“Even if you change my name, I’m afraid they’ll find out who I am,” Mutab said as he attempted to calm himself by drinking his favorite Arabic tea, Alwazah, or “swan.”
[Editors note: This report first appeared in the Vanguard, a student newspaper at Portland State University. You can read it here.]
“If my government finds out I am an apostate, I could be jailed when I go home,” Mutab said. After a pause he added, “Or I could be killed.” Apostasy is the act of leaving one’s religion. In traditional orthodox interpretations of Islam, the penalty for apostasy is imprisonment and death.
I interviewed Mutab, Faisal, and Noora, three Saudi Arabian nationals studying in Portland. For their protection, I changed the names of the three interview subjects.
Mutab and Faisal are students at Portland State University. Noora attends another educational institution in the area but asked that its name not be printed.
As of fall 2014, Saudi Arabia had the largest number of international students at PSU with 442 students. China had the second-largest number at 375 students.
PSU’s relationship with Saudi Arabia spans decades. The Kingdom’s current crown prince, Mohammad bin Nayef, attended PSU from 1977–80.
Established in 1932, Saudi Arabia’s origins stem from an 18th-century pact between Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, a puritanical Islamic revivalist, and Muhammad ibn Saud, a central Arabian ruler. Their descendants continue to run state institutions today. The modern Saudi Arabian state is a theocratic, authoritarian dynastic monarchy.
Saudi Arabia’s “Basic Law of Governance,” which governs the country, states that its constitution is the Quran and the Sunna–the actions and sayings of Muhammad, the 7th century prophet of Islam–and that Shari’a, which means Islamic law, is the foundation of the Kingdom.
Mutab and Faisal are closeted atheists and sometimes prefer to be called “ex-Muslim.” Many atheists of Muslim heritage refer to themselves as ex-Muslim in order to acknowledge the cultural traditions in which they grew up.
“Within Muslim contexts, atheism has largely been regarded as a Western phenomenon,” said Muhammad Syed, president of Ex-Muslims of North America, a nonprofit based in Virginia. “The ‘ex-Muslim’ identity allows us to deliberately stake a position that we are both from Muslim communities and reject the dogma.”
Founded in 2013, EXMNA is the first organization to provide support and advocacy for ex-Muslims in the United States and Canada.
Mutab said he left Islam after being exposed to new ideas and lifestyles in the United States. “The Islam I was raised with in Saudi Arabia is against modernity,” Mutab said. In Saudi Arabia, Mutab supported a policy he considered “gender apartheid”—strict segregation of the sexes—and intolerance of other religions, hallmarks of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. However, after studying in the United States, Mutab found it increasingly difficult to reject science, critical thinking and modern ideas about women and sexuality.
“Islam, as I was taught, was used to suppress human rights,” Mutab said. “I choose to follow a different path now.”
Faisal left Islam after introducing himself to philosophy. “I remember when I first got exposed to Plato’s Republic,” Faisal said. “I was shocked that a non-prophet would write something that wise.”
I communicated with Faisal through disposable, single-use emails per his request. At home during the summer, Faisal stressed that he had to practice extra caution while speaking about his atheism.
Saudi Arabian women: “perpetual minors”
Noora is a practicing Muslim but remains equally concerned about the potential consequences of publicizing her opinions. Noora rejects Saudi Arabia’s institutionalized version of Islam, sometimes called Wahhabism, named after the country’s puritanical co-founder, ibn Abd al Wahhab.
Wahhabi Islam, also known as Salafism, is a rigid and literalist version of Islam derived from the medieval Hanbali tradition. The Hanbali school of jurisprudence is usually seen as the most fundamentalist strain within Sunni orthodoxy. Salafism is sometimes linked to the ideology of jihadist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
“I was brainwashed to hate,” Noora said. “The Jews, Christians, non-Muslims—even Muslims not like us. There is nothing spiritual about that kind of Islam.”
Saudi Arabia bans the open practice of non-Islamic religions and has intensified criminal penalties for Sunni Islamic beliefs that steer too far from official state orthodoxy. The Shiite Muslim minority, who are concentrated in the Eastern Province, are also subject to systematic discrimination.
