The Saudi Military Officer Who Became a Dogged Human Rights Activist

Meet Yahya Assiri, a Saudi military officer-turned-activist who runs an underground human rights group against one of the most oppressive states in the world.

Courtesy of Middle East Eye

Born in a region of Saudi Arabia that fiercely resisted the al-Saud family and its fundamentalist Wahhabi allies, he grew up in a polarized family environment: his grandmother despised the government and its ultraconservative brand of Islam, while his father, like most in his generation, was more favorable to the royal family because of the wealth and security it provided.

Exposure to these opposing views instilled in Assiri a penchant for asking questions, even while he was climbing the ranks of the military. After failing to fulfill his lifelong dream to be a pilot, he joined the administrative side of the Royal Saudi Air Force, where he often worked on international arms deals (Saudi Arabia is one of the largest importers of military equipment). He regularly heard colleagues complain about their meager salaries and struggles with debt and poverty, which sat uncomfortably with the sheer wealth of the royal family and the claims that it brought prosperity to Arabia.

At 24-years-old he began to ask questions internally about these issues, describing himself as a sensitive person who could not ignore the suffering around him, even as he progressed swiftly through the air force and earned good money. Initially resisting the desire to speak out — knowing full well the risks — he began exploring the internet, finding a series of websites and forums in Arabic where people were debating politics. Thus began a double life in which Assiri worked for the government by day but spoke against it online through a pseudonym by night.

Eventually, his online activities gave way to participating in actual public forums, namely at the home of a prominent Saudi human rights activist, Saud al-Hashimi, who Assiri credited as a pivotal figure in his life. In 2011, Hashimi was arrested and jailed in for 30 years on the false charges of “supporting terrorism”, which galvanized Assiri further. Why didn’t regular Saudis have a voice? Why was the regime so afraid? And why was it so wealthy while average Saudis around him struggled?

As more activists got arrested around him, and the government began asking questions about his online activities, Assiri, who by now had a wife and two kids, made the difficult choice of leaving behind his otherwise prosperous life to seek asylum in the U.K. There he founded his own human rights group in August 2014 to keep the fight going.

Knowing that authorities usually dismiss international human rights groups as foreign agents trying to impose Western values, he cleverly chose the name Al Qst, which is a Quranic term meaning justice.

“I used this name to speak to the people. The name comes from our religion, so no one could say my human rights organisation is an attack on the culture of our people.”

The organisation is voluntarily run, relying on a vast underground activist network to keep tabs on everything going on at home. As of 2015, Assiri has eight groups on the messaging application Telegram — which is popular among activists in repressive countries — covering different topics including women’s rights, poverty, the fate of activists, and specific regional issues. The group also has an active Twitter account with over 45,000 followers (@ALQST_ORG)

Assiri wishes to keep the group exclusively Saudi-run so that it cannot be easily dismissed by the authorities nor skeptics. The ultimate goal is to grow Al Qst into a strong civil society organization, since civil society is very much lacking in the country’s stifling sociopolitical environment.

“I believe Al Qst will become the most important organisation dealing with human rights in Saudi Arabia. This is because we – the Saudis – are the best people to understand the complicated problems facing our country.”

Assiri is a reminder that even in the most blighted places, there is some flicker of hope, and not everyone who lives under an odious government is spoken for by that government (something a lot of Americans who otherwise hate one administration or another ironically forget).

Read more about him in this 2015 article (there was not much else out there that I could find).

The Woman Who Dared to Drive

Two years ago, Saudi citizen Manal al-Sharif dared to defy her nation’s de facto ban against female drivers, enduring jail, mockery, and even death threats — but also helping to catalyze a woman’s rights movement. She describes her ordeal and the ensuing aftermath in this excellent and moving 14-minute TED Talk.

My heart and support goes out to her and all the women like her who are affecting positive social and political change against very difficult odds.

What Children in Saudi Arabia Are Taught

Saudi Arabia is infamous for its repressive and quasi-theocratic regime, and its vast human rights abuses. Indeed, it is one of the world’s few absolute monarchies (it’s called Saudi Arabia after all, denoting ownership of the state by the ruling Saud family). The Saudi government imposes and enforces an extremely conservative and rigid form of Islam known as Wahhabism, which among other things relegates women to the role of second-class citizens (though many of them are well-educated), criminalizes homosexuality and blasphemy with death, imposes harsh punishments such as public floggings and beheadings, and stifles any criticism of Islam or the authorities.

While there’s been an effort for reform and moderation (including from within some elements of the government), and while many Saudi Arabians are far from pleased with the state of their country or this extremism, the religious and political authorities (who are often one and the same) retain a strong grip on security forces, the media, the judiciary, and – perhaps most damaging – education.

The following are excerpts from a twelfth-grade textbook from Saudi Arabia, Studies From the Muslim World, which is standard across every school in the nation. It covers many of the subjects you’d find in any other textbook, but also includes virulently anti-Semitic propaganda, especially in a chapter devoted to Palestine and the Palestinian cause.

