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Media Aid: Saudi Blogger Al-Farhan Returns to Blogging, Urges Reform
FEA20100826008734 – OSC Feature – Saudi Arabia — OSC Media Aid 26 Aug 10
Popular Saudi blogger Fu’ad al-Farhan has returned to blogging after over two years of silence following his imprisonment in 2007. On 12 May, he started a blog on a new domain located at www.alfarhan.ws. Al-Farhan — who holds a degree from a US university, writes from within Saudi Arabia, and is an outspoken proponent of political reform in the Kingdom — began with a post titled “Blogging… the Best Option,” which explores the pros and cons of blogging and social networking. The blog discusses the prospects for reform and freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia and encourages debate on related issues. Al-Farhan’s posts have evoked lively responses from Saudi readers, suggesting that his blog resonates with those Saudis who are eager to exchange views on a variety of sensitive political and social issues. Al-Farhan takes an optimistic view of King Abdallah’s reform efforts, prompting some other bloggers to call him unrealistic.
Al-Farhan is widely considered the dean of Saudi bloggers because he was among the first to blog using his real name. The UK daily The Independent called his blog “one of the most widely read” in Saudi Arabia (3 January 2008). He stopped blogging after Saudi authorities warned him in February 2007 to “tone down” his commentary, but he resumed blogging four months later and was arrested on 10 December 2007 in his Jedda office without explanation. Although no official charges were pressed, he was held in solitary confinement until his release on 26 April 2008, the “international community of bloggers” Global Voices reported (21 May 2010).
The authorities did not disclose the reason for detaining Al-Farhan. Media variously reported that he was arrested because he “dared to expose Saudi corruption” (The Independent, 3 January 2008), he supported 10 academics accused of financing terrorism (Arab Blogger’s Observatory, quoted in Global Voices, 21 May 2010), or, according to the Saudi English-language daily Arab News, he defended 10 academics arrested for discussing political reform (19 May 2008).
Al-Farhan announced his return to blogging on 12 May through his old blog at www.alfarhan.org: “I’m back to blog but under a new domain: http://www.alfarhan.ws. This blog will be kept as an archive as it stands. Thank you for your support.” The home page of the old blog continues to feature a “Fouad Is Free” banner. The home page also carries the following motto below the banner: “In search of freedom, dignity, justice, equality, Shura and all the remaining Islamic values that are missing… for Raghad and Khattab” (his daughter and son).
Al-Farhan continues to publish, promoting debate among Saudis on prospects for change and reform in Saudi Arabia. He does not appear to moderate the comments on his blog, and readers can post their responses freely. The tenor of these comments suggest an eagerness among some readers to discuss political and social reform in the Kingdom.
The main page of Al-Farhan’s new blog, located at www.alfarhan.ws, bears the heading: “Fu’ad al-Farhan, Not a Good Saudi Citizen…,” apparently in a reference to the authorities’ view of him.
The layout of the main page is simple. On the left side there are photos of Al-Farhan, his daughter Raghad, and his son Khattab, followed by links to the five sections of the blog and the archives. Al-Farhan’s most recent posts fill the remainder of the page.
On the left side of the main page, the blog lists the following sections:
This section is devoted to Al-Farhan’s posts extolling freedom of expression and the liberal views of some Saudi intellectuals. For example, Al-Farhan’s post dated 28 May offered a defense of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ghamidi, head of the Mecca-based branch of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (known as the religious police), who had recently been criticized for asserting that he saw nothing in the Shari’ah against gender mixing.
- Al-Farhan, who belongs to the same tribe (Al Ghamid), said that Al-Ghamidi is “a citizen and entitled to openly express his opinion, and others too are entitled to reject his viewpoint, but without trying to muzzle people or prevent them from expressing their opinion. We are in the era of dialogue and persuasion; the time of confiscating people’s right to express their opinion has gone forever, God willing.”
- Al-Farhan criticized the chiefs of the Al Ghamid tribe for issuing a statement disowning Shaykh Al-Ghamidi because of the opinion he expressed on a “religious and intellectual issue,” meaning the gender-mixing issue.
Al-Farhan’s post on Al-Ghamidi generated several sympathetic comments from readers who blamed “tribalism” and “extremism” for a lack of freedom of expression.
- One reader wrote that “tribalism controls religion here in Saudi Arabia,” adding that people should be allowed “to express their opinion freely.” Another reader criticized “extremism in religion” over issues such as “gender mixing, women’s right to drive cars, banking, or even photography.”
- One reader opined: “I personally do not believe that they [tribal chiefs] or any Saudi extremists care about (combating) terrorism as much as they care about safeguarding so-called virtue.”
This section includes Al-Farhan’s posts on issues related to sociopolitical change and reform in Saudi Arabia and the obstacles facing the king’s efforts to introduce reform.
- On 17 July, Al-Farhan posted an article asserting that “national dialogue, fighting poverty, and other issues are all Abu-Mit’ib’s [King Abdallah’s] projects.” According to the post, “they are all being subjected to delay, postponement, procrastination, and frustration by forces resisting reform and change and also by those who the king had expected to support him.”
- Al-Farhan cited a passage from Robert Lacey’s book, Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics. Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia, stating that in King Abdallah’s era, a number of issues have come to the front, including “freedom of opinion, national dialogue, economic enterprises, education reform, judiciary reform, scholarships, women issues, fight against corruption, in addition to other issues.”
Al-Farhan’s post garnered several comments from readers, who expressed a range of views on the sincerity of the king’s efforts to introduce reform and the obstacles facing these efforts.
- One reader commented: “He [the king] said he would hit with an iron fist, so why has he not done so. If the king cannot see his project being achieved, what about the rights of us citizens? Despite the existing problems, King Abdallah’s era is in my opinion one of Saudi Arabia’s brightest eras.”
- Another reader offered that the king’s “tireless efforts to make his people happy are clear, despite all the obstacles facing them, including bureaucracy and some people who are obstructing the king’s broad hopes.”
- Still another reader opined that the king “might be a kind and sincere man, but good intention is not enough to get you to Paradise. Many of his domestic and foreign policies have proved futile and erroneous because of unrealistic idealism.” The king’s “tolerant gestures are seen as a sign of weakness,” and they have caused “a major decline in our country’s status.”
In an article posted on 5 July titled “With Khalid al-Faysal… Saudi Arabia From Third World to First World,” Al-Farhan noted a number of “optimistic statements” made by Prince Khalid al-Faysal, Amir of Mecca, on “the future of our Saudi homeland and the possibility of it reaching ‘First World’ ranking.”
- Al-Farhan wrote: “I view his highness’s statements with optimism, because this means to me that his highness the amir and the government are fully aware that our current status is abnormal and should not be our real standing, and that there is no escape from following the road of reform and change toward the better, in order to attain the right standing.”
- Al-Farhan listed a number of the “positive” features of the “first world” that could help to “win the trust of the people yearning for reform and change,” including transparency, civil society, the right to stage demonstrations and protests, the freedom of expression and speech, and elected parliaments.
Al-Farhan’s post elicited several reactions from readers who rejected his optimism about the Amir of Mecca’s statements on Saudi Arabia’s status.
- One reader commented: “Brother Fu’ad: the First World you have described requires first of all a radical change in the concept of power and people’s participation in running the country, before we can talk about skyscrapers or wide streets.”
- Another reader replied skeptically: “May God protect you, Brother Farhan; you have provided us with absolutely smashing information…[but] joining the ‘First World’ countries is certainly not a possible thing. I look at life pessimistically.”
- Another offered: “Brother: In the First World you can participate in decisionmaking, which means that everyone determines the country’s destiny, but in our world the boundaries are defined for you and you cannot overstep them.”
Other topics that Al-Farhan has addressed on his blog include the impact Saudi students studying abroad can have on the Kingdom’s future, social and political developments in the country that he views as “inspiring optimism,” and the limits on expression that he regards as justifiable.
- On 14 June, Al-Farhan advised Saudi male and female students studying abroad, “on whom we will rely a lot when they come back,” to learn from the positive aspects of their experience and to return with a new way of thinking. He urged them to integrate themselves and mix with other students, including non-Muslims, to join civil society groups, and to learn about electoral and parliamentary experiments abroad.
- On 14 May, Al-Farhan noted signs of progress in Saudi Arabia, including “the war on corruption, the plan to reform the judiciary, the expansion of the scholarship program, the plan to develop and reform education, and the rising ceiling of the freedom of expression, criticism, and opinion in our traditional media.”
- Regarding limits on the freedom of expression, Al-Farhan noted in the same post: “Most certainly, there are some red lines which have always been excluded from the vocabulary of the ‘freedom of expression’ in Saudi Arabia,” such as “supporting the London-based Saudi oppositionists (Sa’d) al-Faqih and (Muhammad) al-Mas’ari. Al-Farhan explained that the Saudi opposition in London is excluded because it “calls not for reform but for uprooting the regime in Saudi Arabia.” He added that the same applies to supporting Al-Qa’ida and their leaders abroad, “since Al-Qa’ida calls for toppling the regime in Saudi Arabia and replacing it with a new regime similar to the Taliban regime that it set up in Afghanistan before its fall.”
These posts elicited a variety of responses from readers. While several readers sympathized with Al-Farhan and expressed their hope that Saudi Arabia would one day benefit in the ways that he had identified, others were cautious or pessimistic.
- One reader replied to Al-Farhan’s 14 June post: “Brilliant! I have learned from the points you mentioned about civil society and freedom, and I hope we will have the opportunity to practice these things in our country, God willing.”
