Scuffles in Janadriyah

High on what they seem to think is a victory in the Hamza Kashgari affair, religious conservatives opened another front by sending some of their young followers to protest against music, dancing and the mixing of men and women in the National Heritage and Culture Festival aka Janadriyah.

It all began when Sheikh Saleh al-Lihedan, former head of the judiciary, said that women should not visit Janadriyah. “My advice to anyone is to dignify their women, their wife, their mother, or anyone under his guardianship by not allowing them to go” to such events, he said.

Few days later, dozens of these religious conservatives, usually called “Mohtasbeen” headed to Janadriyah, where they clashed with security forces there. Few of them have been briefly detained. The incident was repeated the next day, and few other people were arrested as well.

Now some might think that those mohtasbeen are part of the Commission of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) aka Muttaween or the Religious Police, but that’s not the case. This group, most of them young men in their late teens and early twenties, act as some sort of unofficial muttawaeen who find things like music, dancing and gender mixing objectionable and believe they have the right to attempt to prevent things like this:

I thought the story ended after the two scuffles on Wednesday and Thursday, but I was wrong. Yesterday, members of the official CPVPV squad in Janadriyah wrote a letter to their boss announcing they would go on strike until their demands are addressed. What are their demands?

  • Increase number of CPVPV squad in Janadriyah to 300 members.
  • Stop playing music on loudspeakers.
  • Provide a 100 female security guards squad to support them.
  • Stop intervention in how to do their job by anyone, including security forces and the national guard.

Ballsy move there, no doubt. It is not everyday that government employees in Saudi Arabia threaten to go on strike. At the end of the letter, they said they were doing this because without addressing their demands they would no longer be able to do their job in a manner that is satisfactory to God first, and to their superiors second. See, these guys are not doing this for the money. They do it because they seek reward from God.

After meetings between CPVPV officials and organizers of Janadriyah, it was decided that starting today and until the end of the festival music will be stopped and the number of CPVPV squad in Janadriyah will be increased to 100. Another small victory for the conservatives.

However, this was not enough for them. Today, a group of 50 clerics led by Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak and Nasser al-Omar released a statement calling on the government to cancel Janadriyah and the upcoming book fair because they “include many violations of Sharia.”

What does it all mean?

I’m not quite sure, but it seems that the tide of the conservative wave that I wrote about last month keeps on rising, and that there are groups and individuals who want to take advantage of this be sweeping everyone and everything in their way.

Update on Kashgari’s Case

Just a quick update on the Hamza Kashgari case since many people have been asking: The young man is now in detention, his family visited him and he is reportedly in high spirits and being treated respectfully. Several sites and petitions have been set up to support him and call for his release.

Prominent human rights lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem has announced that he will defend Kashgari, arguing that he will push for this case to be handled by a committee in the information ministry instead of a Sharia court.

Meanwhile, several people on the right are claiming that Hamza is a member what they believe is a “sleeping cell” to spread atheism among Saudi youth. Al-Hayat has a thinly sourced story saying public prosecutors are likely to summon people that supported or agreed with Kashgari, which opened the door widely for something like a witch hunt.

People like Mohammed al-Hodaif are accusing Abdullah Hamidaddin of being the cell leader but so far they have failed to provide a strong evidence to support their claims.The two men faced off on TV today where al-Hodaif threatened Hamidaddin, who is currently traveling to the US, to return to the Kingdom for a trial in a Saudi court.

Saudi Writer Hamza Kashgari Flees Country After Controversy on Twitter

UPDATE 2/12/12 03:09ET: Hamza Kashgari has been deported to Saudi Arabia by Malaysian authorities, several news agencies reported. Malaysian human rights lawyers say they had a judge order to stop the deportation, but by the time they reached the airport the plane already took off.

Hamza Kashgari, a young Saudi writer, caused a firestorm when he posted a series of tweets on the birthday of Prophet Mohammad last week. In his tweets, Kashgari imagined a conversation with the Prophet in which he said they are equal, and that although he admires many of the Prophet’s characteristics there are also others that he disliked.

Saudi users on Twitter erupted with outrage, posting nearly 30,000 tweets on the topic in less than 24 hours. Many people believed that he insulted the Prophet by addressing him and speaking about him like that. They accused Kashgari of blasphemy, atheism and apostasy. Many said he must be punished and some said he should be killed. Others even went as far as threatening to kill him or offer money for his head.

The outcry resulted in a full U-turn by Kashgary, who deleted the controversial tweets and published an apology saying he has sinned and that he has now repented. He explained that what he wrote earlier was “feelings I erred in describing and writing, and that I ask God for forgiveness, but they don’t really represent my belief in the Prophet.”

