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.