The struggle with the Jews is not political but religious. (Page 91):

Whoever studies the nature of the conflict between the Muslims and the Jews understands an important fact, [namely that] this is a religious conflict, not a dispute about politics or nationality, or a conflict between races or tribes, or a fight over land or country, as some describe it. This is a deeply rooted enmity, a conflict between truth and falsehood, between monotheism and polytheism, between heresy and faith.

There has in fact been a growing religious dimension between Arabs and Jews involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was initially more of a territorial and ethnic dispute. It’s hotly debated as to whether religion is just another instrument of furthering each side’s cause, or whether it is actually a catalyst in and of itself. I’m honestly undecided, as I’ve seen convincing arguments for both propositions. Perhaps it’s a mix of the two?

The Jews spread corruption, fitna (chaos, conflict) and conspiracies. (Pages 91-92)

In modern times, Jewish influence has cut deeply into several Western countries, and [the Jews] have taken control of their economies and media. These countries were exploited for the Jews’ benefit, and the two sides [i.e., the Jews and the West joined forces and] combined their interests in order to wipe out Islam. . . .”[After] the Jews strayed from the correct religion brought [to them] by Moussa [Moses], peace be upon him, they did not take root in any land, nor did they legally own any land. They wandered in [various] regions, for wandering from place to place and being divided is in their nature. The Jews lived as oppressed minorities throughout the world, and caused corruption in every land they entered. In every country where they settled, they were a source of trouble and fitna [struggle or conflict]. They build up their confidence by frightening others, which is why the peoples hated them and why they came to be known for their deceit and cunning.

The well-known special relationship between the United States and Israel no doubt comes to mind. Many Muslims (and non-Muslim Arabs for that matter) view a perverse nexus between Jews and the Western world; most actions undertaken unilaterally by either Israel or America are commonly viewed as having the support of the other – the actions of each state are almost indistinguishable.

Again, there’s a debate about causality here: did Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia already view the Jewish people as pernicious influencers and power-brokers (an age-old stereotype long prevalent in the West as well), or did this emerge ipso facto as an explanation for the political and military alliance that has bounded the two states, and presumably their strategic interests, together?

The Qur’an describes the corruption of the Jews (Pages 92-94)

The noble Koran is the best source to acquaint us with the [Jews’] personality and psychological makeup. The expressions ‘Jews’ and ‘Children of Israel’ appear more than 63 times in the book of Allah, may He be exalted. They were the nation charged with ruling the earth, but Allah took their [role of] leadership away from them due to their corruption and destructiveness, and because they killed the prophets. The following are a few brief descriptions of some of their traits, as they appear in the noble Koran…

You can read the link for more details, but among the traits and condemnations listed are the attacking of Allah, the killing of the prophets, lying, deception, sinning, bigotry, deviousness, cowardice, envy, and a “lust for life,” which I’ve interpreted to be reference to the lack of emphasis on martyrdom in Judaism (though the concept does indeed exist, albeit not to the degree that extreme Islamists no doubt would prefer).

Such deep-seated hostility towards Jews is curious, given the Koran’s many positive pronouncements about the Jewish people (often regarded as fellow “People of the Book). Of course, there are also less-than-flattering lines about them as well, which goes back to a common problem among many religions: the existence of contradictory, ambivalent, or ambiguous teachings that are codified within a presumably inerrant text. As in Christianity, both liberal and fundamentalist religious people can draw justification for their respective theological view from the same source, even if it contradicts. But that’s for a different post.

After reviewing just a sample of this, is it any surprise that Saudi Arabia churns out so many murderous Jihadists, from the masterminds to the foot-soldiers? I imagine many of these people would never have ended up as fanatical killers were it not for this sort of perverse propaganda being regularly drilled into them throughout childhood. We’re at our most impressionable in youth.

It disgusts and saddens me to know that millions of children are being indoctrinate this way, ingrained with bigotry and closed-mindedness that they otherwise wouldn’t develop without such teaching drills. Of course, Saudi Arabia is hardly the only offender in corrupting the minds of youth – arguably, there are tens of millions of young people the world over who are being taught similar inanity and hate.

My only consolation is that more and more young people, even in some of the more intellectually blighted areas, are becoming savvy enough in their utilization of communications technology, namely the internet. It’s hard to know for sure, given their obvious secrecy, but I’d like to image that more and more of these young people see through this and other horrible teachings, and know better than to take it seriously.

Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that a good number don’t, and are lost after years of imprinting that often costs their lives, and possibly other’s.

Note: My attention to Saudi curriculum is strictly a matter of practicality, since I happened to stumble upon this sample textbook. I’m in no way singling out or “picking on” Saudi Arabia or Islam for this sort of thing, as it’s obvious that other ultra-fundamentalist faiths and political ideologies engage in similar practices (I just don’t have the material on hand to discuss it). I also know that propaganda comes in various forms and degrees – even the so-called developed world no doubt engages in subtle but pervading forms of intellectual manipulation. I’d be interested in finding textbooks from other countries, rich and poor, democratic or authoritarian, to see other examples for myself.