Saudi author arrested for tweeting

Social media and self-censorship

He writes books about sex, religion and politics, is critical of Islamism...and lives in Saudi Arabia. Gulf News reports that the novelist Turki Al Hamad had been detained last month, did not come as a surprise.

However, it was not a book, but a tweet that broke the camel’s back.

On  22 December, Al Hamad - whose novels are banned in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait -  wrote :

@TurkiAlHamad: Our Prophet has come to rectify the faith of Abraham, and now is a time when we need someone to rectify the faith of Mohammed.

In a country like Saudi Arabia, there is nothing more dangerous than religion. Faced with the world’s fastest growing population of Twitter users, the government is making clear that it will not tolerate theological debate online.  

The arrest of Al Hamad contradicts the image of Saudi’s relatively liberal Twittersphere. The New York Times’ October 2012 article, “Saudis Cross Social Boundaries on Twitter,” argued social media has brought new freedoms to Saudis:

Open criticism of the state has long been taboo in Saudi Arabia...But after the Arab uprisings in early 2011, Saudis began taking to Twitter in vast numbers to express their frustrations, offering a new window into an opaque and profoundly conservative country...critics of various kinds – from prominent lawyers to feminists to ordinary citizens – have acquired large followings as they deplore corruption and injustice. Most Saudis now seem to post under their own names and photographs, a bold step away from the timid anonymity of the past.

Saudi’s are certainly active online and it is true they do criticise corruption and oppression. But Twitter is also subject to a great deal of self-censorship. There remain “red lines,” and religion is a major one of these.

The Saudi royal family has long been extremely hostile to differing religious interpretations. They have long repressed Saudi Shi’as. Shocked Muslims worldwide watched last year as the Saudi government bulldozed religious sites in Mecca, which did not fit their strict interpretation of  religion. Now, this campaign is turning its attention online.

In April 2011, a royal decree was passed, cracking down on electronic communications that insult Islam. In December last year, Raif Bedawi, a 30-year old website editor  from Jeddah, was condemned to death. His crime - setting up a website in which users could discuss the difference between “popular” and “politicised” Islam. This month, Saudi writer,  Hamza Kashgari, was arrested for tweeting about the Prophet Mohammad.

Tweeters and bloggers may be allowed to complain about the government, but to debate Islam would be to debate the very basis of the state. The royal family relies on legitimacy conferred from the clerics. The state was founded on the fundamentalist Wahhabist school of Islam. It is this school that justifies the Saudi king as the rightful “guardian of the holy places.” Court rulings — used to control dissidents — are rooted in unmatched freedom to interpret religious laws.

With the detention of such a prominent figure as Al Hamad, the  House of Saud is indicating that religion can’t be questioned, even if its only in 140 characters.  As Eman al-Guwaifly wrote, the message they are sending is:

If we have arrested Turki al-Hamad, who has not been writing anywhere except Twitter, then none of you is safe.

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Why is it getting harder to report on Israel-Palestine?

The politics of the conflict are changing – and with them, the diplomatic and journalistic challenge.

Throughout the centuries, Jerusalem’s Old City has drawn pilgrims, tourists, and conquerors. This week it has been the focus of renewed media attention after a series of violent incidents.  For those ties of history, politics, and faith which link it to the rest of the world have also made it a magnet for reporters: some admired, more abused or admonished.     

Last summer, Israel’s international image took a beating. Some two thousand Palestinians – the overwhelming majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations – were killed during the Israeli Army’s operation in Gaza. Israeli casualties – at more than 70, almost all of them military personnel – had been far higher than in other incursions into Gaza in recent years. 

As the dust settled above the flattened buildings, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a news conference specifically aimed at the foreign press.

It was aimed at them in that they were both the audience, and the target. Mr Netanyahu said, “I expect, now that the members of the press are leaving Gaza, or some of them are leaving Gaza, and are no longer subjected to Hamas restrictions and intimidations, I expect we’ll see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets.”

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz challenged Mr Netanyahu’s claim in a story headlined “Foreign Press: Hamas Didn't Censor Us in Gaza, They Were Nowhere to Be Found”. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor echoed this when we spoke for my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. “They’re all hiding,” he remembered of his experience of Hamas during that that conflict. “They had a spokesman who hung out at Shifa hospital. And he was very much a spokesman. He didn’t tell us what to do.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been covered by countless words and hours of airtime. It has also exhausted extensive diplomatic resources seeking to solve it. The diplomatic desert seems almost to have led to a situation where PR is a substitute for policy. Take Mr Netanyahu’s attempts, above, to rubbish reporting. Earlier this year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry posted, and later removed, a cartoon sneering at, and patronising, the foreign press. Why bother with politics, when you can poke fun?

The politics, though, are changing – and with them, the diplomatic challenge.

Religion is playing a growing role. Daniel Kurtzer was United States ambassador to Tel Aviv 2001-2005. He was also there as a diplomat in the 1980s. Then, he remembers “a fostering of the idea of Islamism as an antidote to nationalism. The natural consequence of that was and has been the growth of religious feelings, so certainly on the Palestinian side that’s the case, but it’s even now grown on the Israeli side”. He concludes: “I haven’t seen any success yet in integrating this move towards religion into the diplomacy of trying to resolve the conflict. It’s a real challenge.”

It is a challenge for correspondents, too – and their efforts are rarely admired. Shortly before the bloodshed in Gaza began, the head of Israel’s government press office, Nitzan Chen, shared with me his opinion of foreign correspondents in Israel. “Like the Israeli journalists, they are cynical, critical. I don’t want to make generalisations because some people are very professional and very unique, see the facts before they write the story. But the majority are lazy.”

Anyone covering the conflict needs a thick skin, and sometimes more. In addition to the risks involved in covering all armed conflict, conversations with Palestinian journalists will often quickly uncover stories of harassment and threats of violence from armed groups. 

The brevity of daily news stories means they rarely have room for discussion of religion, or   competing historical narratives. Yet, for all its shortcomings, real and imagined, the journalism of the Israeli-Palestinian press is most people’s only source of information about a conflict which has connections to so many parts of the world. If it were not important, presumably the protagonists would not waste time criticising it.      

James Rodgers is the author of Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just published by Palgrave MacMillan. He was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004. James will be taking part in a panel discussion next week at City University London. You can register to attend here