Saudi Cleric Safar al-Hawali Joins the List of the Forcibly Disappeared
Saudi authorities have arrested prominent cleric Safar al-Hawali and three of his sons, activists said on 12 July 2018, in what appears to be a widening crackdown on religious leaders, intellectuals and rights campaigners.
The arrest came after al-Hawali published a book critical of the Saudi royal family. Titled Muslims and Western Civilization, the book largely denounces the West. However, it contains a chapter implying that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also referred to as MBS) is on course for a disaster. It also criticizes the ruling family for ‘wasting funds on fake projects’, calls MBS’ cosy relationship with Israel a ‘betrayal’ and condemns his rapprochement with the United States, United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Al-Hawali rose to prominence almost three decades ago as a leader of the Islamist Sahwa (‘awakening’) movement, which advocated democracy in Saudi Arabia and opposed the presence of Western troops on the Arabian Peninsula. The movement reached a peak in the 1990s before being repressed by the Saudi establishment. Al-Hawali was also a significant figure in the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), an independent human rights organization founded in 1993 out of a concern about a decline in Islamic standards after the Gulf War in 1990-91.
The 68-year-old, who was previously imprisoned from 1994 to 1999 for distributing sermons on cassette tapes that encouraged militants to overthrow the regime, is in poor health due to a stroke he suffered in 2005 and alleged medical negligence since his most recent arrest. There are concerns that he will die in detention if he is not released soon. However, no information on his condition has so far been released.
After his first stint in jail, al-Hawali steered clear of politics, focusing instead on social and intellectual issues like the Palestinian cause. The 2011 Arab Spring changed that, Dr Azzam Tamimi, a British Palestinian activist, told Fanack Chronicle. “Some opposition figures, along with al-Hawali, welcomed [the uprisings] while the monarchy saw it as a threat. The attacks on them started indirectly, with the authorities giving permission to famous figures to attack them in the media to destroy their image. But when MBS came to power [in June 2017], he decided it wasn’t enough and started arresting them. It took longer for al-Hawali, most probably because of his poor health, but the publication of his book maddened the authorities. Now, we’ve heard that his health is quickly deteriorating.”
“Even if you’re not an activist, you’re at risk,” said Hiba Zayadin, a research assistant at Human Rights Watch. “It’s like a wave of arrests [targeting] al-Hawali’s acquaintances, women’s rights activists, etc. Saudi Arabia implements minimal reforms but anyone formulating the slightest criticism is at risk. Saudi activists are telling us [that al-Hawali’s arrest] is a form of collective punishment because he is quite influential among the young generation of Islamists who do not take the traditional religious establishment to be their reference.”
In May, at least 17 women’s rights activists were arrested for allegedly ‘violating the country’s religious and national pillars by making suspected contacts in support of the activities of foreign circles and, moreover, recruiting some individuals in sensitive government positions, providing the foreign circles with money with the aim of destabilizing the kingdom’. Eight were released in June, ironically the same month that the driving ban on women was lifted.
“You can’t speak up, even if it’s in support of MBS’ actions,” Zayadin added. “A woman who said publicly that she was happy about the situation was strongly asked to stop doing so.”
As a result, people are scared, Zayadin said. “It’s very hard getting people [from inside Saudi Arabia] to speak up, but also outside Saudi Arabia because activists are afraid for their family members who are still in the country. For some reason, the international community is not doing anything.”
The crackdown has been connected to MBS’ strategy to attract foreign investment by positioning himself and the kingdom as modern and progressive. Yet a country where no one can freely speak their mind is not one on the brink of major social or political change.
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