Nobel laureates speak up for Raif Badawi

Good – another ratchet in the protests to Saudi Arabia about its brutal torture and rights-abrogation of Raif Badawi.

The international outcry over  restrictions on freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia escalated last night as an array of Nobel prizewinners published an open letter calling on the country’s academics to condemn the public flogging of the blogger Raif Badawi.

In their letter, passed to The Independent, the 18 Nobel Laureates urge their Saudi peers to be “heard arguing for the freedom to dissent” by standing up for Mr Badawi, whose case they say has “sent a shock around the world”.

They also hint that if the country’s academics are unable to stand up for free speech they risk being internationally marginalised – a veiled threat that will be of serious concern to the Saudi authorities, who have been keen to market the country as a burgeoning research hub.

What? Do the Saudi authorities think the rest of the world is going to take the KSA seriously as a burgeoning research hub when people there are savagely punished for saying completely ordinary (and true) things?

The letter – signed by a collection of Nobel Laureates including the novelist J M Coetzee – is addressed to Professor Jean-Lou Chameau, president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). A multibillion-dollar graduate research institution, it opened to great fanfare in 2009. It warns: “The fabric of international co-operation may be torn apart by dismay at the severe restrictions on freedom of thought and expression still being applied to Saudi Arabian society.”

I certainly hope so. Saudi Arabia should be a pariah state.

“We are confident that influential voices in KAUST will be heard arguing for the freedom to dissent, without which no institution of higher learning can be viable,” the letter continues.

“The time is ripe for new thinking after millions in Paris, supported by the government of Saudi Arabia, demonstrated on behalf of minority views.”

Damn straight. Except I wouldn’t call it minority views; I would call it human views as opposed to goddy views. On the one hand you have people saying “obey ‘god’ or we’ll murder you or torture you to death”; on the other hand you have people saying “god sucks and also doesn’t exist, turn your attention to human needs instead of goddy ones.”

The targeting of KAUST is significant because one of its key aims was to enable Saudi Arabia to compete internationally in science and technology. The Independent understands that many prominent Western scientists are already uncomfortable collaborating with the university due to the country’s disastrous record on human rights – and may begin refusing to co-operate altogether if the letter is ignored.


One of the letter’s signatories is the British biologist Sir John Sulston, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. He told The Independent that Mr Badawi’s case carried important implications for the “importance of free speech and of academic freedom in particular” – not just in Saudi Arabia but across the world.

“We think it’s right to point out that the environment of a good university has to be one of openness, of discourse,” he said. “This guy, as far as one can understand, has been an entirely peaceful blogger proposing things which are at odds with current Saudi Arabian methods – but nevertheless absolutely consonant with academic freedoms. So we think it’s right to support him in this way.”

He said that while Western governments might condemn Saudi Arabia’s punishment of Mr Badawi in public, any action they might take was often constrained by “commercial interests” which made it even more important for academics to take action. “We all have to work all the time for freedom of speech,” he added.

Especially right now. We’re in a very bad patch.

In Britain, Amnesty has accused the Government of “wearing the Saudi muzzle” over the issue.

A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said: “We remain seriously concerned by Raif Badawi’s case. The UK condemns the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment in all circumstances. We have raised Mr Badawi’s case at a senior level with the Saudi authorities.

“The UK is a strong supporter of freedom of expression around the world. We believe that people must be allowed freely to speak out against violations of human rights wherever they occur.”

Pinch harder.

The signatories

Martin Chalfie, Nobel  Laureate Chemistry (US)

J M Coetzee, Nobel  Laureate Literature  (Australia/South Africa)

Claude Cohen-Tannoudji,  Nobel Laureate Physics (France)

Richard Ernst, Nobel  Laureate Chemistry  (Switzerland)

Gerhard Ertl, Nobel Laureate Chemistry (Germany)

Sheldon Lee Glashow, Nobel  Laureate Physics (US)

Dudley Herschbach, Nobel Laureate Chemistry (US)

Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Laureate Chemistry (US)

Brian Josephson, Nobel Laureate Physics (UK)

Martin Karplus, Nobel  Laureate Chemistry (US)

Harold Kroto, Nobel Laureate Chemistry (UK/US)

Yuan Lee, Nobel Laureate Chemistry (Taiwan/US)

Rudolph Marcus, Nobel Laureate Chemistry (Canada/US)

John Polanyi, Nobel Laureate Chemistry (Canada)

Richard Roberts, Nobel  Laureate Physiology or  Medicine (US)

John Sulston, Nobel Laureate Physiology or Medicine (UK)

Jack Szostak, Nobel Laureate Physiology or Medicine (US)

Eric Wieschaus, Nobel  Laureate Physiology or  Medicine (US)

I’ve met one of them – Harry Kroto, at (appropriately) a CFI conference on secularism.


  1. Vincent says

    Once again, they are doing it wrong. It is not a matter of free speech. Because the bad guys, they are going to say “And where is my freedom to say I want to kill Jews or tell children killing infidel is a way to heaven, or that women are half humans, or that gays are an abomination ? ” – Well, it is true, not everything can be said. And not by everybody. Political leaders are to be more politically correct than drunk losers in the street, for example. They have a bigger influence and therefore a bigger responsibility.

    “[Raif Badawi] was arrested in 2012 on a charge of insulting Islam through electronic channels and brought to court on several charges including apostasy. ” (Wiki)

    It is a matter of religion.

    They should be saying “As Nobel Prize scientists, we are qualified to tell that religions are malarkeys and request freedom of blasphemy and apostasy.” Not general free speech, that exists nowhere in the world.

    But will they ever dare to speak up and protect reason from its enemies ?

  2. theobromine says

    Note to anyone in or near Ottawa, Canada: Atheist and Humanist groups (CFI-Canada and Humanist Canada) are joining the weekly protests sponsored by Amnesty international – next one is this Thursday at 4pm in front of the Saudi Embassy (dress warmly – the high tomorrow will be -10C).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *