Khashoggi was not the first dissenter but he was one of the most high profile ones internationally. And while he may no longer be around, others languish in Saudi jails.
More than two weeks after the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the world remains stunned by the apparently gruesome nature of his demise. But what seems to have been lost amidst all the macabre revelations is that Khashoggi is only one of many sincere advisors who has been silenced by the Saudis.
Khashoggi has been painted as a moderate; a wise critic of his country whose life was put in danger simply because of his sincere desire to advise Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who was following a destructive path.
His recent columns in the Washington Post and his TV appearances would seem to back this up.
In his powerful new role, MBS set about sidelining, arresting or imprisoning senior princes from other branches of the family, including Al-Faisal and Al-Waleed.
Khashoggi’s subsequent move to Washington was in part due to the clampdown by MBS.
The fate of life-long dissenters
But this is about more than Khashoggi.
His disappearance has ignited interest in the plight of activists and dissidents inside Saudi Arabia. Cases that have been explained away by the Saudi government, and readily accepted by much of the world media as treason or terrorism-related, are now being exposed for what they really are.
Take, for example, the case of Loujain Al Hathlool, a women’s rights activist, who was arrested in May this year on charges of “attempting to destabilise the kingdom”.
Her crime was to campaign for a woman’s right to drive.
Al Hathlool was repeatedly jailed during her campaigning, and in a recent interview with Bloomberg, the crown prince claimed that she had been ‘leaking information to other countries’.
The kind of information Al Hathlool was supposed to have leaked is unclear, but there is a widespread belief that she was only arrested because the crown prince wanted to take personal credit for allowing women to drive and to refute any notion of public pressure and activism yielding results.
Then there’s Essam Al Zamil, a distinguished economist who was arrested in September 2017.
Zamil had laid out compelling research illustrating why floating Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s natural petroleum and gas company, did not make business sense and was therefore doomed to fail. This was directly at odds with the crown prince’s vision to sell the company off, and so Zamil found himself in jail.
In an ironic twist, the crown prince himself shelved his plan to float Aramco a year later, while Zamil awaits trial.
Also in September 2017, Salman Al Ouda a prominent and hugely popular Islamic cleric tweeted a message expressing his hope for a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar after the former, along with Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain had blockaded the tiny Gulf state. For this, Al Ouda was arrested and placed in solitary confinement.
Last month, the public prosecutor tabled a recommendation for Al Ouda to be given the death penalty.
His son, Abdullah, who lives in exile in the US, has said that the real reason his father was arrested is because he was instructed to give religious cover for the crown prince’s ‘reforms’ – which he refused to do.
There are countless other reformers, civil rights activists and Islamic scholars in jail in Saudi Arabia whose circumstances and fate are unknown.
A particularly compelling case is that of Dr Safar Al Hawali, an accomplished scholar, who only in his thirties, became a professor and subsequently head of the Department of Islamic Creed at Umm Al-Qura University, Makkah.
Hawali’s master’s thesis on secularism remains to this day probably the most comprehensive analysis of the subject from an Islamic theological perspective. The work has been widely accepted by the major Islamic scholars of this era.
However, it was not for his academic prowess that Hawali gained distinction.
From a very early age, Hawali was an outspoken advocate of Palestinian sovereignty and for the rights of Muslim minorities, such as those in Kashmir who were being persecuted. As his reputation grew, so did his backing of the major political issues affecting Muslims.
Al Hawali was a fierce critic of the Saudi government’s decision in 1990 to allow troops into Saudi Arabia to remove Saddam Hussain’s army from Kuwait.
Drawing on works from classical Islamic scholars as well as from his own research and application (ijtihad) from the Quran and prophetic tradition, his conclusion was that allowing US troops into the holy land was impermissible from an Islamic perspective and that it would bring far greater harm than the purported benefits (pro-government scholars argued the opposite).
He also argued that the annexation of Kuwait should be reversed by a negotiated settlement or a Muslim-only force expelling Saddam Hussein’s forces.
Hawali predicted that letting the US in would destabilise the region and lead to years of instability and conflict, and was part of a greater plan against the Islamic world.
Jamal Khashoggi, then an up-and-coming journalist, criticised Hawali’s views in the government-owned AI-Madina newspaper that he was writing for at the time.
