The Arrest of Turki al-Hamad and the Liberation of Symbols

By Eman al-Guwaifly

“If we have arrested Turki al-Hamad, who has not been writing anywhere except Twitter, then none of you is safe.” This is the political message that has been practically reiterated to the general public on December 24 (the date of al-Hamad’s arrest).

The interesting thing about al-Hamad’s arrest is that nothing, so far, has concealed its reality: the clerics and their followers are not celebrating it as a victory. They have not written much debating what he said or what happened to him. They have not organized a campaign against al-Hamad the same way they did against Kashgari, despite the fact that al-Hamad is traditionally their major enemy. Then there is also the failure of the “security media” figures in promoting the story line that said al-Hamad’s arrest was based on Article 23 in the Basic Law which says “the State shall protect the Islamic creed…” The story line that said al-Hamad, author of 14 books, was arrested for the word “rectifying” seemed ridiculous and not worthy of a serious discussion.

It was rather funny that some clerics were among the first to retrieve al-Hamad’s tweets about political reform, wondering if it was the real motive behind his arrest. This arrest story line is no longer marketable for the politicians to sell it as usual to more than one party (appeasing the Islamists, intimidating Twitter users, etc.). The arrest looked crudely like a security incident, lacking the simplest disguise to conceal its repressive nature. The arrest of Turki al-Hamad exposes the shameful reality of human rights in the country. It also exposes government propaganda which disparately attempts to link arrests with terrorism, but here is Turki al-Hamad following Mohammed al-Bajadi and Hamza Kashgari. It exposes a political myth that has existed for five decades, attempting to view political arrests as temporary cases justified by security necessities. This second arrest of al-Hamad after 40 years of his first arrest shows that arrests for merely expressing an opinion is a constant policy with changing justifications. What is constant is eliminating any dissenting voices from the Saudi political climate, and justifications can be invented depending on the era’s mood.

Al-Hamad had done a favor to Saudi society when he turned the events of his first arrest into a novel that was published in the mid-1990’s, a decade that was dark on every level. He had done this favor by liberating part of our painful collective memory from bans and forgetfulness, and putting it on paper. When he was arrested again on December 24, that moment seemed like another opportunity to write about the issue of freedom as it is being currently shaped in the local sphere nowadays. Society now is not at shortage when it comes to writing and documenting what is happening to it, as, at the same time, it shapes its new concepts and motivates itself to create new public figures who express these concepts.

After al-Hamad was arrested, it seemed that there have been a true and sincere confusion among young activists involved in the issues of political reform who sympathize with the victims of illegal detention as some symbols of the illegal detention issue who have been actively protesting against the government began calling for the head of “heretic” Turki al-Hamad. Some of them have challenged the Interior Ministry to continue detaining him for more than two days, while others raised questions about the procedures of detaining him without objecting to the main issue in this incident. A former detainee, who has been known for keeping the jail outfit on since he was released and for imitating the acts of torture he had to endure in jail, said he is willing to forgive the government for all of this “if Turki al-Hamad is punished for apostasy with death.” What this type of rhetoric suggests is that long years of jail and torture would not develop the concept of state and citizenship in the mind of a detainee.

There is a new chapter being written in Saudi Arabia. Sit-ins have never been a daily occurrence before, neither creative protests. The arrest of Turki al-Hamad is a good moment to review the concepts being shaped in this exceptional discourse and the symbols who rise to speak for it. This arrest has put the whole issue of illegal detention and political reform as a whole before a basic question about the concept of “freedom” sought and the symbols of this freedom. In addition to those who believe unconditionally in free speech, there was the position of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), and the position of some previous detainees and the families of detainees.

ACPRA has always appeared as a solid and united front against illegal detention, but the arrest of al-Hamad has shown internal differences between members of ACPRA, namely co-founders Abdullah al-Hamed and Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani. While al-Qahtani has presented a consistent display for ACPRA’s positions, al-Hamad’s position has led to confusion among young people who look up to him as a reformist figure. This was not a good moment to appear morally superior to individuals on trial for one case and under investigation for another, but it was an excellent moment to recognize and examine the practical rendition for the theoretical concepts employed in ACPRA’s rhetoric. Since ACPRA and its members have become symbols of political reform in Saudi Arabia then it is necessary to understand the applications of the political reform it is leading. And while it is impossible to question the courage of al-Hamed, it is possible, and probably necessary, to question his concepts and understanding of freedom as we lay ground for the next era.

