Let Them Protest

Riyadh witnessed a comeback for cinema after 30 years of absence. Menahi, a movie produced by Alwaleed’s Rotana, was opened to public in King Fahad Cultural Center (KFCC) last week. I was curious to see how this was going to play out, but not curious enough to actually go there myself. The main reason for missing on this “historical event,” as some called it, is because I dislike Faiz al-Malki (the rumors about his assassination are false btw, he is alive and well, shooting a TV series in Taif). I believe I’m free to dislike al-Malki, and also free to express that dislike in any way I deem appropriate. Look, I just did exactly that in this paragraph. Some people go to extreme measures to express their opinions, and that’s also fine, as long as they don’t cause physical harm to others or damage property. It’s called freedom of expression.

That being said, I was not surprised to read that several groups of young men attempted to disrupt the movie’s showings at KFCC, by trying to persuade moviegoers to leave in order to close down the show. We have seen this kind of behavior before in the book fair, Yamama College theater, and other places.

Dawood al-Sherian does not like how the local media covered what happened this time, or more specifically how columnists and opinion writers like him talked about it. He thinks that most writers have linked between the behavior of these young men with terrorism. “They almost made it look like a plot by al-Qaeda,” he wrote. He says that if the writers support the return of cinema as a form for freedom of expression, then they should welcome the reaction of those men in the same spirit.

I agree with him that linking this behavior to terrorism and al-Qaeda is unfair, but I don’t think it is far-fetched to link it to extremism. I don’t know about you, but I really think there is something extreme about trying to convince people to leave and close down the show. I admit it is hard sometimes to draw the line between what is accepted as freedom of expression and what is not, but in this case it seems easy enough. The young men should have been allowed to hold their protests outside KFCC, under the eyes of the police to make sure that things don’t get out of control. Now of course Dawood al-Sherian would never say such thing, probably because his limits are different than mine, or simply because he knows that public demonstrations are not allowed here.

Although I’m not sure if/how this would work, but I think that if they were allowed to express their disapproval this way they won’t feel it necessary to go extreme and try to stop the show, or start vandalizing and destroying like what happened in Jouf where they burned a tent prepared for literary events.

Decades of fundamentalist religious propaganda have made the concept of “freedom of expression” seems very alien to our culture, but that does not mean it truly is. This is a universal basic human right; it was not invented by the infidel West. Some Saudi pseudo-liberals claim that too much freedom of expression is bad — even dangerous — for this country, simply because it would give their opponents more rights that these opponents are trying to deny the rest of us now. That’s a fallacy. The real test of how sincere we are about freedom of expression is in how much we are willing to tolerate those we disagree with.

Blogging or Bragging?

070709_tech_karaoketnIt is extremely saddening how some of us were so brainwashed that they reached a stage where even the most basic human rights have become alien to them. Al-Riyadh daily asked their readers earlier this week about blogging and if blogs are a medium for spreading ideas and sharing opinions or simply a place for bragging and showing off. So freedom of expression is bragging now? *sigh*

It’s Good to Talk

Women’s driving and the mahram (male guardianship) have been two of the most pressing and controversial issues in the country during the past few years. However, serious debate regarding these issues has been almost absent from the local media in the past few weeks.

I slightly noticed the absence, but I thought it could be that people simply got sick of endlessly discussing these issues without seeing any visible progress. But I was wrong. According to Dr. Abdul-Rahman Al-Enad, member of Shoura Council, the Ministry of (dis)Information have secretly ordered the newspapers to ban any article on these two issues. He didn’t explain why MOI have taken such measures, but the message is clear: they don’t want anyone to talk about this.

Dr. Al-Enad, who is also a founding member of NSHR, revealed this secret and other juicy bits during a lecture on human rights and freedom of expression that he gave to a group of journalism students and teachers at KSU last Saturday.

Truth be told, I was a bit hesitant to attend the lecture because my recent experiences with Shoura Council members were not particularly encouraging. I’m glad to report this wasn’t the case this time. Dr. Al-Enad was frank, blunt and refreshingly as cool as a Shoura member can be.

He started his talk with a brief introduction on the principles of human rights and the international laws, then quickly moved to focus on the importance of free speech as a fundamental and indispensable right for the citizens any developing nation.

Dr. Al-Enad said that although the Press and Publications Law states that “freedom of press is protected in line with laws and Sharia,” such statement has no basis in The Basic Law, which serves as a constitution, where Article 39 states: “Mass media and all other vehicles of expression shall employ civil and polite language, contribute towards the education of the nation and strengthen unity. It is prohibited to commit acts leading to disorder and division, affecting the security of the state and its public relations, or undermining human dignity and rights. Details shall be specified in the Law.”

The devil is in the details. The Basic Law refers you to the Press and Publications Law, which in turn doesn’t offers much details. All what the latter has to offer is the vague sentence “in line with laws and Sharia.” What laws and what interpretation of Sharia, no one exactly knows.

As I previously said here, The Basic Law should be amended to enumerate the rights and duties of citizens, and one of these rights is freedom of expression. Dr. Al-Enad agrees, but says the problem is that the Shoura Council has no right to amend The Basic Law. Actually, the Council doesn’t even have the right to modify its own rules. Only the King has the power to do that.

However, the Council has the authority to review and approve lower laws. One of these laws is the E-Crimes Act, which has been passed in March 2007. I am concerned because the act contained some articles that are very stretchy and non-specific, and they can be easily used to target freedom of expression online.

