: a variation of the popular Je Suis Charlie hashtag which emerged in solidarity following the tragic shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, underlining the importance of protecting free speech, wherever it is under attack.

In 2012, Raif Badawi was arrested in Saudi Arabia on charges of “insulting Islam over electronic channels”, after he created the Free Saudi Liberals blog – an online forum for political and social debate. He was subsequently tried for apostasy and for criticizing the ultraconservative religious establishment. Eventually, Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison, as well as 1000 lashes, which the Saudi authorities began ruthlessly administering last week Friday. Yesterday, Raif’s flogging was postponed after doctors determined he hadn’t healed from last week’s brutal 50-lash public beating. Badawi’s wife also reports that King Abdullah has now referred Raif’s case to the Saudi Supreme Court, prompting some cautious optimism that the Kingdom may respond to international outrage over the mockery of justice this case has come to represent.

To all who exercise the right to free speech, who believe in freedom of conscience and who recognize the internet as a platform from which citizens can speak truth to power: We are Raif Badawi. If he is a criminal, then we all are. Yet, it is not we who have been beaten while standing shackled before a mob of onlookers under the midday Jeddah sun. Raif endures torture, incarceration and humiliation for a right we all too often take for granted. It is our moral imperative, as writers, as bloggers, as activists and above all else, as fellow human beings, to raise our voices and demand his freedom.

I therefore joined scores of people worldwide, many prompted by Amnesty International, who wrote to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia demanding Raif Badawi’s immediate and unconditional release. My letter, which was also faxed (yes, they do still exist) to a contact number provided by Amnesty, is now creeping up the spine of Africa, trudging along from Johannesburg to Riyadh at the speed of the postal service. It is reproduced below:

 

His Majesty King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques

Office of His Majesty the King

Royal Court

Riyadh

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

 

Your Majesty

Raif Badawi is no criminal. By creating a website to enable debate, he is guilty only of exercising his inalienable right to free speech. Yet he has been arrested, detained and threatened with execution by arms of the state over which you rule as Absolute Monarch. This past Friday, mere days after condemning the attack against the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, your state began flogging Mr Badawi in public – a punishment which is tantamount to torture and is deeply incongruent with international human rights law. Is it not hypocrisy to condemn those who attack free speech abroad while brutally suppressing free expression at home?

Mr Badawi has been prosecuted and persecuted on the basis of his beliefs alone and hence is a prisoner of conscience. Liberalism is no crime, regardless of one’s political standing – and is regarded as such only by those so obsessed with control that they seek to dictate the thoughts of the populace. The concept of the thoughtcrime belongs to the domain of totalitarianism. Dissent and debate, as encouraged by Raif Badawi, are necessary components of a free, thinking society and the inability to tolerate it is the hallmark of weak leadership.

Your marginal reforms have been coupled with a vicious crackdown on civil liberties, free speech and fundamental human rights. Mr Badawi’s case exemplifies your state’s wanton disregard for due process and a fair trial, as well as its willingness to use draconian punishments and public execution as instruments of intimidation and control. Seeking the death penalty for apostasy is among the most egregious assaults on freedom of conscience in a world which knows them all too well.

Mr Badawi has denied allegations of apostasy. Notwithstanding his innocence, does not the Quran state that there shall be no compulsion in religion? A theocracy designating apostasy as a crime is akin to a secular dictatorship criminalizing conversion to Islam. One cannot condemn the latter without condemning the former. As a member of the UN’s human rights council, Saudi Arabia is obliged to uphold the fundamental liberties, like freedom of speech and conscience, it so often tramples upon.

I therefore add mine to the cacophony of voices across the globe demanding Raif Badawi’s immediate and unconditional release, as well as the dropping of all charges against him, including those for apostasy. I also urge the Saudi Arabian government to end its use of corporal punishment and cease lashing Mr Badawi in contravention of human rights law.

We will continue to raise our voices until Raif Badawi and other prisoners of conscience like him are free, until beheadings and public executions are filed away into the dark corners of history’s library and until the citizens of all countries have the right to speak truth to power. Jailing Raif Badawi did not weaken his cause – it strengthened it. By persecuting him, your government vindicated criticism of its corruption and brutal authoritarianism.

Amidst the storm of condemnation following last week’s flogging, the message being sent to the Saudi Arabian government, which I shall echo, is clear: the world is watching – and will not stand by in silence while a blogger is tortured and jailed for his beliefs. In order to definitively distance itself from extremism, Saudi Arabia must abandon its bloody, authoritarian version of political Islam which has done nothing but suppress its people and legitimize the extremist brutality of terrorism. It must show a commitment to the values and liberties which the extremists abhor. It must release Raif Badawi.

As the Absolute Monarch, you have the authority to overturn this injustice and return freedom to a man who never deserved to have it taken away. I can only hope that you do.

Yours sincerely

Raees Noorbhai