Comment | Saudi Arabia: yes to human rights, just not here
New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Saturday, April 21, 2012 0:00 - 2 Comments
By Derek Oakley
UK Prime Minister David Cameron (right) speaks with Saudi Arabia’s Defence Minister Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz during their meeting inside 10 Downing Street in London on Tuesday April 3, 2012. (Photo Credit: Matt Dunham/PA Wire)
Hamza Kashgari; a misled youth, an unredeemable apostate or a persecuted dissident in one of the world’s most repressive countries? As Saudi Arabia flexes its regional muscle to push for regime change in Syria, the imprisonment of one young man for sending tweets epitomises the internal contradictions of a theocratic state struggling to deal with a new generation of resistance.
As the upheavals across the Arab world continue to attract beady-eyed interventionists everywhere, the Saudi Monarch King Abdullah has emerged, alongside Qatar’s Emir, as a major cheerleader for military intervention, vocally denouncing the escalating violence in Syria, and lobbying governments from Moscow to Washington to step up their efforts to isolate Assad, openly calling for foreign governments to arm the self-appointed opposition.
At the very same time, the Saudi journalist, poet and blogger Hamza Kashgari sits incommunicado in a Saudi cell, behind the wall of unaccountable secrecy familiar to any that have fallen foul of the Saudi legal system. Hamza tweeted three quotes communicating his mixed feelings toward the Prophet Mohammed. These were extracted from a poem outlining a lovingly imagined meeting with the most significant figure in Islam. A massive backlash ensued, with tens of thousands of online responses calling for his execution for apostasy.
After releasing an apology and retraction Hamza, still fearing for his life, fled to Malaysia, where, in direct contravention of a Supreme Court order, he was deported back to his home country on a private jet, with the threat of the death penalty hanging over him. Since then (February 14th) Hamza has had no contact with the outside world, save a cursory court appearance to ‘admit’ his ‘crime’ . A small, dedicated campaign for his freedom has been growing as the threat of execution looms larger.
This is not just about three tweets, neither is it a solely religious debate. It’s about the reactionary suppression of free expression, critical thinking and dissent. The anger of many at the lack of justice, equalities and freedoms within the social, political and legal spheres in Saudi Arabia is not new. It is estimated that around 30,000 are incarcerated in saudi prisons, though a government-controlled non-independent human rights group denies the figure and caps it at an apparently lower yet equally absurd 4400. In this context, the need to express anger and explore alternatives online, in addition to continued clandestine organising by some, is understandable. What Hamza’s case illustrates is that this online activism is no less risky.
Indeed, Hamza’s is hardly an isolated case; neither, unfortunately, is it the most serious. In the weeks following UK prime minister minister David Cameron’s amiable visit to Saudi Arabia this January, unarmed protesters in the majority Shia region of Qatif have been gunned down by security forces, quite possibly with UK-supplied weaponry. Meanwhile a number of other activists, artists and journalists have been detained including, this year alone, Hussein Youssef, Natheer al-Majid and, most controversially, the renowned poet and photographer, Habib Ali al-Maatiq – allegedly in relation to his webmaster post at the Al-Fair network website which has reported on the troubles in Qatif. Even activists demonstrating in support of Syrian rebels, a position that aligns them with their own government’s policy, have been arrested. In justification, a refrain from the government that might sound familiar: “We are facing a new form of terrorism.” Presumably unlike the good old-fashioned state terror being employed by the regime.
Across the Arab world, similar stories of dissent, repression and state denial in recent months have resulted in an outcry. So why are responses in the west so muted in this instance? Have lavish outreach efforts such as the current Hajj Exhibition at the British Museum, in addition to Saudi Arabia’s ‘humanitarian’ efforts regionally, truly succeeded in getting us to buy into the polished image of a progressive, benevolent monarchy that the regime is so desperate to project? Or do the inevitable cynical calculations, centred on the potential implications of instability in the world’s largest oil producer, ensure that ‘universal’ rights find their limits at the borders of the kingdom?
By formenting and exploiting the popular outcry around Hamza’s tweets, and seeking to depoliticise the issue, this most totalitarian of regimes can not only distract attention from the macabre details of the Qatif uprising and its suppression, but also further fuel domestic fears of meddling from abroad as well as the ‘dangers’ of opening up public debate or involvement in decision making. This fear-mongering marginalises the genuine, pressing questions posed by dissidents, and the inherent politics of true self-expression in the face of authoritarian violence.
This past weekend the Saudi Foreign Minister stated “Is there something greater than the right to defend oneself and to defend human rights?”. He seems unaware that to defend oneself and one’s rights, one has to find and use their voice. Hamza Kashgari used his, and the Saudi authorities responded in the only way they know how. For courageous young men and women like him, the solidarity of others outside could mean life or death.