- In response to Al-Farhan’s 14 May post, one reader replied that “it is a brilliant summary of the positive movement in Saudi Arabia… it could be used as a manifesto for reform in the homeland,” urging young Saudis to engage in voluntary work so that they “will become leaders of reform in all spheres in the future.”
- Taking a more cautious view, a few readers highlighted the need to ensure that Islamic values are taken into account when applying new ideas.
- Another reader commented that he was pessimistic about the situation in the country and that the “war on corruption” was merely for local consumption.
This section includes Al-Farhan’s posts on the benefits of blogging and his comments on government attempts to impose restrictions on “electronic publication.” On 13 May, for example, Al-Farhan commented on reports that the Ministry of Culture and Information was planning to “regulate electronic publication.”
- Al-Farhan asked if the Ministry of Culture and Information was “planning to encroach on our right to freedom of expression,” and noted that “although the margin of the freedom of expression is increasing, there are occasionally some setbacks.”
- According to Al-Farhan, blogs and f orums are included in the plan to regulate electronic publication. He cited an official as saying that the new law “will include all the electronic media websites, including electronic newspapers, blogs, forums, and similar websites; each will have different regulation.”
- Al-Farhan emphasized that “we believe that raising the ceiling of freedom of expression is one of our basic rights as citizens. It is a right which we must cling to and defend against any possible threat that tries to lower or curb it!”
Al-Farhan’s post elicited several responses from incredulous readers. Some speculated that the ministry was fighting a losing battle and that it would be impossible for it to implement its censorship plan. One reader speculated that the ministry would have to “completely cut off the Internet in Saudi Arabia.”
- Another reader opined: “The mentality calling for such laws must be living in the Stone Age; may God help them deal with the changes of the new age… let them continue to live in their own rosy dreams by controlling everything… that is absolutely impossible now.”
- One reader commented that if the reports are true, “it would be a disaster and a setback for the freedom of electronic expression.” Another reader said: “If the ministry embarks on what it is planning to do, there will be one more battle for us with the ministry of absurdity and information.” to achieve their ambitious aims”; married to A’ishah al-Farhan and father of two: Raghad and Khattab (www.alfarhan.ws).
Freedom of Expression
This section includes posts related to the freedom of expression and attempts to suppress this freedom in Saudi Arabia. On 26 May, Al-Farhan wrote an article criticizing a columnist named Dr Sanahat al-Utaybi for using abusive language when attacking liberal activists.
- Al-Farhan said Al-Utaybi is entitled to express his views but should not use “vulgar” words to try to “destroy anyone whose views differ from his,” specifically, he should not try to defend Islam by insulting people or using “vile” expressions.
The columnist himself reacted by dismissing Al-Farhan’s criticism of the way Al-Utaybi attacks liberals, but most readers backed Al-Farhan.
- Al-Utaybi replied sarcastically: “Brother, your style of writing is very nice and respectful, and it really is unfortunate that it is not used to serve the great religion.”
- Others, however, tended to agree with Al-Farhan and criticized Al-Utaybi’s lack of commitment to the freedom of expression. One said: “We are not surprised, since this is repeated by many of those who defend the religion ignorantly.”
Archives: The archives include only material that has appeared on the new blog, going back to May 2010. General: The general section consists of one post mourning the death of Saudi female blogger Hadil al-Hudayf (age 25) who died in 2008 after falling into a coma unexpectedly. According to the post, al-Hudayf was famous for publishing under her own name blogs critical of the government. Her blog “Heaven’s Steps” (hdeel.ws.blog) often challenged other Saudi women to join her in devoting attention to issues of social importance. The post quotes her as saying: “I would like to educate Saudi women about the importance of blogging as an efficient medium that can greatly influence public opinion.”
Reportedly, Al-Hudayf was the only Saudi woman to publicly call for Al-Farhan’s immediate release after he was arrested (Arab News, 19 May 2008).
Links: As of July, the one link in this section was to www.ibyan.com, the website of A’shah al-Farhan, Fu’ad al-Farhan’s wife. The site seems to focus on women and other social issues and links to various Saudi blogs.
WHOIS at www.whois.net provides the following technical information:
abdullatif plaza office no 411
Registered through: GoDaddy.com, Inc. (www.godaddy.com)
Domain Name: ALFARHAN.WS
Created on: 02-Jul-08
Expires on: 02-Jul-11
Last Updated on: 17-May-10
Alfarhan, Fouad email@example.com
abdullatif plaza office no 411
+966.503333533 Fax —
Alfarhan, Fouad alfarhanf @gmail.com
abdullatif plaza office no 411
+966.503333533 Fax —
Domain servers in listed order:
Information Updated: Thu, 22 Jul 2010 15:26:02 UTC
[This item was originally filed as GMF20100826216001]