We have long discussed our close alliance with Saudi Arabia despite that country’s denial of the most fundamental human rights for women, non-Muslims, journalists, and political dissidents. While the State Department continues to vaguely reference “reforms” in the Kingdom, the Saudi Sharia courts and religious police continue to generate shocking medieval cases where people are flogged or executed for exercising free thought or associations. The latest outrage is the death sentence given Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet and leading member of Saudi Arabia’s contemporary art scene. He has been sentenced to death for renouncing Islam, being an atheist (which he denies) and insulting Saudi Arabia. Many view his real offense as being his embarrassment of the infamous religious police (mutaween) in Abha after he posted a video of their lashing a man in public. As is often the case in the pseudo, “courts” of Saudi Arabia, he was denied counsel and any real opportunity to present a defense.
Fayadh, 35, was also accused of illicit relations with women due to photos on his phone, which he explained were actually taken during art events. Fayadh (who was born in Saudi Arabia) has been a member of the British-Saudi art organisation Edge of Arabia and represents the population of educated Saudis who want to see their country shed the religious ignorance, medieval practices and Sharia punishments that have long characterized the country. He was originally sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes by a court in Abha in May 2014. However, he was then retried by a new panel of judges that found that he could be put to death instead. He was unable to get a lawyer because the religious practice took his ID.
His supporters say that he was fingered by man who had a personal dispute over the appearance of contemporary art at a cafe in Abha. The man went to the religious police and said that he had cursed Muhammad, insulted the country, and promoted atheism in his book. The book, Instructions Within, published in 2008, is actually about his being a Palestinian refugee but in Saudi Arabia any example of free or creative thought is often seen as dangerous and blasphemous.
Of course, it is an outrage for the Saudis to continue to execute people who are atheists or viewed as guilty of apostasy. The Kingdom also bars any other religion from have a house of worship in the country. This is the same country that has sought to create an international blasphemy standard and has objected to any perceived slight against Islam in other countries.
Fayadh insisted that he is a faithful Muslim and repented any sins, but it did not matter.
Our (legitimate) criticisms of Iran seem deeply hypocritical when our close ally in Saudi Arabia continues to apply equally extreme applications of Islamic law and authoritarian practices. Indeed, it is hard to distinguish between the killing of homosexuals and artists by ISIS from such cases in Saudi Arabia beyond the rather laughable pretense of one of these Sharia “courts.” I have met very modern and educated Saudis who are ashamed of these abuses and want reform. However, the Kingdom continues to maintain a close alliance the Wahabi clerics in the imposition of extreme forms of Islamic law. It makes the work of women, journalists, and artists like Fayadh all the more inspirational when they face the threat of not only arrest by Saudi religious police but actual death at the hands of these grotesque Sharia courts.