Then there is a group of detainees’ families who have done society an unforgettable favor by their practical normalization of protests, sit-ins and creative protests over the past two years, but some of them began calling for the head of the “atheist heretic” when Turki al-Hamad was arrested (one of them was in the same tweet defending his detained father and inciting against al-Hamad). Such stance has been a shock to those who thought that the suffering of detainees’ families could change their ideas and perceptions. It’s been also a shock to those who saw the detainees’ families as symbols for rights. The truth is, neither is true. This mistake has been established earlier, when those families were given a role they have not asked for, and are unable to perform. The mistake was established when the movement of the families was considered a movement against illegal detention in general, while in fact it was a movement against the illegal detention of their sons. The difference is clear. Their issue is a personal issue of a family demanding the freedom of their sons, or for a specific current demanding the freedom of their detainees, but it is not a movement for absolute and abstract rights, not a movement for the sake of “concepts.”

The issue of detainees’s families was turned into a public issue because they are the only social faction who have enough personal reasons to take the risk of street protests against the state security policies. This made the political reform current, which has failed to organize any movement on the ground, projects on the detainees’ families concepts and meanings that don’t exist in their ideological context. This evidently shows in the spontaneous comments left on pages they use to coordinate their activities since last year. The families of detainees have benefited from the involvement of reformists with them, until the arrest of al-Hamad forced a differentiation between the two groups. Correcting this mistake does not, of course, come through turning against them or denying their rights. Correcting this mistake can be done by repositioning the issue of detainees’ families into its original dimensions, and by revising and adjusting the reformist rhetoric about their issue. For there are many sympathizers who confuse between supporting “their rights as detainees and their families” and “turning them into symbols for rights.” It is true that the detainees and their families can be symbols for injustice in this country, but they cannot be symbols for the desired freedom.

It has been three weeks since Turki al-Hamad was detained. During this time, the slogan “no freedom for the enemies of freedom” has been raised again. But what’s new this time is that it is being repeated among those interested in illegal detention and political reform due to the aforementioned confusing situation. Before such situation, either political reform atomizes and the concept of freedom becomes increasingly exclusive, or the freedom ceiling gets lifted and the concept of freedom expands more than before. The slogan “no freedom for the enemies of freedom” naturally fits within a repressive regime because citizens only feel threatened by “enemies of freedom” under a repressive regime which knows for certain that its decisions are based on a combination of temperament, talebearing and political and social bargaining, including joining forces with “enemies of freedom” against the rest of society. When protecting freedom is the basis of constitution and institutions, the individual does not usually worry about the “enemies of freedom” around him because constitutional rights are not controlled by anyone’s temper, neither their incitement. It can be said that the slogan “no freedom for enemies of freedom” represents freedom on the terms of a repressive regime, and believing in that slogan is a disparate response to a repressive incident like the arrest of Turki al-Hamad.

The other choice before these confusing differences around the concept of freedom might be to lift its ceiling to a point too high for those who want to tailor it to their own size. Saudi reformists usually avoid honestly engaging in the issues of free speech, freedom of expression, individual freedoms and freedom of religion to avoid alienating a society still haunted by fear of “Shia” and “women” and “atheists.” But this concept of “minimum freedom” creates a strange situation where thousands of people call for freedom, but they only mean the freedom of X in particular and X alone.

It is important now that the reform rhetoric be more specific and frank about these critical topics. If this is alienating those who believe in freedom for Haila al-Qaseer, then it is attractive to those who believe in freedom for everyone. The other thing is, political reform must be introduced as an independent movement that is much larger than legal detention and the protest by detainees’ families. To keep depending on the movement of those and their courage while being unable to achieve or innovate activities that express the wider and more complex reform perspective would keep political reform and reformists hostages of the most active element on the ground, no matter what is this element and what direction it might take.

Eman al-Guwaifly is a Saudi writer. This article has been translated and published with permission from the author. The original Arabic text can be found on al-Mqaal website. Photo by Zuhair Ahmad