The apology was not enough for many people, especially the religious conservatives who demanded that Kashgari be tried in a Sharia court. One of these people is a cleric named Nasser al-Omar, who appeared in a YouTube video weeping because he said he could not bear to see the Prophet insulted.

“These people [like Kashgari] should be put to trial in Sharia courts,” al-Omar said. “It is known that cursing God and his Prophet is apostasy. And the fact that he has repented with cold words will not probably save him in the court.”

Al-Omar and others insist that even if Kashgari has repented he should still be sentenced for apostasy, effectively calling for his death by sword. Al-Omar called on his followers to send telegraphs to the King, Crown Prince and the Grand Mufti to punish Kashgari.

Yesterday, several websites said that the King has ordered the arrest of Kashgari and today news came that he has fled the country. According to Al Arabiya’s sources, Kashgari had flown to Jordan then the UAE before reaching a country in southeast Asia.

The 23-year-old writer used to write a column for the Jeddah-based al-Bilad daily, but yesterday the information minister Abdul Aziz Khoja ordered all newspapers not to carry any article by Kashgari. “I have instructed all newspapers and magazines in the Kingdom not to allow him to write any thing and we will take legal measures against him,” Khoja said.

How a couple of tweets by an obscure writer reached the King and resulted in an arrest order and a possible death sentence in the matter of three days is nothing short of astonishing. Saudi Arabia being a conservative Muslim country, the outrage over Kashgari’s tweets was expected. Remember the Danish cartoons? Nevertheless, this case escalated rapidly.

While I understand how many Muslims would take offense at anything that touches the prophet, I don’t think it explains the whole story. Yes, many feel strongly about such matters and therefor they reacted accordingly. However, it is clear that many on the right decided to take advantage of the incident to score points and make political gains. It was a low hanging fruit.

While some may perceive religious conservatives defending the Prophet’s honor simply as piety, others say there is more behind it, that this is actually part of a long-term plan.

“This is not spontaneous,” a friend of Kashgari’s told me. “Hamza has had people marking him since the Marriott affair and before.”

There is a disturbing “bloodthirstiness” about the conservatives’ reaction, the friend said, adding that Hamza is “just the first in a list they’re targeting.”

Ironically, Kashgari had a conservative upbringing. He was part of the many “circles for memorization of Quran” in Jeddah, and according to one source familiar with the matter, his old preachers helped convince him to delete his controversial tweets and apologize. However, these very same preachers refused to come to his defense publicly in the face of the rabid attacks by the conservatives.

Contrary to reports circulating in Twitter and some sites, Kashgari was not detained upon his arrival to the airport in southeast Asia. He is free, his friend told me, but remains worried about being extradited.

This controversy emerges as an equally contentious case is finally coming to an end.

Local media reported this week that the King has pardoned Hadi Al Mutif, a man who was sentenced to death in 1996 after being convicted of allegedly insulting the Prophet. King Abdullah did not confirm the death sentence as required under Saudi law and Al Mutif remained in jail for 18 years. He is expected to walk free later this week.

UPDATE 2/9/2012 15:25ET: According to Malaysia state news agency BERNAMA, Hamza Kashgari has been detained.

Saudi Women Driving: Shifting Gears

The campaign for women driving has slowed down almost to a halt since the big push last June, but the issue is now making a comeback as activists seek a different route. On Saturday, two women filed lawsuits against the government for refusing to issue them driver’s licenses and banning them from driving a car.

If you have been following this story, you will probably remember one of these two woman: Manal al-Sharif was detained last year for her leading role in the driving campaign. Her lawyer is prominent human rights lawyer Abdulrahman al-Lahem who told al-Hayat daily that the court, aka the Board of Grievances, has accepted to look into the case.

The lawsuits represent an interesting shift in strategy by women rights activists who in the past preferred to petition the government rather than to confront it.

It is still way too early to predict how this case would play out in the court or how the government will choose to react, but it is definitely worth watching. Also worth watching is to see if other women decide to follow the same steps and file more suits against the interior ministry over the driving ban. More on this story in the upcoming few days…

Riding the Wave

For some reason, the government here finds itself compelled to get involved in organizing cultural events even when they suck at it. Why? Maybe because they don’t allow non-governmental organizations that usually play such roles in other countries. Or maybe because they want to keep the matters of arts and culture under control. Anyway, they keep organizing these events and it is very rare that anything good comes out of them.

Recently, the Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) organized in Riyadh what they called the second intellectual forum. The word ‘intellectual’ here is a vague term used to describe a diverse group of people who work in the fields of arts and culture: writers, novelists, columnists, artists, journalists, etc.

