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Abdullah al-Hamid: Saudi human rights advocate and 'national hero'

Bridging traditions, religion and progressive politics, the scholar's outspoken and articulate calls for reform made him an existential threat for the government in Riyadh
Abdullah al-Hamid was an Arabic scholar, activist and renowned poet (Screenshot)

The death of Arabic professor Abdullah al-Hamid on Friday after his health deteriorated in a Saudi prison is both shocking and revealing of the Saudi government's brutality.

Born in Buraydah in the central Qasim province, Hamid was truly a unique activist whose political trajectory dates back to the early 1990s, when he emerged as a determined and stubborn human right defender and reformer seeking constitutional change.

Hamid graduated from the Arabic language department at Riyadh University in 1971. This was followed by a doctorate from Al-Azhar University in Egypt in the field of literary criticism. In addition to teaching Arabic literature, Hamid was a renowned poet.

Abdullah al-Hamid, pioneering Saudi human rights defender, dies in custody
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In 1993, he was one of the six founding members of the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), and was arrested on 15 June. He was subsequently released and arrested three times between 1993-1996.

Prison turned out to be his second home, as in the last 27 years Hamid continued to be arrested and released. The repression that Hamid was subjected to took place under three Saudi kings: Fahd, Abdullah and Salman.

In 2009 Hamid defied the ban on civil society, and together with other colleagues and activists announced the establishment of the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights, known in Arabic as HASM and English as ACPRA.

After several years spent defending his political project in Saudi courts, in 2013 Hamid was sentenced to 11 years in prison, alongside a further unserved six from a previous conviction, followed by a travel ban after his release.

He died before he was released.

Bridging traditions

Unlike other Saudi civil society groups, HASM was a genuine non-governmental organisation and unsurprisingly had no royal patron. Its mission statement was to defend human and political rights and call for political reform. Its activism focused on supporting prisoners of conscience, and exposing torture in Saudi prisons.

But Hamid’s most valued contribution to this political struggle was his articulation of the centrality of rights from within the Islamic tradition. He belongs to a long tradition of Islamic reformism that the Saudi government was determined to suppress, criminalise and target in the most brutal ways, lest their discourse appealed to others.

Unlike Salafi jihadis, Hamid and his comrades insisted on jihad silmi - peaceful struggle to protect society from the excesses of power - by deploying civil resistance, demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins.

Hamid proved that demonstrations are legitimate actions from within Islam that allow people to engage in politics and correct injustices

Peaceful jihad rested on risky hard work. It must be performed for the collective interest of Muslims, and should be void of personal desires to seek wealth and privilege.

Hamid’s jihad was performed by the “word”, jihad al-kalima. In several pamphlets, he explained that military jihad may be necessary to defend the country from outside threats, but that internally only peaceful jihad by the word can lead to fortifying the internal structures of justice and respect for rights.

Hamid defended the right of Saudis to stage demonstrations and proved that the Islamic concept of rahat, the peaceful crowd which assembles in the public sphere demanding rights and exposing injustice, is a central right in Islam.

This of course angered the official Salafis of the establishment, who had always called upon people to “whisper in the ear of the sultan” should they want to voice their opinion. This whispering, otherwise known as secret advice, became a trademark of official Salafis.

But Hamid proved that demonstrations are legitimate actions from within Islam that allow people to engage in politics and correct injustices. He was consequently abhorred by official religious scholars, judges and above all the ruling establishment.  

His Arabic writing skills and knowledge of the Islamic tradition, coupled with his longing for a just society, allowed him to reinterpret Islamic texts and combine them with global discourse on democracy, civil society and human rights. He was a veritable Islamic intellectual and advocate.

Enduring example

Hamid’s activism ended in March 2013 when he was arrested together with more than a dozen colleagues. HASM was officially dissolved by a court ruling, and its founders lingered in prison with no royal pardon on the horizon.

The Saudi charges against Hamid represented a mix of vague statements. They included: planting the seeds of discord and strife, questioning the independence of the Saudi judiciary and the Council of Higher Ulama, describing the Saudi regime as a police state, and inciting public opinion against the security and intelligence services, and, most importantly, against the legitimate Muslim ruler of Saudi Arabia.

As the frail Hamid stood in court during his trials and defended himself in eloquent and convincing prose, he emerged as an articulate advocate of human rights.

His own defence circulated on social media with supporters absorbing a new language of rights that had been suppressed under the auspices of the official religion of the state, namely the Wahhabi Salafi tradition, its judges and scholars.

Hamid’s project will remain alive even after his death.

The language of rights and entitlement will remain as a testimony of his nuanced articulations and fierce struggle to move Saudi Arabia from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional state

The language of rights and entitlement will remain as a testimony of his nuanced articulations and fierce struggle to move Saudi Arabia from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional state in which citizens and their rights are guaranteed.

Hamid framed rights in a religious language rather than imported concepts. He fused tradition with new meanings that promised respect for human rights, property and the right to defend oneself against a brutal judiciary and monarchy.

While the Saudi government provided rehabilitation centres and re-educational forums for its violent militants who carried out serious and brutal attacks between 2003 and 2009, Hamid lingered in prison simply because he proved to be more dangerous than their outright violence.

His long prison sentence reflected the government’s fear of reformist Islam and the language of peaceful resistance. The five-star militant rehabilitation centres that the regime popularised as a flagship of its anti-terrorism efforts were propaganda opportunities, while peaceful reformers were incarcerated in the infamous al-Hayr prison.

Hamid tried to break the entrenched dividing lines between ideological groups that had in the past rejected each other - Islamists and liberals, for example. He also rejected the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shia, and endeavoured to defend all prisoners of conscience, in addition to immigrants in Saudi Arabia.

He rejected the gender inequality and regarded women as equal citizens, long before the government officially endorsed women’s rights. He strongly believed in rights for all and was a true national hero.

The journey towards a just society, transparent government and political representation in Saudi Arabia will continue even after Hamid’s death. He will be remembered as a brave, determined and stubborn reformer.

While many of his colleagues are still in prison, including economist Mohammed al-Qahtani, lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, and many others, the harsh and cruel prison sentence and his eventual death are reminders of how far the Saudi government can go to silence peaceful reformers - especially those who follow Hamid’s arduous and dangerous path.   

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.