Noora is in favor of sexual minority rights and women’s equality, which puts her at deep odds with the state. In Saudi Arabia, women are effectively treated as perpetual minors regardless of age, and relationships outside of heterosexual marriage are criminalized. The country is known for its guardianship system which requires every female have a male guardian, or “wali al amr,” in order to travel or make most life decisions. The guardian is normally a father or brother but can also be a son or uncle.
“I’m an adult woman and my country requires me to get permission from my father to do anything,” Noora said. “This is inhumane.”
Noora said she is fortunate her father filed the paperwork granting her permission to study abroad without a male chaperone. Many female Saudi Arabian students are accompanied by a guardian if they are not given permission to study independently.
While in the United States, Noora has eschewed the black veil and robe she was required to wear since childhood. “The niqab [face veil] not only covers a woman’s identity, it ignores her existence,” Noora said.
Defiantly enjoying a glass of French wine during the interview, Noora added, “I am most homesick when I’m actually at home. I am homesick for freedom.” Possessing or consuming alcohol is strictly prohibited in the Kingdom; transgressors can be arrested, fined and lashed as punishments.
An authoritarian state without the rule of law
Although not an ex-Muslim, Noora is concerned that her views could be construed as sedition or blasphemy. Saudi Arabia is noteworthy for having few formalized laws, instead relying on the judgment of exclusively male prosecutors and religious judges who define criminal behavior on a case-by-case basis. As an authoritarian state without the rule of law, the Saudi Arabian government can easily implement policies at will with limited accountability.
“The regime is reliant on the Wahhabi religious establishment for support, which means that reforming human rights in the area of religious liberty is difficult,” said Dr. Lindsay Benstead, associate professor of political science in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at PSU. Benstead specializes in politics and women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa.
“Geopolitics make it unlikely that the U.S. and other countries will put much pressure, at least publicly, on Saudi Arabia to reform,” Benstead said.
Last year, an additional hurdle was added for liberal Saudi Arabians when the promotion of “atheist thought” became prosecutable under new anti-terrorism legislation through royal decree. Like the few other formalized laws that exist, wording of the legislation is vague. As a result, many accounts exist of Saudi Arabians being jailed on charges of sedition, terrorism and blasphemy.
“Anything I say or do here—online or offline—could have consequences back home,” Noora said. “It’s better to stay quiet.”
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record
Saudi Arabia’s repression of freedom of expression, association and conscience have sparked criticisms from human rights organizations. According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia goes as far as routinely jailing nonviolent dissidents, including children, without trial for months and years.
“Saudi authorities, namely the ruling royal family, have often used the courts to stifle and silence any critique of the political and judicial system or the excesses and control of the religious establishment,” said Dr. Elham Manea, associate professor in the Political Science Institute at the University of Zurich. Manea, who is a practicing Muslim, specializes her research in Islamism, or the ideology of political Islam, and its impact on human rights.
“The case of Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, illustrates how dire the consequences are of criticizing the religious authorities and their conduct,” Manea said. In 2013, Badawi was convicted of “insulting Islam” for his role in co-founding and operating an online forum called Liberal Saudi Network. The website featured articles critical of the religious authorities.
Following a failed appeal in 2014, Badawi’s sentence was increased to ten years in prison in addition to 1,000 lashes and a fine of one million riyals ($266,550). After serving his prison term, Badawai will be barred from traveling or making media appearances for another ten years. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, fled to Canada and continues to campaign for his release.
Last year, Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian artist, was sentenced to death based on accusations of blasphemy and atheism through poetry. Executions in Saudi Arabia are usually performed through public beheadings.
Fayadh’s death sentence was later overturned in favor of an eight-year prison sentence and 600 lashings.
Saudi Arabia is among 12 other Muslim-majority countries which prescribe the death penalty for apostasy, although executions are generally rare, according to the Freedom of Thought Report 2015. In recent years, Saudi Arabia typically sentences those accused of apostasy or blasphemy to long jail terms, public lashings and heavy fines.
These developments don’t placate Mutab’s concerns, however. “Even if my state doesn’t kill me, a fellow citizen could, and he would have legal justification based on Shari’a,” Mutab said.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Scholarship
Faisal echoed much of Mutab’s fears, but highlighted the additional pressures that come with studying on a government-funded scholarship. In 2015 alone, around 200,000 students studied abroad through the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Scholarship Program.
