Tag Archives: Justice

Had They Been There: The White Middle Class Meets the Radical Politics of a Certain Messianic Nazarene

It was a pleasant afternoon, ordinary enough by the standards of false tranquillity in Johannesburg’s Northern suburbs, when the scarcely-possible happened. In an absurd turn of events, the sort usually constrained to the pages of science fiction, a wormhole opened for a moment at Tashas in Rosebank, transporting a group of white, upper-middle class South Africans across space and time to a particularly tumultuous First Century Jerusalem.

Upon arrival, they complained (but we must forgive them, for this is their second nature), about all the potholes, before running into a messenger for Camel-through-a-Needle’s-Eye Witness News (CNEWN, a local news outlet). The messenger rambled on in Aramaic to the strangely-dressed people. Fortunately, among the travellers was Christina, who had studied the obscure language during her time at university (before, as she is fond of saying, “they ruined the place”). Listening through the interpreter’s ear, they were informed about a certain Levantine Jewish radical who was disrupting the day-to-day lives of the Jerusalem elite.

The man, they were told, was part of a violent minority that, instead of engaging ‘rationally’ and following bureaucratic processes, chose to express its discontent by entering the city and defying, even mocking, the power structures. They were told of how he entered the Temple of Jerusalem, drove out all who traded there, and violently overturned the tables of the dove merchants and money changers [1] . The radical, reported CNEWN, was a self-declared champion of the poor [2] who came from a modest, lower-class family in rural Judea. He detested the Roman Occupiers and those among his own Jewish people who’d grown scandalously wealthy through collusion with Rome. Having arrived only ten minutes earlier, the travellers had no understanding of the complex socio-politics that underlined his actions. They  made no attempt to sympathise with why this radical was angry, for locating an argument within socio-politics and attempting to understand context was never really their forté. So their responses came quickly and rather recklessly:

“I mean, if he really wanted all people to gain access to the Temple, why would he try to destroy it?”

“Don’t the money changers and pigeon [sic] merchants have rights too? Why would he violate their rights when fighting for his own? Did he have to drive out the traders to make his point? Clearly, he’s lost the plot.”

“Couldn’t he protest peacefully? There’s a difference between a protest and a riot, you know? It’s time we call him what he is: a hooligan bent on anarchy.”

“He’s a free-loader. Nothing comes for free hey. He just hates those who have because he’s too lazy to educate himself and become successful. Typical. Why does he want to visit the temple without paying for the sacrifices? How is the temple supposed to run without those fees?”

As they stumbled around later that night, searching desperately for a Starbucks in the streets of First Century Palestine, a messenger brought another CNEWN bulletin, alerting them that the radical, along with 12 accomplices (some of whom were armed and violently resisted arrest [3]), had been apprehended by the authorities. The leader had been detained, and was to be tortured and executed by crucifixion.  Again, the paternalistic responses came quickly from the travellers:

“What? There were only 13 of them? This just serves to show that they’re a radical minority, just as CNEWN has been reporting. The vast majority, the silent majority of people in Jerusalem just want to go back to their daily lives. I’m sure if asked, 77%, at least, would vote to just have things the way they were.”

“It’s called Law and Order. The sooner these hooligans learn to respect that, the better.” 

Within the next week, the Roman Authorities posted a notice in the public square and on the gates of Jerusalem’s Temple:

“Earlier today, the treasonous radical and blasphemer, Yeshua of Nazareth, was crucified upon a hill in Golgotha. It is with great regret that we’ve been forced to take these necessary measures needed to ensure the safety and security of our territory and citizenry.”

Some of our travellers remarked at the terrible necessity of violence to control anarchy, while others openly boasted. The radical, unrecognisable because his strange name and dark skin were untouched by the bleach of Eurocentric whitewashing, was not human to them. So they refused to speak of him as one, to place themselves within his shoes, or upon his crucifix. As they continued to echo one another’s sentiments, space-time snapped back into place, transporting them once again into the sanctuary of their present, the polished tables and airy milieu of Tashas in Rosebank.

