For a time, traitor was the go-to accusation across much of the Arab world. During the heyday of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, government officials in Egypt or Syria would often brand dissidents as traitors. The term is still used to this day, but with the rise of Islamist fervor in the 1980s and 1990s, when Saudi Arabia set the religious tone for much of the region, it was overtaken by the deadly charge of kafir—“apostate” or “heretic.” It was brought against anyone who strayed from religious norms, secularists, intellectuals or inconvenient critics. Now, as the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tries to reduce religion’s role in his country, Saudi Arabia seems ready bring back the label of traitor.
Two weeks ago, Saudi authorities detained at least 11 prominent activists, including seven trailblazing women, young and old, who for decades have been fighting for the right of women to drive. The arrests came only weeks before June 24, the day Saudi Arabia will finally lift the driving ban. The authorities have since released four of the older arrested women, but have said nothing more about those still in detention.
Much of the analysis of the crackdown, particularly in Washington, centered on three arguments: that it exposed the crown prince’s much-touted reforms as nothing more than a sham; that it was motivated by his fear that the women would claim credit for the end of the ban, paving the way for further activism in an absolute monarchy where rights are granted, not fought for; and that it would assuage the orthodox clerics incensed by the expansion of social liberties. There is some truth to all three—after all, Mohammed bin Salman never promised political changes, only economic and social reforms.