Hamza Kashgari visited me several times before he wrote the ill-fated tweets that led to his arrest in February and then to solitary confinement in a Riyadh prison. We discussed social, political and philosophical issues, including some that are taboo in Saudi Arabia. I warned him that his thoughts, if expressed publicly, would lead religious hard-liners to call for his blood.
I find it outrageous that in the 21st century one person could threaten another with death merely for embracing ideas other than religion, God and the prophet Muhammad. But that is exactly what happened at a weekly salon that focuses on political, religious and human rights issues. I named the salon “samood,” a richly textured Arabic word meaning “resistance” or “steadfastness.”
Every week, I am host to several dozen people at my home, most of them politically engaged Saudi youth. I started the salon after government and religious authorities clamped down on gatherings of liberal youth in cafes and bookstores in the wake of Hamza’s arrest, severely constricting the space for free expression in this city. The oppressive trend has accelerated as religious hard-liners have mounted a vicious campaign to cleanse society of what they deem “unbelief” and “deviant thought”: in reality, any ideology different from their own.
At one of the gatherings, I had the pleasing epiphany that religious hard-liners have begun to lose control of a young generation that is hungry for freedom. A brave young man responded passionately to clerics whom I had naively invited to participate in the salon and who had threatened him for supporting freedom of expression and belief, saying: “Who are you? Who are you to inflict your religious guardianship upon us? We are free, free to say what we like. You are just like us, not better. The era of religious guardianship is over.”
There was a stunned silence.
Rapt in admiration, I thought about how only 10 years ago I was expected to blindly obey the dictates of an Islamist organization — and how, then, I never would have dared to engage in a debate with its disciples. Those of us born in the 1970s, when extremist religious thought was at its apogee in Saudi Arabia, had a single choice if we wished to serve our communities: Join an Islamist organization.
Much has changed in Saudi society in the past decade. For a brief time, Saudi human rights activists had hoped that religious conservatives could agree with us on a general framework of human rights, including the demand for a constitutional monarchy, the release of prisoners of conscience, the fight against official corruption and civil rights for all. Many thousands of activists from across the political spectrum signed petitions for reform, most notably the 2011 statement “A State of Rights and Institutions.” Unfortunately, just because some people signed petitions does not mean that they genuinely believed in a system of human rights.
The Kashgari affair separated the religious hard-liners — those who demanded the death penalty for his alleged crime of blasphemy or apostasy — from genuine human rights activists. The religious conservatives have declared war, not simply on freedom of expression but also on freedom of belief. The hard-liners believe that they will lose their hold on the Saudi street, were the youth to embrace ideas opposed to religion. In essence, they wish to institute Orwellian practices in Saudi Arabia by criminalizing mere thought.
Making use of social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, religious hard-liners have launched an online inquisition against those who dare to think freely. In a frightening development, a judge and some clerics demanded in February that I be given the death penalty for allowing guests at my salon to speak freely. For the time being, I remain free.
But many young Saudis insist on freedom of expression and belief, and they are proud of their values of justice, tolerance and human rights. They give me hope. Our resolve is unshakable, whatever difficulties lie ahead.
And the road ahead is indeed difficult. Last month the public prosecutor’s office in Jiddah informed me that I was banned from traveling outside the country for “security reasons.” The ban came two days before I was scheduled to go to the United States to participate in a fellowship program sponsored by the State Department. A few days earlier, my wife, Samar Badawi, had returned from the United States as a proud recipient of the 2012 International Women of Courage award, which was bestowed upon her by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama. She suspects that her award angered Saudi authorities and led to the ban on my travel.
I am unable to leave this country, but the sun of humanity shines upon me every day. I bask in its rays, gaining strength against the darkness of oppression. My voice and the voices of others like me shall reach the world, no matter how hard they try to silence us. We shall say, consistently and proudly: steadfastness.
Waleed Abu Alkhair is a human rights activist in Saudi Arabia. He wrote this for the Washington Post.