Unfortunately, their minds, being tragically linear and hostile towards complexity, were incapable of containing a radical distortion of space-time. Their leap into the past, then, was instantaneously jettisoned, and they retained no memory of it at all. So they finished their meals, climbed into their luxurious sedans and listened to Talk Radio 702 as they coasted back into their gated communities.  Without hesitation, they receded into the perverse normalcy of an outrageously unequal world…

On Mondays, they began their weeks by driving their children to a private school, wondering aloud along the way at why the homeless on the streets couldn’t “just get a job”. On Friday evenings, they ended their weeks by meeting once again at a high-end restaurant to discuss the formulaic pleasures of suburban life. On Sundays, however, many of them went to Church and prayed, kneeling at the foot of that radical – a man whose crucifixion they had cheered and whose torture they had justified, because even when confronted with the struggle of their own Messiah, they could never bring themselves to sympathise with the dispossessed.

Note: Seeing as I may be accused of fabricating these Biblical events, the references to the New Testament are reproduced here:

[1] Mathew 21:12

[2] Luke 6:20-21, Luke 4:16-19

[3] John 18:10

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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

Shot by the Sheriff: a Poem on the Destructive Symbiosis between Racism and Police Brutality

Microcosm: an unarmed protester in Ferguson, Missouri confronts a heavily armed police force in the wake of Michael Brown's shooting. "Hands up. Don't shoot." (Scott Olson: Getty)

Microcosm: an unarmed protester in Ferguson, Missouri confronts a heavily armed police force in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting. “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” (Scott Olson: Getty)

Shot by the Sheriff 

“Racism is dead”

they confidently declare

as their bullets batter Mike Brown’s head.

Sow discord

Sow despair.

 

“But Jim Crow is gone”

they continue to ramble on,

as they handcuff hands behind a beaten back

for the crime of possession: skin that is black.

 

“These deaths are in isolation-

surely we have moved on”

continues their denial incantation.

Have they forgotten Trayvon?

 

So they descend like a deafening chorus

in the mindless melody of war

to inflict upon innocence horrors,

stoke crucibles to riotous roar.

 

Sworn, solemn, to serve and protect,

but rather the image our minds infect

as their strangling hands cull the herds.

Eric Garner’s gasping last words:

 

“I can’t breathe”

 

Raees Noorbhai

 

In 1954, a case was brought before the Supreme Court of the United States in what would become a momentous victory for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. The unanimous verdict in ‘Brown vs the Topeka Board of Education’ ruled that segregation in schools violated the equality before the law enshrined within the 14th Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional. The ruling was a declaration that America had yet to fulfill its founding principle-the self-evident truth that all are created equal. 

In the six decades since that landmark case, progress has been made in eroding the blatantly vulgar manifestations of racism. The era of ‘whites only’ signposts looming above drinking fountains is now a chapter of history. However, the fact that an African American now sits in the Oval Office does not mean that racism has vanished. It has morphed to become more subtle. It is the paling knuckles of the woman clutching her purse because she believes that the man with whom she shares the sidewalk may mug her, simply because of the colour of his skin. It is the seemingly never-ending tear stream that flows down the faces of mourning families who were robbed of a loved one by police brutality against unarmed minorities. It is the college application that Trayvon Martin was never able to send, because he was profiled as “suspicious” on account of his race and subsequently murdered for it. It is the void left in the lives of Eric Garner’s six children because their father was strangled by those who were sworn to serve and protect them.

The recent killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, has brought this interplay between marginalisation and police militarisation into the spotlight once again. However, the scope of this trend is highlighted by more than the tragic accounts that have humanized them. Statistics from the US Justice Department show that black Americans are four times as likely to be killed by law enforcement than their white counterparts. Black Americans are also far more likely to be arrested (often under the premise of counter-productive drug laws) and subsequently incarcerated-manifesting itself in the fact that approximately 1 million black men are imprisoned within the United States today-40% of the total prison population. 

The reality illustrated by this is disconcerting and is evidence that 60 years after that landmark Supreme Court ruling, the Dream that resonated from the vocal cords of a King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is yet to be fulfilled. This dream is not served by denialism and failure to acknowledge racism where it truly exists only allows it to fester. If the hopes for a truly post-racial society are to materialise, then it is necessary to recognize and remedy the destructive symbiosis between lingering racial prejudice and a militarised police force that all too often serves to perpetuate it.