The Death Sentence of Ashraf Fayadh

The snake doesn’t just bite its own tail; it can’t get enough of it.

Remember Michael Lista’s long, hard-hitting exposé on the Griffin Poetry Prize’s connections with the Saudi Arabian military? To recount briefly, this Canadian poetry award—which is, at $65,000, one of the world’s most valuable—is funded by entrepreneur Scott Griffin. Griffin’s fortune comes from decades of investment in manufacturing. Lista put one recent deal under the microscope. In February 2014, the Canadian government signed a deal to sell amphibious reconnaissance vehicles to the Saudia Arabia National Guard (SANG). According to Lista, ‘For every single Light Armoured Vehicle [LAV] the Saudis are buying from General Dynamics, Mr. Griffin’s General Kinetics is providing the shock absorbers.’

The Saudi Arabia National Guard is not the relatively benign force that a comparison with its American counterpart might have you believe. It is not accountable to the Ministry of Defence, as the Saudi army is. Instead, the members of the SANG are tribal fighters loyal to the House of Saud, and they take their orders from the royals. These orders are, essentially: prevent coups and assassinations and dissent. So the SANG is more like the Praetorian Guard than the legions of ancient Rome, or, if one is feeling uncharitable, the SS as opposed to the Wehrmacht in Nazi Germany.

The creed that these soldiers are tasked with supporting, with their LAVs, is, of course, Wahhabi Islam as interpreted by the Saudi state. In the annus horribilis that has been 2015, this ideology has not covered itself in glory. Wahhabism strongly influences Daesh (ISIS), and Saudia Arabia is spearheading a bloody pan-Arab intervention in the Yemeni Civil War and somehow got itself elected as chair of the U.N. Human Rights Council (probably with the connivance of the U.K.), despite being one of the most intolerant and repressive countries on earth.

The Kingdom’s human rights record is not news to anyone, but it has not to this point persuaded Scott Griffin that being a subcontractor on arms deals to the Saudis is a problem (‘I don’t see it personally as a conflict,’ Lista reports him saying).

Perhaps now that a poet, Ashraf Fayadh, has been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia that may change. Fayadh’s alleged crime is renouncing Islam. (See statements from English PEN, PEN American Center, and PEN International.) ‘They accused me [of] atheism and spreading some destructive thoughts into society,’ he said.

In Lista’s article, the case of Raif Badawi, a blogger sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes, was discussed at length. Badawi ‘briefly agitated for free speech, the separation of church and state, liberalism, feminism, and solidarity with his fellow free thinkers.’ Despite international outcry, his sentence is being carried out.

But Fayadh’s case is different from Badawi’s (or from the cases of the numerous atheist writers being murdered by vigilantes in Bangladesh) in that he doesn’t even espouse the views he’s said to hold. He claims he is an observant Muslim, not an apostate. The book that got him charged in the first place, Instructions Within, from 2008, is ‘just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee . . . about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.’ I of course do not accept the justice of Raif Badawi’s sentence and believe he should be released immediately, but within the context of Saudi Arabian law it appears to have the aspect of cold, brutal legality. The charges against Fayadh are obvious bullshit—spite and pantomime. Poetry is not political blogging, and it should be plain that the nuances of meaning in poems admit of more possible interpretations than activist writing does. But one man’s treasure is another theocrat’s trash, I guess. Fayadh has essentially been sentenced to death for a wilful misunderstanding. I have no idea if it’s worse to suffer under unjust laws when you’re innocent than when you’re technically guilty, but these are the sorts of questions that Saudi Arabia forces you to ponder. Charming.

In a TEDx talk called ‘Poetry: Why Is It Important?’ Scott Griffin talks about why he founded the prize that bears his name in 2000. Comparing the prominent position occupied by poetry in the cultural life of places like Latin America and Eastern Europe to the lowly one it held in his native country in the 1990s, he says, ‘It was as if Canada had let fall away something the rest of the world valued, and this and a fierce love of poetry led to the motivation for founding the Griffin Poetry Prize.’ Surely he must be coming to realise that arming a regime that’s happy to let poetry ‘fall away’ is moral and artistic turpitude. How many people can live with the following contradiction: ‘Poetry is the most important thing in my life, what keeps me alive—so why should another die for writing it?’

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