Ashraf Fayadh is a poet in one of the most authoritarian states on Earth. And while Saudi Arabia's hardline conservatism has historically made it very difficult for artists like him to do or say anything ground-breaking, the Saudi arts community has recently been reaching out to the rest of the world. The result is a growing international influence on social attitudes at home, and an increasing appreciation for Saudi art around the world. This is alarming Saudi traditionalists.
One of the things that alarms them most, it turns out, is when an artist produces something explicitly secular. Unfortunately for Fayadh, he did precisely that, and has found himself jailed for his troubles. At least, that's the official reason. In reality, he may very well have been jailed for posting a film online of the Kingdom's religious police beating the shit out of someone.
Ahmed Mater, a fellow Saudi artist and friend of Fayadh, spoke to VICE News about Fayadh's case. Fayadh had been garnering attention thanks to several showings of his work in Saudi Arabia, as well as an exhibition at the Venice Biennale. And so religious authorities started investigating him last summer. On January 1, Fayadh was asked by police to come to a station. Not expecting any real trouble, he willingly went along, only to be arrested and thrown in a cell.
He was reportedly arrested for spreading atheism and, no joke, having long hair. He's been charged by the Mutaween, the police force responsible for the enforcement of Sharia and overseen by the government's Committee for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. However, there's that other 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," explained Mona Karen, a Bidoon (Bedouin) rights activist from Kuwait. Bidoon people, like Fayadh, in the Arabian Gulf are often discriminated against in the same way that the Roma are persecuted in Europe. Many of their parents and grandparents never filed official paperwork with the government, meaning they are now technically stateless, unable to register marriages or open bank accounts because they lack identification cards.
Mater believes that Fayadh 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 has been here for 50 years," he said. "That creates a lot of pressure against Ashraf. If he wasn't from this 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 Fayadh had been engaging 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 Fayadh's progressive proselytizing, and the conservative authorities may have reacted so strongly because they know they're fighting a losing battle. About 60 percent of Saudi Arabia's population is under 30, and education in the country has made significant advances over the past few years; thousands of Saudis are also now being educated abroad. The Saudi government has spent lavishly on infrastructure and housing in a bid to further economic progress, which may very well further social development. Unfortunately, laws concerning women's rights and religious freedom are lagging behind.
"In Saudi Arabia, there are so many atheists," Mater says. "But the freedom of religion isn't allowed. They can't tell anyone about their beliefs."
A campaign image to free Ashraf
In spite of this, the Saudi arts scene is booming. Saudi novelists have won a number of international awards, and last year marked the first time a Saudi film, Wadjda, was submitted for Oscar consideration — not that any of that matters much to conservative leadership in the country.
"Art for [the Wahabi cleric] is something that isn't 'right'," Mater said. "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. Art makes you more philosophical and makes you ask about many things beyond [the Qur'an]. So this is haram [sinful].'"
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 arresting them for having long hair. 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."
According to Fayadh's friends, when police failed to prove that his poetry was atheist propaganda, they simply started berating him. “When the interrogator couldn't prove any accusations against Ashraf," said Saudi artist Mohammed Kheder, "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, Fayadh 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. Mater makes it clear that he doesn't want to antagonize the Saudi authorities any further. He praised the reforms that King Abdullah has made over the past decade. And Saudi authorities have conceded that the religious police are made up at least in part of extremists.
but 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 critical-thinking skills. "That’s why we need human-rights groups to put pressure on Saudi law, to give more importance to Ashraf," Mater 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.