In early July 2018, the Saudi regime arrested Sheikh Safar al-Hawali, his brother, and his three sons because he wrote a book, which was circulated via social networks, that condemned the pro-Western policies of the Saudi kingdom. The arrest ignited a wave of protests from the opposition, both in Saudi Arabia and beyond its borders, primarily from the Muslim Brotherhood in Qatar. The latter group is exhibiting mounting discontent with the suppression of religious symbols by the Saudi regime, including arrests of leading sharia (Muslim religious law) scholars, like al-Hawali. Supporters of the regime launched a parallel counter-campaign, aimed at justifying the detention, while spreading threats that the regime would act harshly against any subversive element in the kingdom. Al-Hawali’s arrest should also be considered against the background of the wave of arrests initiated last September by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, which targeted opposition figures who dared criticize the royal family.
In the 1990s, Sheikh Safar al-Hawali was known as one of the leaders of the “awakening sheikhs” (Shuyukh al-Sahwa), an activist, Sunni fundamentalist movement that challenged the pro-Western policy of the Saudi royal family. That policy was especially irksome during the First Gulf War when the royal family allowed the United States to land military forces on Saudi soil, as part of its fight against the Iraqi ruler, Saddam Hussein, a decision that was backed by the Wahhabi religious establishment. Al-Hawali and other clerics outside of that establishment opposed the presence of non-Muslim forces in Saudi Arabia and collaboration with those they considered “infidels,” an act understood as treason. Imprisoned for his criticism, al-Hawali was released after making a commitment not to take part in opposition activity. Recently, he again censured the regime in a book The Muslims and Western Civilization (Al-Muslimun wal-Hadhara Al-Gharbiyya), which includes contains a list of advice to the Royal House of Saud regarding its domestic and foreign policy, which al-Hawali believes undermines the stability of the throne. These include, among other things, the obligation to remain loyal to the Islamic religion and oppose attempts by the United States to impose a model of “moderate Islam” on Saudi Arabia. He criticizes the trend towards normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, stressing that Zionism is the ultimate enemy even surpassing the Iranian threat, and opposes transferring funds to Arab rulers such as al-Sisi, rather than channeling them for the benefit of the young people in their countries, who are suffering from rising unemployment.
News of Al-Hawali’s arrest was disseminated on social networks but ignored by the official Saudi media. While many claimed that al-Hawali was arrested for publication of the book, users close to ruling circles initially denied that he had been arrested at all. Later on, they claimed that the book had not actually been written by the sheikh, or alternatively, that the publication of the book in an electronic version, rather than in print, meant that there were no grounds for arrest. These claims can be understood in the context of the desire of people allied with the government to minimize the weight of the criticism in the book.
Instead, the regime’s supporters in Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies accused al-Hiwali of undermining the existing order and supporting terrorist elements such as ISIS because of, among other things, his call for the regime to instill the idea of jihad in young people instead of nurturing their ostensibly hedonistic culture. From their perspective, al-Hawali is preaching violence and terrorism, and went astray when he accused the Saudi royal family of being lax in observing the precepts of jihad, because the royal family had been a major supporter of the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Saudi journalist Sa‘ud al-Fozan skillfully described it: “How many Saudi mothers lost their only child, how many fathers lost their sons in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere, in the name of the terrorist’s jihad? I ask, did any of his [al-Hawali’s] sons fight in the jihad [he preaches]? Tell me about one of his sons who participated in his false jihad, and I will tell you about a thousand youths who were killed because of his lectures that were of no benefit to our nation.” The regime’s supporters further warned the public of al-Hawali’s extreme thought, and described him as belonging to Khawarij an early Islamic sect that espoused violence rather than tolerance. Others argued that it would be better for him to remain in prison, to prevent him from provoking a quarrel that could lead to civil war. Some even called for him to be executed as an example to others who preach violence. These and other criticisms were frequently shared using the hashtag “Terrorist al-Hawali and Sons.”
The opposition voices on social networks, primarily people identified with the Muslim Brotherhood in Qatar and Yemen, demanded that the Saudi regime release al-Hawali immediately. Some of them, such as Sheikh Ali al-Qara Dar‘i, a religious scholar from Qatar, wrote that the regime ought to be ashamed of arresting a sick, old man, and sarcastically remarked that the price for giving advice to the ruler is a prison. He claimed that the Saudi regime sees fit to gag scholars of sharia, while the religious leadership maintains its silence, but this does not guarantee the regime’s stability, as one user wrote: “The ruler may have forgotten or pretends to forget that the throne will not remain forever, whether he asks for advice or not.” Qatari journalist Jamal Rayyan depicted this skillfully in a cartoon showing a free crow asking a caged parrot why he was in prison. The latter responds: “Because I speak!” (picture at top). Other users interpreted the arrest as an extension of the wave of arrests initiated by the Crown Prince, which they consider the opening round of a war against symbols of religion and larger Saudi society, whose citizens have been detained. According to many users, continuing this policy will ultimately undermine the Saudi royal family and lead to its downfall. Opposition parties called upon Muslims in Saudi Arabia to break their silence and protest against tyranny of thought and the suppression of freedom of expression. One user warned: “Those who remain silent today will pay for it tomorrow, and might also be sent to the prison.” An Egyptian user identified with the Muslim Brotherhood stressed that the situation in Saudi Arabia also prevailed in other Arab countries: “The Arab regimes from the Mediterranean to the Gulf aren’t legitimate regimes, rather they are heretical regimes that deny Islam... They do not allow citizens to protest... We are currently under full occupation... We should not deal with the occupation with advice and patience, but rather with killing and fighting. Even though we don’t currently possess weapons, we can at least advise Muslims to prepare themselves intellectually and materially for the next round against these hypocritical dogs and pigs!”
Some opposition voices chose to relate to the contents of the book, published excerpts and justified the claims raised in it, using hashtags like “the arrest of al-Hawali and his sons” and “al-Hawali’s life in danger.” One user stressed the importance of the principle of jihad: “If the Shi‘a send their sons to protect their brothers and fight against the Sunnis, why don’t Sunnis do the same?” Another user agreed with al-Hawali that the regime should strengthen Islamic studies in the kingdom, and even noted that it would be good for the education system in Saudi Arabia to learn from the one established by ISIS. On July 22, Twitter and Facebook accounts were opened to gather information about the reasons for al-Hawali’s arrest and his health.
The discourse surrounding the arrest of Sheikh Safar al-Hawali expresses a struggle for the consciousness of Saudi citizens. On one hand, elements opposing the regime, including the Muslim Brotherhood, represent the monarchy as a repressive regime that acts against the principles of Islam and against religious scholars who defend those principles at the cost of their freedom. On the other hand, the regime is waging a war against its critics in order to remove any threat to the legitimacy of the royal family, and no less to the traditional alliance between the Saudi regime and the Wahhabi religious establishment. Furthermore, its actions in cyberspace shows the importance that the regime attaches to online platforms as tools for shaping public opinion. The network discourse also reveals the voices of Saudi critics who express dissatisfaction with the regime’s policy on both domestic and foreign policy issues.
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