On the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education website, the scholarship application’s rules dictate that applicants be Muslim. In Arabic, the first rule states that one must, “[preserve] the Arabic and Islamic identity while observing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s laws and painting a good picture of it abroad.”
Rule two continues: “Maintain good behavior while on scholarship and not engage in any act that could undermine the reputation of religion, nation, or the security of the nation.”
Figures obtained from the Office of International Affairs show that 83 percent of Saudi Arabian students at PSU received scholarship funding from the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in fall 2015.There are no advertised scholarship applications for non-Muslims.
SACM is an arm of the MOE, which provides support and assistance to students studying in the United States. It has the unilateral authority to revoke funding for any Saudi Arabian national.
Both Mutab and Faisal said the large presence of Saudi Arabian students on state scholarships sometimes creates an environment of ideological conformity given the precepts of the program.
When Mutab first attended PSU, he attempted to find a supportive community within the Saudi Student Association but soon found conflicts of interests.
“They are connected to SACM,” Mutab said. “Their priority is to promote the interests and image of the state.”
The SSA at PSU, which also goes by the name Saudi Student Club, is listed on SACM’s website. The group’s written mission statement says it is “NOT representing any political or religious views,” but this is contradicted by pro-regime commentary and explicitly religious posts in Arabic on the group’s official social media accounts.
Faris Alhanaya, president of the club for the 2015–16 academic year, confirmed to me that the group received funding from SACM but denies any allegations that the group is intolerant of different political and religious views.
“During my presidency we had celebrated four events and we have never asked certain people to join, but our celebrations were always open to anyone,” Alhanaya said.
Mutab added that some Saudi Arabian students are motivated to police the thoughts and behaviors of their peers due to their own family connections to the Saudi Arabian government. “They benefit from the regime, so naturally they are very protective of it,” Mutab said. According to the International Monetary Fund, around 86 percent of Saudi Arabians are employed in the government sector as of 2013.
The insecurities that come with being a closeted atheist on a state-funded scholarship are not unwarranted, Faisal explained. Earlier this year, Haifa Alshamrani, a Saudi Arabian woman studying pre-med at the University of Glasgow, had her scholarship revoked.
Alshamrani, who is ex-Muslim, alleges that the Saudi Arabian government ended her scholarship as punishment for her husband’s refusal to support efforts to build a local Wahhabi mosque during his time as chairman of the Saudi student organization. “He was only supposed to assist in academic issues as declared [on the club elections page],” Alshamrani said.
Fearing charges of apostasy upon return to Saudi Arabia, Alshamrani and her husband have filed asylum claims in the United Kingdom.
Mutab considered seeking asylum last year but gave up after finding the legal process confounding and risky given that a right to stay is not guaranteed. Faisal and Noora do not have plans to seek asylum at the moment. They said that they cannot cope with the prospect of abandoning family and friends for an uncertain future.
According to international and U.S. law, foreign nationals can seek refuge if they can establish that they were “persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”
Although refugee eligibility appears broad, qualifying at the individual level is often difficult. “It’s not just about wanting to apply for asylum,” said Shalini Vivek, staff attorney at PSU’s Student Legal Services. “They have to make sure they actually even qualify for it.”
The office employs two part-time contract immigration attorneys who are available by appointment for counsel. Their area of expertise includes asylum, Vivek said.
Vivek added that the Office of International Student and Scholar Services sometimes reaches out to SLS to put on presentations that cover asylum-related issues for students from specific countries. However, “[Representatives from the OISSS] haven’t advised us on asylum for Saudi Arabian students,” Vivek said.
The OIA oversees all matters related to the specific needs of international students but currently lacks protocol for providing recourse for students who face possible prosecution in their home country for “thought crimes” conducted while studying at PSU.
“If a student presented themselves to us with this sort of problem, we would make every attempt to support them,” said Christina Luther, director of OISSS, an office within the OIA. When asked for details, Luther said, “I really can’t tell you what kind of support we would offer a student with specifically this type of situation because I have not encountered it before.”
Luther explained that the office doesn’t have the capacity for that level of specificity. However, she stressed that this does not mean they are unavailable to help students navigate unique crises.
The Catch-22 situation is a reality that all three interview subjects face. They remain silent in fears that escalation could exacerbate problems, while university administration is only able to provide general support at this time.
