Fouad al-Ibrahim: The Many Forms of Revolution
By: Mariam Abdallah
Published Tuesday, August 7, 2012
The Saudi writer and activist has for many years been fighting against sectarianism and discrimination in the Kingdom. He believes that the people’s determination for reform will succeed in bringing about democracy.
Nothing made Fouad al-Ibrahim’s childhood unique, other than that his generation witnessed major transformations in the region. The Saudi writer and researcher born in Qatif, a governorate in Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia saw the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution in Iran then the uprising in the Eastern Province of the Kingdom. Ibrahim was one of the participants in the uprising that came to be known as the 1400 Uprising (1979) against the House of Saud. He calls it the most prominent event in his life.
The death of his maternal aunt’s husband at the hands of the Saudi National Guard during one of the uprising’s protests permanently marked his political views and positions. At the time, Ibrahim witnessed the political and social marginalization of an entire sect in the Kingdom.
In the early 1980s, he went to study Management of Oil Installations in South Korea as part of a group from the oil company Petromin Shell. For two years he was cut off from the “latent” opposition project at a time when the Saudi protest movement was popular and “unorganized in a rigid partisan way.”
He describes that period as a test for his political and intellectual views. From Korea he went to Iran, even though it “was not easy for my family, who expected me to enter the profane or holy trinity - job, wife and home.”
But why Iran? “The Islamic Republic at the time was an incubator for all liberation movements in the region. Tehran was like any other revolutionary capital in the world and it played a role that had been previously played by Cairo, Moscow and Beijing.”
In the country of mullahs, Ibrahim joined the Organization of the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula. After the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the death of Khomeini, “my source of inspiration,” the author had to move to Syria, where he spent two years.
In time, the discourse of the organization to which he belonged changed from a revolutionary discourse to a reformist one, and the organization’s name changed to the Shia Reform Movement in the Arabian Peninsula. The Islamic Revolution magazine published in Beirut was replaced by the Arabian Peninsula magazine, which was published in London after the group moved there, and Ibrahim was made editor.
In the city of fog in 1991 the author and his friends began advocating the ideas of human rights and freedoms with the organization. Today, Ibrahim is proud that he adopted a nationalist discourse despite all the constraints: “A weak national culture sabotaged national integration which was reflected in our being a fragmented opposition, just like the Saudi state itself.”
In 1993, the late king Fahd Bin Abdulaziz started to communicate with the opposition in the British capital and opened dialogue with them fearing the creation of a front consisting of Shia and Salafis opposed to his rule. Ibrahim took part in the talks between London and Beirut, at which time he received his first royal order. The Saudi writer smiles sarcastically as he remembers King Fahd’s request that the Arabian Peninsula magazine stopped being published.
“At a meeting with the late Joseph Samaha in his office at Al-Akhbar he expressed regret that the magazine, which was one of the best selling journalistic publications in London, had been stopped. Even a British official said to me at the time: You stopped your opposition to the Saudi Royal Family but why did you stop publishing the magazine? Show us the other side of the kingdom!”
In accordance with the agreement that took place, Ibrahim and some other opposition figures returned to Saudi Arabia while others remained abroad to “carry on with their activism if the worst were to happen.”
Two years after arriving in the Kingdom, Ibrahim saw that the Saudi authorities had “lied and did not keep their promises to end sectarian discrimination and involve the opposition in political life.” All his efforts to gather his colleagues in the Reform Movement by having meetings and publishing al-Waha (the Oasis) magazine did not work. As such, he decided to leave Saudi Arabia under the pretext of completing his graduate studies.
After he became the editor of Saudi Matters magazine in 2003 he wrote his MA thesis about the legitimacy of the religious party before receiving his doctorate from the University of London for his dissertation “The Shia in Saudi Arabia.”
Ibrahim says that in the beginning he did not go beyond the religious tradition dominant in Shia thought, so his first book was Al-Imam al-Hasan - The Leader and History. But by the end of the 1990s, with significant changes in his intellectual discourse and being influenced by thinkers that “went beyond what is familiar in Shiism, like Ali Shariati,” Ibrahim, then in his 30s, had to discuss Shia political thought in doctrinal terms so he wrote his controversial book Jurisprudence and the State - Shia Political Thought then Jihadi Salafism in Saudi Arabia and The Manufacturing of Fear - The Social, Political and Religious Dimensions among other books. The Roots of Islam and Shiism in the Eastern Arabian Peninsula - Historic Bahrain will be published this year by Dar al-Mahaja al-Baidaa in Beirut.
Ibrahim, who describes himself as “a half-father” to his two boys and girl “due to my absence and being too busy for them,” refuses to draw a parallel between the Arab Spring and what happened in Iran in the past. “What happened there was the beheading of the regime, not its overthrow.” He adds: “The old structures in the countries of the Arab Spring are still intact politically, intellectually and security wise.” He prefers to describe what is happening in the squares of the Arab Spring as “half a revolution and half a coup.” Then he corrects himself: “I can say what is happening is half a coup not half a revolution.”
Despite his pessimistic view of the Arab Spring in which “the counter revolutions won,” he appears optimistic about the popular protests in Saudi Arabia. He feels today that his country is advancing quickly and he does not rule out an impending transformation leading to democracy in the Kingdom. He rejects the scenario of dividing the country and he presents a positive scenario instead: “The political and social forces must agree to a new social contract that ensures even representation and equality.” He believes that his country’s impending revolution “will take many forms, protests by millions, violence in some areas, sit-ins and civil disobedience... at a time when the regime has nothing but a sectarian weapon to confront it with.”
He says: “We should work towards one day reaching a state in which everyone coexists. We should remove the sectarian barriers and reach an understanding amongst ourselves as human beings who deserve to live and take part in social and political life.” Until then, Ibrahim continues to follow “a new Saudi Arabia I discovered on Twitter. It is a new country that the youth are shaping as a model for their forthcoming state. It won’t be long before we witness this state move from the virtual to the real world.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.