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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Meet the Brits protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration this weekend

The British campaigners joining in international anti-racism, pro-women’s rights demonstrations against the new US President.

On Friday 20 January, across the UK, in cities spanning York, Aberdeen, Bradford, Cambridge and London, huge banners will be dropped from bridges, emblazoned with the words: “Bridges Not Walls”.

A tightly coordinated direct action, the intended message is one of solidarity: by standing up for one another’s rights, we can prevent the further marginalisation of vulnerable groups of people. “In London, there are about ten bridges,” says Harry Jefferson-Perry, a 23-year-old gay man who’s involved in the organising. “There’s a bridge run by people fighting Islamophobia, an LGBTQ bridge, and a women’s bridge. It’s about smashing borders – physical and metaphorical. It’s a form of protest against the rise of the far right everywhere.”


Harry Jefferson-Perry. Photo: Malaika Ibreck

The #bridgesnotwalls protest is one of several nation-wide actions taking place in the UK this weekend as Donald Trump is ushered into the White House and attends his first day of presidency. The campaign group Stand Up To Racism is holding a rally outside the US Embassy in London on Friday evening, the day of Trump’s inauguration, with more than 3,000 people confirmed to attend on Facebook and 20 corresponding sister marches set to take place around Britain.

On Saturday, the international Women’s March is scheduled in approximately 600 sister locations and counting, in all 50 states of America, and countries spanning Norway, Nairobi and Japan. In London, around 30,000 people have confirmed attendance to the march, the real number expected to be much higher.

The goal of the Women’s March is a street-level demonstration that women’s rights are human rights. Their manifesto maintains that they’re not directly targeting Trump (it seems they wouldn’t want to give him the credence), but to the kind of racist, sexist and homophobic ideology his presidential campaign spun.

The demonstrations are bigger than the man himself, as illustrated by their apparent global appeal. “It’s about bringing the point home that just because equality is an everyday issue, and it doesn’t go away or rise and fall with who’s in government, that doesn’t mean it’s not urgent,” says Isabel Adomakoh Young, a 24-year-old British-Ghanaian student and activist from West London who will be attending the Women’s March on Westminster this Saturday.


Isabel Adomakoh Young​

Adomakoh Young says she heard about the original Women’s March on Washington in November via black feminists she follows on Twitter. For her, going along to the London march is, in part, an act directed at the US government. “Between Trump and Brexit things aren’t looking good for people suffering oppression,” she says. “As a queer, black, cis female, I’m worried that Trump normalises unacceptable behaviour. He’s also seemingly immune to journalism, fact-checking and video, so I think people being in the street is going to hit home harder than op-eds in middle-class newspapers.”

The second reason she’s going, she says, is to show solidarity with other women: “With social media and technology people get lonely. You read the news and you think you’re the only person having feelings of isolation or, specifically as a woman, feelings of diminishment.”

As well as lobbying with a gender equality campaign group called 50:50 Parliament, for whom she’ll be making a speech in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, Adomakoh Young is also an organising member of the activist group Sisters Uncut, who focus on fighting domestic violence.

However, it’s clear that many of the people who are attending marches and rallies this weekend don’t come from an activism background at all, but have been moved by recent political events to seek out a way to protest. Kimberly Tyler-Shafiq, 41, from Texas, lives in Surrey and works in HR. She is married to a British-Pakistani man with whom she has a four-year-old daughter. When we speak on the phone she tells me that she hasn’t been to a protest since those against the war on Iraq in 2003.

“After the election results I felt devastated,” she says. “We were on the precipice of having the first woman president in the US and I was so happy to cast my vote for a woman. I know I’m from a conservative state but when I saw Texas come in red it still lit a fire in me – people cannot be allowed to get away with what Trump has in terms of racism and sexism. I started looking for groups on Facebook and found the Stand Up To Racism rally.”

Tyler-Shafiq wanted to meet, “likeminded people who want to make a change”, and in this online group she found people with the same agenda. As she sees it, Friday night’s demonstration isn’t an act against democracy, just a message that people “are not going to roll over and play dead”. Tyler-Shafiq plans to take her four-year-old to the event with her.

Over in Ireland, American Fanya O’Donoghue and her Irish husband Donal have similar motivations to Tyler-Shafiq. “After the election I was so stunned and embarrassed for my nation that it spurred me into action,” says Fanya. “I’ve always felt strongly about immigration because that’s affected us. Now I feel like, if we were to go back to the US, what would my husband’s green card mean?”

O’Donoghue decided to set up her own Women’s March on Galway as a response to these feelings. Again, like Tyler-Shafiq, she’s been uninvolved in politics before. “This is the first time I’ve been active like this because it’s the first time politics have made me cry,” she says.

To register her sister march, she contacted the US March on Washington team, and they added her to the admin groups, global Slack messages, and emailed over organising kits, press kits, posters and guiding principles. Then she reached out to Irish non-profits who might be interested in spreading the word; anti-racism groups, pro-choice campaigners and the like.

When asked why the march is relevant to Ireland, Fanya replies, “the rights we want to defend for America apply to every country where women are paid less, have unfair maternity rights or experience sexism”. That’s every country in the world then.

She sees the action as “linking arms”, and wholeheartedly believes that when the 600-odd marches happen on Saturday, people will be forced to pay attention. “Women are like a sleeping giant,” she tells me passionately. “It’s like they say – if you want something done, ask a busy person – and the busiest people are mums and working women. It’s important for my sons to see how powerful a woman is.”

She passes the phone over to her husband and he reiterates her sentiment: “Our kids are half American so they’ve had a bunch of questions about the election at school. We thought: what better way to show them that democracy is an active process than organising our own march? Change starts with people coming together and fighting for their beliefs.”

It’s yet to be seen how many people around the globe attend Saturday’s Women’s Marches, but from estimated attendance it currently looks set to be the biggest global demonstration since the anti-Iraq war protests that Tyler-Shafiq and millions of others attended.

Perhaps it is the open-door policy and lack of specificity that’s seen the marches seized upon by so many disenfranchised groups around the world. “I don’t think people feel obliged to read up or be intellectually infallible before they go,” agrees Adomakoh Young. “It’s just for anyone who is pro-equality. A universal cause to rally around.”

Likewise, Jefferson-Perry encourages anyone to get involved with #bridgesnotwalls. “Look on the website, see who you affiliate, drop in and join them,” he says.

For Tyler-Shafiq, the march will, she hopes, be an outlet for the frustration that her and many other Americans in the UK are experiencing. “It’s hard to sit over here watching what’s going on in my homeland and feeling helpless.” And yet, while it’s “good to be involved as an expat”, she is aligning herself with likeminded Britons who want to influence UK leadership to stand up to homophobia, racism and sexism too.

“We can’t allow ourselves to be complacent about how Trump’s agenda is trickling into British politics because of the close relationship between the two countries,” she says, before adding that this weekend cannot be a one-off. “It’s good that people are making a stand, but it’s important that we get organised all over again when Trump decides to visit the UK.”