I went to ask Dr. Al-Enad about this law after he finished his lecture. He told me he does not remember the details of the law, and asked if he can contact me later to talk about this. I gave him my card, and I’m still waiting to hear from him. Can I trust the Shoura Council to act positively to protect human rights and free speech, at least on this particular case? For now, I’m reserving my judgment until the esteemed member and I get a chance to talk. Because, you know, it’s always good to talk.

Rights Bodies Appeal for Two Saudis

Human Rights Watch has urged courts in Jeddah to dismiss a case against Rai’f Badawi, founder of Saudi Liberals forums. On May 5, the prosecutor charged Badawi with “setting up an electronic site that insults Islam,” and referred the case to court, asking for a five-year prison sentence and a 3 million riyal fine.

Badawi no longer owns or controls the website. After unknown hackers, who probably think they were doing some sort of electronic jihad, attacked the website several times and threatened him and his family, he sold the website and fled the country two weeks ago. A new owner announced a while ago that he took over the website, which has been offline for more than a week now.

It is understood that Badawi will be tried according to the E-Crimes Act that has been issued in March 2007. The act, which can be found here (Arabic PDF), contains some laws that seem to target free speech such as Article 6 which incriminates “producing content which violates general order, religious values, public morals or sanctity of private life, or preparing it, or sending it, or storing it via the network or a computer.”

The questions is: who defines and specifies what are those religious values and what are those public morals? I don’t know if this act has been approved by the Shoura Council or not, because I think it is unacceptable for the Council to approve such act that contains these vague laws and articles which contradicts international conventions and accords on which Saudi Arabia is a signatory.

amnesty_logo On a related note, Amnesty International are appealing for Muhammad Ali Abu Raziza, a psychology professor at the University of Um al-Qura, who has been sentenced to 150 lashes and eight months’ imprisonment for meeting a woman in a coffee shop. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding this case and the reports on it in the local press has been full of contradictions. Therefor, I can’t make up my mind on who is at fault here.

However, I think the Commission should seriously reconsider how to define and deal with this whole “khulwa” thing. When a man and a woman meet in a public place like a cafe, a restaurant, or in the street where they are surrounded by people and others can see them, does it constitute a khulwa? I doubt that they will ever think this through but I guess it’s worth asking anyway.

A Letter to Fouad: What I Know

Dear Fouad,

It has been a month since you were detained, and I miss you. It has been a rough month for the rest of us here, but it is certainly nothing compared to what you have had to go through and still do. They told us you were detained because you violated non-security regulations. Gibberish, to say the least, but that’s what we were told. I really don’t know what kind of law you violated by merely exercising your God given right of free speech, and I don’t know when calling for freedom, justice, peace and moderation has become a crime.

But here is what I know. I know that all these values you called for are worth fighting for. I know that we believe in a just cause, and that tomorrow belongs to us, not them. I know that no matter how long the darkness lasts, the sun will rise again. I want you to know one thing: I am here for you. I will keep supporting you and I will do my best until you are free again and back to your family and friends. You will not be forgotten.

Yours,
Ahmed

Fouad Says…

Sami Ben Gharbia has been working on a randomizer badge for Free Fouad campaign that will display and randomize some of Fouad’s quotes. Sami asked me to help him with translating these quotes, and I thought it would be good to post them here too so you can learn more about Fouad and what he believes in.

First, here’s some selected quotes:

It is only the feebleminded who would use guns and violence to deliver his message.

We desperately need a time of calmness and reconciliation between the different leaderships in our society: Islamists, liberals and the government.

If you were a free citizen and think you have the right speak your mind on what is happening in our country and have something to say, be brave and say it in your real name.

In Saudi Arabia, there is no guarantee that you won’t be arrested because of your frankness and speaking your mind on your blog. But there is also no guarantee when you hide and write in internet forums using a pseudonym.

My advice to anyone that cares about common interest and is angry over what is happening in our country and keeps on writing at internet forums using a pseudonym is to join the blogging world and write using his real name to contribute positively in building the Saudi blogosphere.

And here’s a list of 25 reasons for blogging Fouad presented after he came back from his hiatus:

Why Do We Blog?

1. Because we believe we have opinions that deserve to be heard, and minds that should be respected.
2. Because societies do not progress until they learn to respect opinions of their members. And we would like to see our society progressing.
3. Because blogging is our only option. We do not have a free media, and freedom to assemble is not allowed.
4. Because we want to discuss our opinions.
5. Because we think.
6. Because we care.
7. Because blogging has had a positive effect on other societies and we want to see the same result in our society.
8. Because blogging is a reflection of the life of society members. And we are alive.
9. Because blogging is gaining increasing attention from media and governments. We want them to listen to us.
10. Because we are not scared.
11. Because we reject the cattle mentality.
12. Because we welcome diversity of opinions.
13. Because the country is for all, and we are part of it.
14. Because we want to reach out to everyone.
15. Because we refuse to be an “echo”.
16. Because we are not any less than bloggers in other societies.
17. Because we seek the truth.
18. Because our religion encourages us to speak out.
19. Because we are sick and tired of the Saudi media hypocrisy.
20. Because we are positive.
21. Because blogging is a powerful tool that can benefit society.
22. Because we are affected and we can affect.
23. Because we love our country.
24. Because we enjoy dialogue and don’t run away from it.
25. Because we are sincere.