This forum that took place in the Marriott hotel included discussion panels and meetings with senior government officials. It was also a chance for these so-called intellectuals, many of them have known each other for years, to meet and talk. Like most of these events, the forum almost passed unnoticed. That is, until al-Watan daily columnist Saleh al-Shehi tweeted this:

Translation: What happened in the Marriott lobby on the margins of the intellectuals forum is a shame and a disgrace.. I believe that the so-called cultural enlightenment program in Saudi Arabia is centered on women

That tweet generated some angry responses by other people who attended the forum. Author Abdo Khal, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction aka the Arabic Man Booker, tweeted: “Your allegation has crossed the line. Either you prove it or face trial for libel. You should apologize before things get there.”

Abdul Aziz Khoja, the minister of information and culture, and whose this event is happening under his auspices, also took to Twitter to make his feelings clear:

Translation: For criticism to cross its goals and ethics and reaches the stage of libel and slandering, that is what’s shame. And I will say no more.

Al-Shehi was unapologetic. He insisted that as a good Muslim there was no way he could remain silent about what happened at the Marriott lobby. He also said that he plans to sue Khoja. This kind of talk struck a chord with the conservatives, who took his tweet and ran with it because it reaffirms their view of the so-called liberal intellectuals as a group of immoral men and women.

During a talk show on Rotana TV, Khal pressed al-Shehi to say what did he see exactly that he deemed too scandalous. The latter kept refusing to answer, but at the end of the show he agreed to provide one example: some women there did not cover their hair.

The horror. Seriously? All this fuss over a few strands of hair? People thought al-Shehi saw some orgy going on or something. I mean look at these photos: some really hardcore stuff, no?

Some people think the government must be thrilled to see the elite of society bickering over trivialities like this instead of demanding political reform. For a government that paid billions in money handouts and made some merely symbolic concessions to prevent the Arab Spring from reaching their shores, a controversy like this one is certainly a welcome distraction.

The past few months have seen a wave of conservatism that al-Shehi and his supporters seem more than happy to ride. Hardliners are on the rise, and that shows in the heavy-handed manner in which authorities are dealing with recent calls for reform.

Earlier this week, the interior ministry ordered the arrest of 23 citizens wanted in connection to last October’s unrest in the city of Awwamiya in Qatif in the eastern part of the country. The ministry held a press conference to make the announcement and released a list of names and photos in a way that eerily similar to how the government dealt with Al Qaeda cells few years ago.

Few days later, the organizers of an event for arts and culture in Riyadh were ordered to cancel all the musical segments in their program, and two days ago long-time activist Mohammed Saeed Tayeb was stopped at the airport when he tried to board a plane to Cairo to attend his daughter’s wedding there.

In July 2010, Saleh al-Shehi wrote about meeting Abdo Khal in a Parisian cafe, where “girls of all nationalities and ages were flying around us like butterflies in the Spring season.” Why is he now all worked up about some Saudi women not covering their hair? Halal in Paris, haram in Riyadh?

Saleh al-Shehi kept repeating the word “shame” to describe what he saw at the now-infamous lobby, but failed to provide any specific examples except for the uncovered hair of some women. If some free strands of hair offend his sensibilities that much, then he probably should not be there in the first place. However, there are many other things in the country that he, and all of us, really, should be ashamed of like injustice, corruption and discrimination.

For shame, Saleh. For shame.

On the Statement and Shameless Apologists

Two stories were the focus of much debate and discussion in Saudi Arabia recently: a) the trial of what the local media likes to call the “Jeddah cell,” a group of reform activists accused of terrorism and plotting to overthrow the monarchy; and b) the tragic events in Qatif that resulted in the death of four young men and injury of two members of the security forces.

On December 5th, a group of activists released a statement condemning what they called the “extremely harsh sentences” against the Jeddah reformers, and also condemning how the government handled the events in Qatif. The list of signatories on the statement included some prominent Sunni and Shia activists such as Mohammed Said Tayeb, Abdullah Farraj al-Sharif, Tawfiq al-Saif, Mohammad al-Ali and others.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is business as usual in Saudi Arabia. Something happens; a statement or a petition is released by a group of people. After all, it is not like there is much more they can do. Street protests are strictly prohibited, and there is no elected parliament where these people can question the government and hold it accountable for its actions.

However, something else happened this time around. Shortly after the statement was released, it was received with an aggressive backlash in the local media, where columnists held no punches in their scathing attack on the statement and those who signed it. Some observers even suggested that the attack looks coordinated and is probably orchestrated by the interior ministry to win public opinion.

But I don’t think the media backlash was coordinated. As Ahmad Abdulaziz said, it is not as if columnists in the local newspapers wait for government orders to open their verbal fire on government critics. “After a long practice, they have come to know very well what they have to do without even getting instructions,” he wrote. Also, let’s be honest here, does the government care all that much about public opinion?

