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Time to Speak Out Against Censorship

Saudi Arabia has condemned Palestinian poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh to death, charging that, as an apostate, he has insulted Islam, the Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines (the Saudi monarchy) and the Wahhabi sect. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi tenets have been stirring fanatical religious fervor from as far away as Bangladesh, across North and central Africa, and into central Asia and the Caucasus.

In 2013 Ashraf Fayadh co-curated the internationally celebrated Venice Biennale art show to much acclaim. And since that time he has been active in the British-Saudi art organization Edge of Arabia, an enterprise that is attempting to create a Saudi national art scene. Complaints based on a book of poetry by Fayadh were lodged by a Saudi national, accusing the poet/artist of uttering blasphemous remarks during a café argument. Saudi justice then delivered a four-year prison sentence and 800 lashes on the spurious charge of apostasy. Ashraf denied the charges and appealed his conviction in the Abha court. Abha is located in the ultra-ultra conservative region of the ultraconservative kingdom.

Instead of justice, last week a new panel of judges ordered Fayadh’s execution and gave him thirty days to appeal this absurd conviction. Some of Fayadh’s friends believe that the apostasy charges are a cover for his posting a video which depicts Saudi Arabia’s wild religious-morality police publically lashing a man. The religious police have been known to lash women whose ankles might have exposed even a fraction of a centimeter of flesh not quite shrouded by the burqa.

The people responsible for this conviction are the same people that Barak Obama, David Cameron, and Francois Hollande are in bed with — purely on account of their billions of oil profits. Dollars, pounds and euros go into jet fighters, tanks, bombs, guns, anti- tank ordinance, and yet more guns. These are widely reported to have been provided to Islamic extremists in Syria, Iraq, Libya et al.

Censorship is widely practiced across the globe; we see it in democratic as well as repressive societies. Intothe River,a young adult novel, was banned in New Zealand. Canada refused to issue visas to Iraqi actors to perform at The National Theater Company-scheduled IMPACT International Theater Festival performance (Kitchener, Ontario). Apparently Camp, a play about refugees, would have brought the Iraq war, in which Canada was/is a participant, close to home. In Britain, a girl’s school cancelled a play, and in London, art works were removed from the Passion for Freedom exhibit at the Mall Galleries. In Marseille, French-Algerian rapper Lacrim was sentenced in absentia for a video song in which a weapon appeared for about two seconds.

In Qatar, poet Mohammad al-Ajami was sentenced to 15 years for poetry judged to be contentious. In Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, North and South Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar and Cuba, to name but a few, artists, journalists, writers, filmmakers, playwrights and peace activists continue to be censored, put under house arrest, tortured and jailed. The Indian Film Certification Board has censored the latest James Bond movie, Spectre, because of a kissing scene. And Israel has called for the banning of a Swedish film based on the Israeli attack on the Turkish activist ship Mavi Marmara, The Dead Still Have a Name. And though Israel does not behead artists and poets, its brutal policies towards Palestinians stifle artistic expression. Israel has killed, beaten and harassed journalists, and smashed their cameras. Currently Israel is also attempting to get YouTube to pull down video clips showing the killing, beating and harassment of Palestinians.

In the UK, the Guardian reported on 25 November that “Leading international cultural figures have joined human rights campaigners in calling for the release of Ashraf Fayadh.” Well-known figures, including Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, historian Simon Schama, playwright David Hare, and Egyptian novelist and commentator Ahdaf Soueif, are among those calling for the death sentence imposed on Fayadh to be overturned. The Guardian reported these figures’ statement: “We believe that all charges against him should have been dropped entirely, and [we] are appalled that Fayadh has instead been sentenced to death for apostasy, simply for exercising his right to freedom of expression and freedom of belief.”

Simon Schama said: “Anyone with a conscience should abhor the sentence and shun those responsible as inhuman.” Muslim- Arab award-winning journalist and commentator, Mona Eltahawy, said: “This is an outrageous violation of freedom of faith which as a Muslim, I hold dear and support unequivocally […]. It is beyond time to hold [Saudi Arabia] accountable for its awful human rights violations.” British artist Peter Kennard said: “Saudi Arabia wants to silence a great humanitarian poet and cultural organizer [sic]. We cultural workers must do all in our power in campaigning to free him. We must also demand that David Cameron takes a bit of time off from selling the Saudi regime fighter planes to state his abhorrence at the death sentence meted out to a poet.”

Scores of artists, writers and musicians across the world, including PEN International, Index on Censorship and the International Association of Art Critics — have also signed a joint statement condemning Fayadh’s conviction.

Citizens across the globe concerned about freedom of expression, in all its forms, must urgently let their voices be heard, even if Hollande, Cameron and Obama have chosen to remain silent. Silence is hypocrisy. We can no longer afford it.

This piece first appeared in Le Monde.

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Raouf J. Halaby has just recently been awarded a Professor Emeritus status. He taught English and art for 42 years. He is a writer, a sculptor, a photographer, and an avid gardener. He can be reached at rrhalaby@suddenlink.net

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