October 6, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 2569

Extremists in Saudi Arabia Set Fire to Culture Club to Prevent Woman Poet's Public Appearance

October 6, 2009
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 2569
A culture war has been raging recently in Saudi Arabia's Al-Jouf province over a poetry reading with liberal woman poet and columnist Halima Muzaffar. After the province's culture club announced its intention to hold the event, unknown individuals threatened its managers, demanding that all cultural events featuring women be cancelled. Later, they set fire to the club, forcing the managers to postpone the reading. When the event finally did take place, Islamist extremists disrupted it and made further threats against the organizers.

Following are details about the incidents and excerpts from responses to it in the Saudi press.

Al-Jouf Club Set on Fire

The fire at the Al-Jouf culture club occurred on January 13, 2009, a day before the scheduled poetry evening with Muzaffar. Club manager Ibrahim Al-Humayed stated that the fire had been set deliberately, explaining that the organizers had received anonymous phone calls demanding that all poetry readings featuring women be cancelled. [1] In response to this incident, Saudi intellectuals demanded that the Senior Clerics Council issue a fatwa prohibiting attacks on cultural facilities in the country. [2]

Al-Jouf Club Manager Receives Death Threats

In April 2009, the club again announced a poetry reading with Muzaffar and several other Saudi poets. On the evening of the event, Al-Humayed received an anonymous text message threatening him with death unless he canceled it. The manager ignored these threats, and held the event as planned, but he later reported that some young Islamists in the audience had disrupted the reading by shouting and making a racket, while others had passed notes to the organizers stating that women may not speak in public or participate in cultural events alongside men. [3]

In an interview with the liberal website, Al-Humayed stressed that his club was a recognized cultural institution operating openly under government supervision. He added that the Al-Jouf province had for many years suffered from economic, social, and cultural paralysis, which had turned it into fertile ground for terrorist activity. For this he blamed the Saudi government, arguing that by ignoring what was happening in the province, it had allowed extremist movements to recruit young people and to present cultural activity as a crime. Finally, Al-Humayed said that the government's failure to respond to the torching of his club was a green light for those who wished to disrupt its activity - but that this activity would nevertheless go ahead as planned. [4]

Halima Muzaffar: Today Extremists Set Fire to a Club, Tomorrow They Will Blow Up Someone's Home

Following these incidents, Halima Muzaffar herself wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Watan: "My colleagues and I never imagined that [someone would] set fire to a venue of cultural activity in order to prevent us from giving a poetry reading… I never imagined that my articles, reflecting my opinions - which the extremists accusingly characterize as Westernized and secular - would one day cause the club manager, Ibrahim Al-Humayed, and his colleagues to receive threatening phone calls aimed at preventing me from appearing [at the club].

"It is very sad that the destructive hands of the extremists, those remnants of the Khawarij, [5] who regard the voice of my feminine poetry… as a corrupting force, do not refrain from criminal acts. What if someone had been hurt?... Did those [arsonists] not think of the innocent people [who might be hurt] when they set out to silence the voice of female poetry?…

"What those remnants of the Khawarij did is clear proof that they are failing. [It is proof that] poetry and culture are in good shape, and that the relationship that the [various] sectors of society maintain with intellectuals and artists… is improving. This follows a long [period in which the intellectuals and artists] were silent and isolated in society because of the monolithic discourse in the mosques, which was meant to serve the goals of the [extremists] and which convinced the public that only [the extremists] are destined to escape hell.

"But today, in light of the reforms, the enlightenment, and the wise leadership that has created a climate of national and global dialogue… Saudi intellectuals have begun to pose a threat to those [extremists], who do not recognize the language of dialogue and pluralism because they are unable to use it. [The extremists], who are intellectually backward, know that society has begun to peel off their false masks of devoutness, and this threatens their interests. They know no other method but to threaten, curse, and attack the intellectuals… Now, having failed [to achieve their goals] by these barbaric methods, they have turned to criminal and terroristic means…

"There is no option but to prosecute these criminals, to restrain others like them, and to respond to any threat against intellectuals by investigating [the crime] and punishing [the perpetrators]. I commend the director of the Al-Jouf club, Ibrahim Al-Humayed, and the club's management, for holding the poetry reading [despite the fire]... [In fact, after the incident,] they even sent us a letter of apology, and informed us that the event had been postponed but not cancelled." [7]

In another Al-Watan article, Muzaffar wrote: "…[The youths who set fire to the Al-Jouf club represent] a deviant minority, like other [deviant] minorities elsewhere, and do not represent society in Al-Jouf, which is known for its solid character. However, what happened [at the club] is worrying: The unknown individuals who set the fire, and who later made death threats [to the manger]… still continue to incite the youth [to extremism] in our schools and mosques.

"Parents must therefore keep an eye on their children. The Education Ministry and the Islamic Endowments Ministry must [also] wake up, because there are people who exploit our children's innocence and leisure time, so that they will one day be part of their Khawarij cells. A person who torches a culture club today will tomorrow blow up [someone's] home.

"Despite the difficulties… the poetry reading conveyed a message that strengthened the presence of women in culture and creativity - [a message] that is in accordance with the laws of Islam and is supported by the state and its leadership…"(7)

Saudi Columnist: Why Do the Clerics Remain Silent?

Also in Al-Watan, Saudi columnist Muhammad Hassan 'Alwan condemned the Saudi clerics for remaining silent in the face of the attempts to paralyze cultural activity in the country: "It is surprising that the series of destructive acts recently carried out at cultural events by elements belonging... to the Islamist stream have been met with a puzzling silence on the part of the clerics - especially on the part of senior government officials and prominent figures in the Islamic stream…

"It is wrong [for them] to ignore this phenomenon… They are aware of their influence over those who enjoy sabotaging cultural [activity in our country]. They [also] know that a brief guideline, a clear fatwa, or an article in the newspaper by one of them would prevent these people from carrying out these acts, and save the state [from having to employ] hundreds of security guards who work long hours to protect culture clubs from these armies of destruction…

"It is only natural that we urge the clerics to play a greater role [in combating this ideology] - considering their immense popularity [among the public] and their power to reduce the phenomenon. [This can be done] via an organized campaign that will give religious guidance and explain that cultural events sanctioned by the governor must not be sabotaged - even if they include what the Islamist stream considers 'shari'a violations.'

"It is perfectly legitimate to protest [against these events] by peaceful means, and to condemn them [nonviolently]. Doing so is greatly preferable to [sowing] destruction and frightening the audience…" [8]

Cartoon in Saudi Daily: Saudi Clerics Scope Out, Sabotage Cultural Events: Poetry Reading, Book Fair, Play, Film Screening

Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 8, 2009.


[1] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia) January 14, 2009

[2], May 5, 2009.

[3] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia) April 19, 2009.

[4], April 19, 2009.

[5] The Khawarij were a group that separated from the forces of Fourth Caliph 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib during the Battle of Siffin in 657 BC, and they are considered the first Muslim opposition within Islam. It is a derogatory term for secessionist or deviant groups.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia) January 17, 2009.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia) April 19, 2009.

[8] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia) April 23, 2009.

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