In the years following the war and with a continuing clampdown by the government on any form of dissent, Hawali’s criticism of government policy, in particular relating to Palestine, continued and in September 1994 he was arrested.
He spent 5 years in prison and was released without charge in 1999.
Hawali’s treatment at the hands of the Saudi authorities reveals a regime that has been intolerant of even the most moderate forms of activism for decades, and the recent actions of the crown prince are merely building on this legacy.
But Hawaii’s story doesn’t end there.
Following his release from prison, he was not allowed to return to his previous post at the university and so he chose to focus on research and activism.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, although he believed that what had happened went against Islamic teachings, Hawali once again warned of the consequences of unhindered US intervention in the region.
He criticised Saudi Arabia’s role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed the attacks, and was criticised by Khashoggi, who was then editor of the Al-Wotan newspaper that was owned by the Al-Faisal branch of the royal family.
Khashoggi argued that the US was fighting militancy and extremism and that Saudi Arabia’s role was as its natural ally in this conflict. Hawali argued that such intervention would only bring about further destabilisation and militancy in the region – a reiteration of his arguments against the first Gulf war.
After those wars, Saudi Arabia found itself under attack within its own borders from Al Qaeda – something that Hawali had predicted would happen due to the earlier internal repression and foreign policy decisions that Saudi Arabia had made.
During that time, Hawali worked behind the scenes to convince young Saudis who found themselves caught up in militant groups to educate themselves in Islamic jurisprudence and reconsider their ideas.
In June 2005, Hawali suffered a massive stroke which left him unable to walk without support and severely affected speech. His intellect, however, remained firmly intact.
Over the past three years, Hawali dedicated most of his time to writing his magnum opus, Al-Muslimoon wa’l Hadharat AI-Gharbiyah or ‘Muslims and Western Civilisation’ – a five-volume encyclopedic work on a large variety of topics including faith, jurisprudence, politics, history and anthropology.
Critically, it contains chapters on the Saudi royal family and the clerical establishment, about whom Hawali wrote a whole host of observations and criticisms. He noted that Saudi Arabia had been built upon the sacrifice of people who gave their blood and land for a greater Islamic cause, but now the royal family was fractured and divided and in danger of disintegration.
He also warned how Saudi Arabia was shifting from being a country ruled by Islamic law to one that was fast adopting a form of oppressive secularism, where religious values would have little say in how society is governed.
He went into detail about the moral corruption of the government-funded career scholars who back the status quo with their religious edicts.
Perhaps most controversial of all is his recommendation that control of the country be gradually returned to the Quraish (the clan of the Prophet Muhammad) and that foreigners living in Saudi Arabia for a long time be given nationality.
In short, it is a detailed and radical manifesto for change at every level of society written from a personal perspective.
Hawali was writing the book secretly and was waiting for the right time to get it published.
The Saudi authorities knew of the book but were reluctant to arrest him due to his poor health.
But with the Crown Prince’s continuing and widening crackdown, Hawali decided this was the best time to release the book, and so, he gave out electronic copies to various individuals.
A few days later, on the evening of July 11 2018, Hawali was arrested at his residence in Al Baha, four hours’ drive south of Makkah. He has not been heard from since. His four sons were arrested in the following hours and days and have not been released. Rumours of his death in custody circulated at the end of September, possibly started by an official at whatever detention facility he was being held in.
Within days of his arrest, an edited version of Muslimoon wa’l Hadharat AI-Gharbiyah was published in 6 volumes in Istanbul.
Yasin Aktay, an advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, mentioned Hawali’s plight recently, saying: “Keeping respected, prominent scholars who have been struggling with illness like Salman Al-Ouda and Safar Al Hawali in prison for no reason is not Saudi Arabia’s internal issue, but rather a matter for the entire Muslim world.”
He is right. Just as the world demands to know the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, the family, friends and supporters of Dr Safar Al Hawali have the right to know what has happened to him.
Horrific though it is, the world should not just limit its outrage to just Khashoggi. It needs to be aware of the many more cases of injustice that are taking place inside the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia is in turmoil and its people are paying the price, in particular, those who have dedicated their lives to making their country a more just place.
The world outside needs to take heed, not be just for the sake of the Muslim world, but for the sake of everyone who has ever paid a heavy price for speaking out.