I have read about 50 columns over the past 3 weeks attacking the statement and those who signed it. Some of these columns were penned by editors of the papers. This is fine, I’m all for free speech. If you feel this strongly about the statement and truly feel compelled to defend the official line on these issues, by all means go knock yourselves out.

One little problem though: none of these papers actually dared to publish the statement or report on it. If readers wanted to know what statement the columnists are talking about then they had to go Google it themselves. When the new editor of al-Eqtisadiah Salman al-Dosary was confronted with this fact in a recent TV interview, he said “we don’t publish anything” because they practice responsible freedom and protect national security.

Al-Dosary seems to think that protecting national security is part of his job description. Yay for the independent Saudi press! But I digress. Let me focus here on “we don’t publish anything.” In his column, al-Dosary accused those who signed the statement of “incitement to overthrow the regime and the government.” Nothing in the statement language even remotely suggests this.

It is one thing to choose to take the government side on some issues. It is quite another to lie and distort the facts just to show how patriotic you are and, while at it, imply that those on the the side of these issues are unpatriotic. The problem with many government apologists is that they severely lack any kind of class; they are shameless.

People like Samar al-Mogren, Adhwan al-Ahmari and Saud al-Rayes for example went as far as calling the signatories terrorism supporters. Seriously? But hey, this is a free country as I said earlier, I’m all for free speech. I just think that it is rather a sad day for this country (and boy did we have many of those lately!) when some people, including the grand mufti, try to score points with the government by using false accusations to discredit some national figures like Mohammad Said Tayeb.

Taybe, a long time activist who was repeatedly jailed over the past four decades, used Twitter to defend himself, calling those columnists a “choir” from a bygone era.

After a series of tweets directed at the columnists, he chose to send a message to Crown Prince Naif: “We understand the interior minister’s duties and responsibilities, but we believe that the most important duty of the crown prince is to guarantee the protection of public freedoms and human rights.”

I’ve been putting off writing this post because I thought the period of verbal diarrhea by government apologists would end soon, but the articles kept on coming nonstop like the floods of Jeddah.

Right, whatever happened to holding the corrupt officials accountable in that disaster? Oh, we are not supposed to talk about this? Sorry, my bad.

Are We Fine? Two Saudi Men Detained over YouTube Video

Two Saudi men were detained Sunday in relation to a YouTube video they produced about poverty in Riyadh, colleagues said. Feras Bughnah and Hosam al-Deraiwish were called by the police for questioning Sunday afternoon, and they are still in authorities custody in the police station in Sahafa district in northern Riyadh.

“We asked the guard at the police station if Feras and Hosam were inside the cell and he said yes,” said Asem al-Ghamdi, a reporter for the local news site Sabq who tried to visit the two men in prison yesterday. “The guard agreed to give them food that I brought for them, but he did not let us talk to them.”

Al-Ghamdi said he spoke with an officer at the police station who told him the issue is “simple” and that Feras and Hosam would be released Tuesday morning. However, as of Tuesday evening, the two men remain in detention.

Coincidentally, Monday, October 17, is when the world celebrates the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

While the detention appears related to the video, it is still unclear what was the exact reason for the detention, said one source who is following the case but asked not to be named for fear of retribution from authorities.

“One theory is that they have been detained because their YouTube video was shown on a TV channel owned by the opposition abroad,” he said. “Another theory is that authorities did not like the strong tone of the video and wanted to make an example out of these guys.”

Saudis online took to Twitter to comment on the issue and express their support to the two detained men. Using the hashtag #Mal3ob3lena (which is the name of the YouTube show), users posted more than 17,000 tweets in less than 24 hours since Monday.

“Those who say the truth are detained, while those who steal billions are free,” tweeted Sara Nasser.

Yasser Almisfer said he could never imagine that these two men would be detained because he knows them and he knows how much they care about the country.

“The idea of interrogating the creators of Mal3ob3lena is nauseating,” he tweeted.

UPDATE 10/20/2011 15:50 ET: It’s Thursday, close to 11pm Saudi time and no word on the release of #mal3ob3lena team yet. I spoke to another person familiar with the matter who told me he expects that Feras and his friends will be released in the coming few days.

“Police are waiting for the release order from the governate,” he said. Knowledgeable on the legal process in the country, this person described the detention as “strange,” adding that probably the reason for delaying their release is to send a message to bloggers and activists that there is a line that they should not cross.

“Come on!” he said, “where are we now? Why are these old ways making a comeback? Why are they trying to strangle the future of this country?”

UPDATE 11/1/2011 2:30 Istanbul: After two weeks in detention, Feras and his crew have been released.