The essentialist paradigm
In a final plea, Mutab, Faisal and Noora asked that the local community not presume that those with Muslim backgrounds prefer or need different treatment. They likened the experience to encounters with the religious police, or “mutaween,” of Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The committee is tasked with enforcing conservative Islamic principles on the population.
“The assumption that every Arab is a Muslim creates a barrier between myself and other students,” Faisal said. “I wouldn’t get invited to social events based solely on the assumption that I would hate a mixed-sex environment.”
Until this year, the mutaween were allowed to harass and detain social offenders. Offenses can be as simple as violating Islamic dress codes or mixing with the opposite sex.
“Islamic beliefs would always be defended by non-Muslims around me just so that my feelings aren’t hurt,” Faisal said. “This is mostly a social problem, but in an academic space it’s really troublesome.”
Manea argues that the postcolonial and postmodernist discourse often found in Western academe homogenizes and essentializes certain perceived features of minority groups.
“The ‘essentialist paradigm’ uses a prism that reduces minorities of different national and cultural backgrounds to their religious identity,” Manea said. “Consider the person who is called a Muslim, ‘perceived’ as a Muslim and ‘treated’ as a Muslim, despite the fact that this person may not be religious at all or may prefer to be identified by his or her nationality.”
Through his work as president of EXMNA, Syed recommends that universities better promote and foster secular cultural groups. “Muslim and ex-Muslim students often already have enough pressure exerted on them by family and other students to act in a religious fashion,” Syed said.
PSU’s Cultural Resource Center has a dedicated space in the Multicultural Student Center to focus on programs for multiracial, Middle Eastern, North African and international student populations.
In February of this year, PSU hosted a campus-wide teach-in event on Islamophobia. “[The teach-in was] organized in response to a rise in anti-Islamic actions and rhetoric throughout the country, including the PSU campus,” President Wim Wiewel said in an email sent to every student.
“Islamophobia is a form of racism,” said Dana Ghazi, student body president for the 2015–16 academic year. “It’s not different than any other racism that’s operating in this community.”
Mutab, Faisal and Noora expressed discomfort with some Islamophobia awareness campaigns. They explained that even though they are sometimes the victims of anti-Muslim bias, Islamophobia can be a problematic concept at the ontological level because it does not separate criticism of ideology and religious practice from that of Muslim people. In a Saudi Arabian context where religion and state are intertwined, they have been accused of being Islamophobic when they spoke out online against state practices.
Signs of progress in the Kingdom
Despite the challenges of living in the shadow of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mutab and Faisal are hopeful about the future. “The new generation of Saudis who studied abroad are capable of improving things back home,” Mutab said.
Faisal said that while the growth of liberalism is slow in Saudi Arabia, it is happening and issues like women’s rights and free speech have gained international and domestic attention. This year, several high-profile social media campaigns have focused on women’s rights in the country. Saudi Arabia has some of the highest per-capita usage of social media in the world according to the Dubai School of Government.
Most recently, the Arabic language hashtag which translates to “Saudi women demand the end of guardianship,” became popular on social media after HRW published a scathing report on the state of women’s rights in the country. The report details how the guardianship system limits women’s mobility and access to education, housing, healthcare and employment.
In contrast to Mutab and Faisal, Noora has dimmer prospects about the future. “The experience of being a woman in Saudi Arabia today makes me hopeless,” Noora said. “Changes like voting at municipal elections are meaningless gestures.”In response to calls to end the guardianship system, Abdul Aziz al Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, said in the Arabic-language Okaz newspaper that the campaign is a “crime against Islam and Saudi Arabian society.” Al Sheikh is the top religious authority in Saudi Arabia. He advocates for the guardianship system to remain.
Late last year, Saudi Arabia introduced internationally lauded reforms that allowed women to vote for the first time at local elections. However, the elected officials have limited political power in the monarchical state. “I yearn to be treated and seen as an equal human being. The Shari’a of my country prevents change,” Noora said.
In spite of their differences over predictions on the direction of the Kingdom, Mutab, Faisal and Noora believe that secularization is a key in liberalizing Saudi Arabian society and policies toward a democratic future. Meanwhile, their views remain in the protective shadow of anonymity.
The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C. and SACM did not respond for comment on issues raised in this article.