“Fighting for Ashraf Fayadh is fighting for ourselves” – Wole Soyinka protests the death sentence on Palestinian poet

Thursday the 14th of January was a significant day for all literary personalities all over the world as they unite in support of Ashraf Fayadh, the Palestinian poet who has been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia. Over a hundred events were held in 44 countries, including Nigeria, as part of a campaign organised by the International Literature Festival Berlin.

At an event tagged ‘Free Ashraf Fayadh Now’, at Freedom Park in Lagos state, Professor Wole Soyinka and other Nigerian literary icons conducted readings, conversation, and performances, with regards to the unjust arrest and sentence on Fayadh, while calling for the intervention of governments all over the world to save the poet from execution.

Who is Ashraf Fayadh?

Ashraf Fayadh is a 32 year old poet and art curator who is currently on death row in Saudi Arabia over charges of apostasy. Fayadh was arrested in August 2013 reportedly after he got in an argument in a café with a fellow artist. The other man was said to have followed the argument with a complaint to the kingdom’s religious police, alleging that Fayadh was promoting atheism and spreading blasphemous ideas through his poems.

He was also charged for having inappropriate relations with women, and for violating the country’s anti-cyber-crime law by storing photos of these women on his phone. The Guardian reports that according to Fayadh’s friends, the religious police began berating the artist for smoking and having long hair after they failed to prove that his poetry promotes atheism.

Fayadh denied all allegations made against him, declaring that he is innocent and that the poems are “just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee… about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.” Still he was sentenced to death by an Appeals court which overturned his original sentence of four years in prison and 800 lashes by the General court.

How fighting for Fayadh is fighting for Nigeria

Since that judgement, there has been an international outcry with writers, artists, poets, and human rights groups around the world demanding for the release of Fayadh. It is in the light of this united protest that the Nigerian community of literary scholars and artists, led by Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, held the ‘Free Ashraf Fayadh Now’.

In decrying what he termed ‘religious bigotry’, Pofessor Soyinka implored Nigerians to understand what religion is, and its role in the society. “Religion is an act of faith … a personal affirmation,” said Soyinka, therefore, no religion should be exalted over another.

Citing the prevalent issue of the insurgence in Nigeria, Professor Soyinka said that religious extremism is what created Boko Haram, a group of terrorists who believe that Islam is the ultimate religion, and that non-Muslims are enemies of the religion. For this distorted belief, they have continuously wreaked havoc in the northern eastern part of Nigeria for six years.

“We are not doing Ashraf Fayadh a favour by this protest. We are doing ourselves a favour,” explained the literary giant. According to him, people have allowed the Bible, the Quran, and other religious books take symbolic and active control of their thoughts, to the point where it has become unhealthy, dangerous, and a threat. In Nigeria, religious extremism has resulted in the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands, and the destruction of town and cities, not to mention the resultant effect of these crisis on the nation’s economy.

By joining the global community in the protest against the ruling of the Saudi court, Nigerians are also speaking up against the system of religious bigotry and extremism that has taken root in the country. Poetry is no crime, and neither is apostasy, – supposing Fayadh actually did renounce Islam – a man’s religion should not be not be forced on him.

Fayadh’s sentence underscores the deeply flawed criminal justice system in Saudi, and is yet another example of the kingdom’s disregard for human rights in a long list of many. Reports by Amnesty International observe that a minimum of 151 people were executed in Saudi last year, the highest recorded figure since 1995. The appaling statistics indicates that on the average, one person is executed “every other day.”

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