One Step Forward and Two Steps Back?
The arrest of the writer and thinker Turki al-Hamad on 24 December has unleashed a storm of indignation among the progressive cultural elite of Saudi Arabia. Five hundred intellectuals and activists, including the well-known women's rights activist Manal al-Sharif, sent a petition to Crown Prince Salman bin Abdelaziz demanding the release of al-Hamad.
The distinguished intellectual was arrested on account of some Twitter messages, in which he criticized the religious authorities of his country and called for a reform of the understanding of the faith, so that Islam could free itself from the grips of extremist and fundamentalist adherents.
In his Tweets, al-Hamad took aim at Wahhabism and its extremely strict doctrines that are prevalent in his homeland. "Because I am a Muslim in the tradition of Mohammed, I reject Wahhabism," states one of his messages. Another is even more explosively formulated. "Just as our beloved Prophet once came to rectify the faith of Abraham, the time has now come in which we need someone to rectify the faith of Mohammed."
Elsewhere, al-Hamad has made highly critical comments on the rise of Islamic parties in the Arab world. "The spectre of a new Nazism casts its shadow over the Arab world and its name is Islamism. Yet, the time of Nazism has past, and the sun will once again rise in the East."
It need not be stressed that in arch-conservative Saudi Arabia, these audacious positions came like a bolt of lightning out of the blue and enraged both the country's religious and political authorities. Accordingly, Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdelaziz ordered the arrest of the disrespectful intellectual.
Turki al-Hamad, born in 1952 in Jordan to Saudi parents, earned a doctorate in political science at the University of South Carolina. He is considered to be one of the most outstanding cultural figures within Saudi Arabia and the Arab world as a whole. Over the past thirty years, his non-fiction writings on politics and the history of ideas, his newspaper articles, and his novels have struggled with the problem of backwardness in Arab societies, in particular that of Saudi Arabia. As a result, he has incurred the wrath of most of the conservative elite in his country.
Al-Hamad has not shied away from adapting a biting and often aggressive tone in his articles on his country's political, social, and cultural shortcomings. Even in his non-fiction works, his insights cut right to the bone. The protagonists in his novels speak of their fears of change and transformation as well as their longing for freedom. For instance, his characters utter things that in his homeland are regarded as grave offences against morality and the Islamic faith.
In his most famous work, the trilogy "Atyaf al-Aziqah al-Mahjurah (Phantoms of the Deserted Alley), one of the characters says, "God and the devil are only two sides of the same coin." The sale of the work in Saudi Arabia was promptly forbidden on account of such passages, found to be shocking and to denigrate the faith. Al-Hamad's adversaries, of course, are unable to fathom that a novel is a work of fantasy and that its characters are merely abstract creations that in no way always represent the views of their creator, but rather are meant to reflect the whole spectrum of thoughts, concerns, and fears that vex the inner life of man.
Unbridled passion for thought
Al-Hamad enjoys a wide range of interests. His work includes studies on ideologies and revolutionary movements in the Arab world, reflections on Arab culture faced with the challenges of the modern world and its relationship to the scientific era, and political writings on "halal" and "haram" – the Islamic concepts of what is permitted and forbidden. In terms of his literary work, two volumes ("Adama" and "Shumaisi") of his previously mentioned trilogy have been translated into English and there is also a German translation of his "Adama". Even such a brief survey of his output should be enough to convey an impression of the unbridled passion and vitality with which al-Hamad attempts to tackle the problems besetting the Arab world.
Despite all this, the Saudi authorities have had the audacity to put behind bars an author known far beyond the borders of his country and who is one of the most distinguished commentators of the international Arabic newspaper Ash-Sharq al-Awsat. This demonstrates to what degree the conservative establishment of Saudi Arabia, which abhors any notion of change, remains able to impose its political agenda, despite the fact that the alliance between temporal power, embodied by the al-Saud family, and the religious power of the Wahhabis has been crumbling for some time and that there were early signs of a cultural and political transformation since the start of the Arab Spring.
For example, at last year's book fair in Riyadh, one of the most important such events in the Arab world, men and women were allowed to attend at the same time and without segregation according to gender. A mixed public was even permitted at the 2012 al-Janadriyah cultural festival, to which I was invited as a speaker and where I was introduced to the public by a Saudi professor known for his courageous and liberal views.
A bad omen?
Of course, intellectuals and creative artists in Saudi Arabia view the arrest of Turki al-Hamad as a bad omen and proof that a fanatical, conservative religious authority still has the final word in political affairs. In his Tweets, Turki al-Hamad also spoke of the unity of religions and that every religion summons its followers to adhere to brotherly love. He criticized religious institutions, but certainly not the faith.
He merely postulated that Islam should be wrestled out of the hands of those attempting to monopolise the religion and its interpretation, and, in the process, turning themselves into a cast of priests, a trend completely opposed to the original intentions of the religion. His demand is one that rattles the very foundations of the Saudi system. Yet, his views also reflect the growing presence of free thinking forces within the Wahhabi kingdom.
© Neue Zürcher Zeitung / Qantara.de 2013
Fakhri Saleh was born in Jenin in 1957. He writes as a journalist and literary scholar for "Ad-Dustour," "Al-Hayat," and other Arab newspapers. He will soon be publishing a book in Cairo on the Arab Spring.
Translation: John Bergeron