Ashraf Fayadh (Screen grab via)
Ashraf Fayadh is a poet and curator in one of the most conservative authoritarian states on Earth. But while Saudi Arabia's hardline conservatism makes it hard for people like Ashraf to really do or say anything ground-breaking with the work they create, Saudi art has increasingly been reaching out to the rest of the world, and its growing influence on social attitudes at home is alarming traditionalists.
What alarms them most, it turns out, is when you produce anything explicitly secular, or when you film the Kingdom's religious police beating the shit out of someone and post it online. Unfortunately for Ashraf, he did both of those things and has found himself jailed for his troubles – charged with spreading atheism, presumably because charging someone for exposing police brutality is probably something the authorities want to avoid.
Ahmed Mater, fellow Saudi artist and a friend of Ashraf, spoke to me about his case. Fayadh had apparently been picking up attention as an artist with a number of shows in Saudi Arabia, as well as an exhibition at the Venice Biennale, when religious authorities started investigating him last summer. By New Year's Day, a few months after the inquiry began, Ashraf was asked to come into the police station. Fully expecting that the case had been dropped, he went along, only to be arrested and thrown in in a cell.
His arrest was reportedly for "spreading atheism" and, bizarrely, for having long hair – two things that generally don't go down very well with the Mutaween, the police force responsible for the enforcement of Sharia, or the government's Committee for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. However, there's another potential – and far more conceivable – reason for his arrest.
"Some of his friends wrote online that the real reason might be because of the video he filmed five months ago of Abha's religious police lashing a young man in public," said Mona Kareen, a Bidoon (Bedouin) rights activist from Kuwait. Bidoon people, like Ashraf, in the Arabian Gulf are often discriminated in the same way that the gypsy and traveller community are persecuted in the UK. Many of their parents and grandparents never filled in official paperwork, meaning they are now technically stateless, unable to register marriages or open bank accounts because they lack identification cards.
Mater believes that Ashraf is being treated the way he is, in part, because of his family background. "Ashraf is Palestinian, but he was born in Saudi Arabia and his family have been here for 50 years," he said. "That creates a lot of pressure against Ashraf. If he wasn't from this [nomadic] background they wouldn't jail him in this strange way; they put him in jail without even being seen by a judge – without anyone speaking to him except for his father."
Mater told me that Ashraf had been getting in with some of the more hardline religious groups in an attempt to open a dialogue, "to explain art and contemporary art, and the ideas behind it". Some of the country's powerful religious authorities seem to have taken a dislike to Ashraf's progressive proselytising, presumably because it's almost directly opposed to their fundamentalist conservative proselytising – something they're keen on exporting worldwide.
The issues wrapped up in this case speak of the social transformations underway in Saudi Arabia. Around 60 percent of the population is under 30, and key institutions in the country – especially education – have advanced considerably over the past few years. The Saudi government has spent lavishly on infrastructure and housing in a bid to further their economic progress, and social development can't be far behind, with thousands of Saudis now being educated abroad. Unfortunately, the law – particularly concerning women's rights and religious freedom – is lagging behind.
"In Saudi Arabia, the freedom of religion isn't allowed," says Mater. "There are so many atheists, but they can't tell anyone about their beliefs."
This fundamentalist conservatism is in contrast to other parts of the Arabic-speaking world – like Tunisia, whose new constitution specifically bans accusations of takfir (a Muslim accusing another Muslim of being a nonbeliever), or apostasy.
A campaign image to free Ashraf
The Saudi arts scene is also booming, with Saudi novelists winning a number of international awards and last year marking the first time a Saudi film was put forward to the Oscars. And while censorship is a problem, Saudi author Yousef al-Mohaimeed explained that it's not necessarily people in power behind it.
"To be honest, the censors understand more than society," he said. "The censors are actually receiving requests from members of the community, especially religious fanatics, to have books banned. Some extremists stormed a bookshop in Riyadh and took all the copies of Munira’s Bottle [Yousef's book about the political and social turmoil during the first Gulf War].”
"Art for [the Wahabi cleric] is something that isn't 'right'," said Mater. "To draw faces, to talk about things – women, figures. Conceptual art is forbidden."
There seems to be a serious ideological battle underway in Saudi society about what is acceptable social conduct, especially when it comes to art. Mater continued: "They say art is something that can make you forget prayer, because the Prophet Muhammad doesn’t mention art in his book. If you ask [clerics], they say, 'From our understanding, this is haram [sinful]. Art makes you more philosophical and makes you ask about many things beyond [the Qur'an]. So this is haram.'"
There is also a deep confusion about who ultimately makes and enforces the law in Saudi Arabia. It's a Kingdom founded on the alliance of the Al-Saud monarchy and the Wahabi clerical authorities, so Saudi law is infused with complex religious injunctions.
That translates into religious police occasionally beating people for smoking in public, or cutting their hair if they think it's too long. Of course, it's not against the law in Saudi Arabia to smoke or have long hair, but if the wrong Mutaween officer catches you, you can be arrested and accused of stuff like "harassing the Godly self". At some point during Ashraf's investigation, the police presumably tried to interpret his poetry as atheist propaganda – kind of like the time the FBI spent two years investigating the lyrics of The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" to see if they were trying to corrupt the country's youth.
When this failed, apparently the interrogators gave up on logic and just started berating Ashraf for smoking and having shoulder-length hair. “When the interrogator couldn't prove any accusations against Ashraf," said Mohammed Kheder, another Saudi artist, "he started asking him why he smokes and why his hair is long."
So it appears that, as punishment for trying to expose police brutality, Ashraf has been hauled in while investigators try to pin something else on him to justify locking him up. Unfortunately for the Mutaween, their harassment and intimidation tactics have now also become public, resulting in even more people learning how corrupt and repressive they can be. Good work, guys!
Mater makes it clear that he doesn't want to antagonise the Saudi authorities any further. He praised the reforms that King Abdullah has achieved over the past decade, and wants the international community to pay more attention to the plight of artists who suffer persecution from the religious arm of the state.
He also called for solidarity with the Saudi artists who are trying to help their fellow countrymen develop their ability for critical thinking. "That’s why we need human rights groups to put pressure on Saudi law, to give more importance to Ashraf," he said. "Or at least to let him speak to a lawyer. He's been in jail for more than a month without being able to speak to one. We're trying, but nobody's listening, so it's very depressing for all of us."
But there is cause for optimism. It seems that the Saudi authorities may be asserting their authority over the Wahabi clergy. Recent royal pronouncements have introduced penalties for those going abroad to fight for extremist opposition groups in Syria. There is concern that fighters from Saudi Arabia now make up a majority of extremist groups in Syria, and that this might come back to haunt the Saudi state in the future. As a result, penalties are being introduced for those who go to fight abroad, and the authorities have admitted that the religious police contains extremists.
Saudi Arabia's social and political landscape is a complex one, but it is beginning to shift. Let's just hope
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