Flog the Astronomers

There has been a world outcry about Raif Badawi, whom we mentioned on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, and perhaps as a consequence he has so far received only the first fifty of the thousand brutal lashes of the cane to which he was condemned for being mildly critical of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia.

The Guardian published on Jan. 14 a selection, translated from Arabic, of his writings in his now-suppressed blog. In September 2011 he poked fun at a television preacher who called for astronomers to be punished because they encourage skepticism about sharia law.

(Sharî`ah, the “path” – with long second vowel followed by the pharyngeal `ayn consonant – is any system of morals and law based on a revealed religion, but it is usually applied to Islamic canon law; this was elaborated by scholars of the eighth century into the four orthodox varieties – Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali – that prevail in different parts of the world of Sunni Islam.  Unlike the Quran, some of these systems sanction flogging, stoning, and the death penalty for blasphemy and apostasy.)

Raif wrote satirically that “this venerable preacher has drawn my attention to a truth that had been hidden from me… namely, the existence of the Sharia astronomer. What a wonderful appellation! In my humble experience and in the course of my not inconsiderable research into the universe, its origins and the stars, I have never once come across this term. I advise NASA to abandon its telescopes and, instead, turn to our Sharia astronomers, whose keen vision and insight surpass the agency’s obsolete telescopes. Indeed, I advise all other scholars the world over, of whatever discipline, to abandon their studies, laboratories, research centres, places of experimentation, universities, institutes etc. and head at once to the study groups of our magnificent preachers to learn from them all about modern medicine, engineering, chemistry, microbiology, geology, nuclear physics, the science of the atom, marine sciences, the science of explosives, pharmacology, anthropology etc. – alongside astronomy, of course. God bless them! They have shown themselves to be the final authority with the decisive word in everything, which all mankind must accept, submit to and obey without hesitation or discussion.”

On Jan. 18, eighteen Nobel laureates published an open letter to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, urging its professors to “be heard arguing for the freedom to dissent” by condemning the flogging of Badawi, otherwise there will be damage to the academic credibility of the kingdom, which has been building itself up as an international center for research.

We should be careful not to assume that all Muslim countries are like Saudi Arabia. Edith Garwood, a human-rights specialist on the Middle East, cautions, in an Amnesty International online discussion group, that it “in no way represents the ‘norm’ for the Middle East, but is an outlier…  Many Muslims I have spoken to in different places… make fun of [Saudi] policies.”

Saudi Arabia, which bans the building of churches and synagogues yet presses for the building of mosques in non-Muslim countries, is an example of what goes wrong when a religion is established by law. The USA from its foundation tried to avoid this:

– Thomas Jefferson: “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”

– Jefferson again: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, then that of blindfolded fear.”

– Tom Paine: “Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law. Take away the law-establishment, and every religion re-assumes its original benignity.”

This is the founding fathers’ ideal and Badawi’s. One may hope that Saudi Arabia will rise toward it, and question how well our own countries have kept to it.


4 thoughts on “Flog the Astronomers”

  1. The Saudis and other followers of today’s radical Islam have us all looking back to the foundations of our notions of religious liberty. This is quite appropriate–and along with Jefferson and Thomas Paine go many others, including Deists such as Benjamin Franklin, but also the New Light clergy, such as Ezra Stiles and John Knox Witherspoon. They proved not only that government could be adapted to permit religious freedom, but that religion itself could become so closely identified with the action of the individual conscience that in effect, it became intrinsic to the maintenance of a free society–hence the very civic religion long sought in Western culture since the time of Cicero. But let’s not break our arms patting ourselves on the back. We have major problems living according to the doctrines we proclaim. Having founded our society on the cornerstone of religious liberty, we have repeatedly chosen to ally ourselves with countries where this principle is rejected. We have funded, protected, and supported those regimes through provision of weapons and millions of dollars for defense–those very regimes which enforce the establishment of state religions through murder, torture and mayhem. This policy of expediency is certainly not consistent with the principles of the United Nations–and not with our own laws or constitution… If the plight of Raif Badawi helps us to uncover some our own mistakes…maybe he will not suffer in vain.

    1. John, you are a historian, and thank you for this contribution. “Let’s not break our arms patting ourselves on the back” I wonder whether you coined that piece of wit. What I was lightly alluding to in my last phrase was the fact – is it a fact? – that politicians in most parts of the USA cannot dare to identify themselves as other than Christian.

      You seem to have submitted the same comment accidentally twice. So I deleted the second; plaase look carefully to see whether the text that now appears is the version you intended; if not, you could re-submit your revised one and I believe I could make sure that the intended one appears.

  2. Perhaps this is obvious but I think it bears repetition:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” — US Constitition, Amendment I, 1791.

    The US government has not always lived up to this law, but I consider these 45 words to be one of the highest accomplishments of human thought. If anything should be absolute throughout human society, freedom of conscience, speech, and association deserves absolute protection.

    1. Yes, and our local Amnesty group is holding a “hustings” before the next general election, at which the political candidates of the region will present and defend their views on the balance between this ideal and security.

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