There are few occasions on which the United Nations is able to disgrace itself more effectively than when it comes to making appointments to committees and sinecures. Iraq, for example, was due to take the chairmanship of the special committee on disarmament in 2003; a move prohibited not by any common sense on the part of the U.N. but because the US-led intervention in that same year made such an appointment impossible. Iran has recently been re-elected to a seat on the U.N’s Commission on the Status of Women. Robert Mugabe, the subject of a wide-ranging travel ban, was asked to be an ambassador for tourism in 2012, and the Human Rights Council – which counts amongst its membership such bastions of human rights as Pakistan and Uganda and the Holy See – is currently chaired by Saudi Arabia.
It should come as no surprise that the U.N., which makes no firm commitment to anything save the moral imperative to create ever more useless, ever more profligate committees, will express no opinion on the matter of Saudi Arabia’s chairmanship. Rather more depressing, though, is the silence on the part of our own government (which, by taking part in tactical vote-trading with Saudi Arabia, ensured that country’s elevation to its current lofty position) on the crimes against humans and human rights being committed almost every day by the head of the UNHRC.
The Kingdom’s recent history – and by recent I speak of the past few months – is a hideous collection of sundered heads and bloodied bodies. The execution of the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was at least granted some coverage in the Western media, though the Obama and Cameron administrations declined to condemn it in anything but uncertain terms. The sentencing of the human rights blogger Raif Badawi to 10 years in prison and one thousand lashes (a punishment that has had to be staggered given the very real chance that it might have killed him) has received less attention than that, possibly due to the fact that it did not cause embassies to be closed or burned, but it, too, has been covered.
But whilst the first example can be understood in the context of Saudi Arabia’s prosecution of its not-so-cold war with Iran, and both cases can be seen as the desperate actions of a regime seeking to re-establish sure-footing following the death of King Abdullah and the destabilizing effects of Islamic State (and how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!), it is the impending execution of the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh which speaks most clearly to the character of the House of Saud.
It serves no purpose as an act of geo-realpolitik. Nor is it part of a wider attempt at suppressing political dissent. The sentence of death in this case, for the related but distinct crimes of apostasy and ‘spreading blasphemous ideas’ in his art (charges he denies), are symptoms of a deep-rooted loathing of art and music and freedom of thought and expression; a loathing which is a necessary consequence of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi or Salafist iteration of Sharia. It should be of great concern to all of us that that is the iteration which we in the West are made to import into our own countries, often through Saudi-printed and Saudi-approved copies of the Quran with which we stock our prison libraries, and also in the form of ‘generous’ donations to mosques and madrassas made by the Saudi state. The exporting of evangelization and religious coercion, often in radicalizing forms, is one of the largest and least spoken-of facets of Saudi trade policy.
(And it is no coincidence that the same aversion to aesthetics and thought can also be found in wide swathes of Pakistan, in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan and in the territories in Iraq and Syria governed by Islamic State. But, of course, it has nothing to do with Islam.)
I cannot attest to the quality or beauty or insightfulness of Ashraf Fayadh’s poetry. I cannot read his works in the language in which they were written and I am increasingly of the opinion that poetry can never be properly translated without suffering some essential loss. I cannot even support Ashraf’s claim that he is innocent of the charges levelled against him. Fortunately, I do not need to. For it should go without saying that apostasy and blasphemy are not considered crimes under any sane system of justice, and the decisions by the Saudi authorities to deny Ashraf anything like a fair trial, not to mention access to a lawyer, are so obviously in contravention of international law and of human rights as enshrined by the UNHRC – yes, again, the very body now chaired from Riyadh – that there really is, on our side, no case to defend.
But there is undoubtedly a case to be prosecuted, and every passing day on which the wider international community remains silent is one in which our supposed commitment to support human rights and values is side-lined by spreadsheet morality; by concerns over arms deals and oil exports. Remember when, following the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the streets of Paris were treated to a parade of world leaders, all of whom voiced their commitment to uphold the rights of freedom of thought and expression? Well, where are they now? Where is their support now?!
It should be beholden upon all of us, and not just those who claim to speak for us, to combat the forces who prefer and who act in the hopes of achieving an unfeeling, unthinking, beauty-less world. But it should be particularly important for us, we subjects of this disunited kingdom, to speak more loudly and with an especially firm commitment to purpose in matters such as this. For we have known its antithesis, and it has cost us dearly in the past.
The case of Ashraf Fayadh bears the hallmarks of the affairs of both Salman Rushdie and Oscar Wilde. The facts of the former should be so well-known that they need no restating here – the sentencing to death of a writer for the crime of writing is abhorrent to us, isn’t it? Laws against blasphemy and ‘offensiveness’ are loathsome and infantile, are they not?
But the second might perhaps require something more by way of explanation. Indeed, its inclusion here caused me to think and think again, but I have concluded that it is right to include it and the point it makes is more than salient. For the ruin of Oscar Wilde, like the attack on Mr. Fayadh, are both proofs that can be used against W.H. Auden’s fatuous claim that ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’ And both are examples of individuals sent down by forms of love. To quote from Alfred Douglas’s fateful poem: a love ‘that dare not speak its name.’
The ‘Shame’ spoken of and felt (and, yes, acted upon) by the likes of Wilde and Bosie, which was a crime (and remains a crime in places like Saudi Arabia), is just as natural and vital to us as the ‘crime’ for which Ashraf Fayadh has been condemned. It is natural to us because it is of our nature! The dignity of our species, in other words, demands that we use and are able to use, free from fear of punishment, our ability to think and to write what we think, and to portray beauty, and to practice it and feel it with all the pain and reverence and hard work befitting any fundamental Love. To deny the freedom to think is to deny the freedom to love. They are, in that sense, two forms of the same virtue. And it allows one to accuse the House of Saud, and religion, as being opposed to love. Which it is; which they both are.
I have penned a poem – The Ballad of Burning – which shares its sentiment with that expressed within this piece. I had thought to close with it. But as there is a place set aside in this august journal – a poets’ corner, of a kind – for works of rhyme and rhythm and metre (and sometimes those that lack the same, but that is an argument for another time), I have decided instead to close with the words of another.
Part of the title of this piece is taken (and then reworked) from Percy Bysshe-Shelley’s polemic, published posthumously, entitled ‘A defence of Poetry.’ It is amongst the most eloquent cases ever made for art and for the meaning and the importance of art. I encourage the reader to peruse it in its entirety, but it closes as follows:
“Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
The point, if I have done my job, is clear. And I hope that you will join with me, and with the good people at PEN International, and Amnesty International, and the innumerable poets and writers and musicians and ordinary human beings in doing what our government is too cowardly to do on our behalf: condemn this sentence, condemn this crime, and work for the freedom of Mr. Ashraf Fayadh.
This article was originally published at THIS magazine by The Heythrop Lion.
UPDATE: As of February 2, the Saudi authorities have overturned the death sentence and imposed a penalty of 8 years in prison coupled with 800 lashes. The flogging will be carried out on 16 different occasions to give the poet time to heal. Not only must Fayadh endure this brutal sentence, he must ‘renounce’ his poetry on Saudi state media.