Burning Young Bridges

Summers in Jeddah are hot and humid. As the air conditioner hummed loudly to keep the temperature down in a small but brightly painted room, two women in their early twenties sat behind a simple white table with a serious look on their faces.

Amna Fatani and Refaa Sindi are two founding members of a youth group dedicated to spreading healthy debate and raise awareness among young Saudi females, or, as Fatani likes to put it, “to poke their minds, to make them think.”

During that sizzling afternoon in the first week of June, the two women interviewed five candidates who want to join the group. Dressed in a dark brown abaya and a silky headscarf that kept slipping off her hair, the olive-skinned Fatani was ready to ask some uncomfortable questions to the girls who sat across the table as Sindi took notes on her Toshiba laptop.

“We ask for example if they are bedouin or urban, not because we are racist but because we want to achieve diversity in the group,” Fatani, 24, told me about the interview process. “The group is a platform for people to express themselves and develop. We want to be inclusive.”

“We won’t shut anyone out,” said her colleague Sindi, 22, who kept pushing her rimless glasses up her nose. “Tolerance is very important to us.”

Words like debate, diversity and tolerance are relatively new items in the Saudi lexicon. Thanks to the Internet, the conservative country that has been for long dominated by a strict interpretation of Islam is slowly opening up to new ideas embraced by the new generation in the Kingdom. Sixty percent of the country’s population are under 30. In the lack of a true civil society and under heavy restrictions on free speech, this young generation of Saudis are struggling to find their voices as the world changes around them.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. But when King Abdullah came to power in 2005, many people hoped that the new King, widely known to be a reformist, would spearhead a new era of openness. Seven years later, most of those people seem dejected and disappointed. While some reforms have been implement, they left much, much more to be desired.

Human Rights Watch released a report last September assessing the first five years of King Abdullah’s rein. The report found that “reform has manifested itself chiefly in greater tolerance for diverse opinions and an expanded public role for women, but that royal initiatives have been largely symbolic, with only modest concrete gains or institutional protection for rights.”

One of the areas where reform lagged is civil society development. The Shoura Council, a consultative body whose members are appointed by the King and that serves as a quasi-parliament, discussed in 2006 a proposal to allow and regulate civil society organizations. It took the Council more than 18 months to okay the proposal. On January 6, 2008, the proposal was sent to the Cabinet to get the final approval before implementation.

The approval never came. Almost five years later, the civil society law is still held by the Cabinet for unknown reasons.

Abdulrahman al-Enad, a member of the Shoura Council, told local media earlier this month he is “hopeful” that the law would be approved soon.

In the lack of a legal framework, many youth groups that were born in the aftermath of the Jeddah floods in 2009 operate in a grey area with a constant fear that the government could crack down on their activities at any time. Without proper licensing, they cannot raise money, organize events or have a space to hold their meetings. Instead, they use private homes or coffee shops to meet.

A favorite spot for youth activists to meet was a café called Jusoor, or Bridges. Located in the district of Hamra in Jeddah, the place was frequented by many young men and women who found in it an oasis to meet, work, play and debate their issues.

Hamza Kashgari was a regular at Jusoor. The skinny 23-year-old was an aspiring poet who wrote a column for al-Bilad newspaper. In February 2012, he published three tweets about an imagined meeting with Prophet Mohammed. His tweets caused a huge controversy as many considered it blasphemy. Religious conservatives in the country called for Kashgari to be tried for apostasy, a charge that, if convicted, could lead to a death sentence.

Kashgari apologized and deleted the tweets, but that did not calm the storm. The King reportedly issued an order to arrest him. On February 7, He fled to Malaysia on his way to New Zealand where he said he wanted to apply for political asylum. But the Malaysian government arrested Kashgari and deported him to Saudi Arabia, despite objections from international and Malaysian human rights organizations. He remains in jail to this day, without a trial.

“It was a shock,” said Abdul-Mohsen Bellini, 25, who worked as the coordinator for cultural programming at Jusoor. He said that what Kashgari said on Twitter was “nothing” compared to what he would usually say to provoke his friends intellectually.

“We did not expect this reaction. We did not expect it at all,” he told me as he fixed a red scarf that he wrapped loosely around his neck.

Religious conservatives continued to mobilize even after Kashgari’s arrest. A group of clerics released a statement on March 14 acalling on the government to crack down on places like Jusoor where the youth meet to talk about culture, arts and politics. They described such places as “incubators of atheism.”

On May 7, 2012, the authorities shuttered Jusoor.

The closure of Jusoor left those young men and women who spent long hours there with a tremendous feeling of loss. They said they felt ”orphaned” when they realized that the place which gave them a sense of belonging together no longer exists.

The conservative-led campaign that followed Kashgari’s arrest has sent waves of fear among the youth community in Jeddah, but several people who knew him told me what happened won’t deter them from continuing to… simply be themselves.

“It’s okay,” said Renad Amjad, 22, a law student who knew Kashgari and who still has his name on the lower left corner of her Twitter avatar. “We get a little frustrated, but we quickly get up and rise again.”

“Ten years from now, Hamza will be a hero.”