Bloggers, Floggers and the Magna Carta
15th June 2015 is the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta.
17th June 2015 is the 3rd anniversary of the arrest of Raif Badawi.
A mighty 800 years separate these two events and yet they are intrinsically and fundamentally linked. Both are to do with the rights and liberties of people and both have occurred in the face of unlimited power.
Unlimited power by its very nature is not answerable to anyone, does not have to represent anyone, is not constrained by any authority and is based on self-justification and self-perpetuation. No-one can criticise it because no-one has the right to do so. No-one can challenge it because no-one has the right to do so. All avenues are closed, all doors are locked. Except in the individual mind a light flickers like a candle: the awareness of dignity, self-respect and justice. The flickering light that has ignited revolutions and brought down empires.
A light that casts its ray across the arc of history. On 15th June 1215 in England, angry and aggrieved barons suffering from endless taxes, an unfair justice system and the unlimited power of the King, came together and leveraged King John into granting the Magna Carta. On 17th June 2015 writers, activists and thousands of others across the world will call for the release of the blogger Raif Badawi and his lawyer Waleed Abulkhair.
At the heart of both events is the struggle for equal rights in the face of great power. The barons had taken up arms against King John and captured the Tower of London. Raif Badawi had set up a website called ‘Saudi Arabian Liberals’ as a forum for political and social debate.
In 1215 the barons’ success forced the King to negotiate with them. In 2013 the peaceful content of Raif Badawi’s website caused him to be arrested and charged with the offences of ‘insulting Islam through electronic channels,’ insulting Islamic figures and being guilty of apostasy. Badawi wasn’t just given the draconian sentence of ten years imprisonment, a hefty fine, but also the barbaric physical punishment of a thousand lashes.
I’ve never understood the rationale of physical punishment, whether it’s a slap by a parent or a sentence by a court. What is the rationale of answering words with lashes? Answering intelligence with brutality? I prefer Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s words ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Often used to illustrate the principle of freedom of speech – a freedom that is linked to the Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta established the rule that all are equal before the law. Clauses 39 and 40* forbade the sale of justice and insisted on due legal process, giving birth to the idea of trial by jury. I ask the question: if Raif Badawi had been tried by a jury, would that jury of twelve people ‘honest and true’ have sentenced him to 1,000 lashes?
Human history, in fact human existence, can be defined as a continuous battle between the powerful and the powerless. Wars, violence and pitched battles are the most extreme manifestation of this struggle, but it also occurs daily between the employer and worker, the politician and citizen, the He and the She. We daily endeavour to achieve an existence that is fair and equal.
History shows us that the human spirit is greater than its circumstances, and that our most serious circumstances create our greatest documents: from the Magna Carta, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the website ‘Saudi Arabian Liberals.’ Putting in writing principles which are the only enduring defence against unlimited power and the abuses thereof.
We are all equal before the law, is a principle that’s come down from the Magna Carta, and provided the platform for freedom of expression which encompasses all other freedoms: freedom of the press, the freedom of our scholars, the freedom to discuss, debate and doubt.
Let the babel of voices be heard, let the diversity of ideas flow, let the commotion of argument and counter-argument rise and fall, ebb and flow; let wit, irony and satire delight our intelligence. Let the websites of bloggers sizzle with words.
‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ Magna Carta proves it so. Let words pave the future, not the lashing of a cane.
Big congratulations to Hew Locke on being commissioned to produce a new artwork to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Titled ‘The Jurors’ the artwork will be sited at Runnymede and will consider the contemporary relevance of the Magna Carta and its on-going impact through the struggle for equal rights.’ http://www.situations.org.uk/projects/hew-locke-magna-carta/
British Library: Magna Carta exhibition. Law, Liberty and Legacy. Till 1st September 2015.
*Nicholas Vincent ‘The Clauses of the Magna Carta.’
Mrs Alice Richmond ‘Ideas for All Seasons.’