By P. David Hornik

The bad news is that Mohammad Al-Harbi, a high school teacher in the Saudi town of Ein Al-Juwa, has been sentenced to three years in jail and 750 lashes to be administered in a public market. His crime, as reported by the Saudi daily Al-Madina, is “mocking religion,” or, specifically, discussing the Bible and praising Jews. Al-Harbi was taken to court for these transgressions by students and colleagues at his school.

An article in Arab News, a Saudi English-language daily, fills in the details. Al-Harbi joined the staff of Al-Fowailiq High School as a chemistry teacher five years ago. The report, which is openly sympathetic to Al-Harbi, says he was “deeply disturbed by the explosions at the Al-Hamra Compound in Riyadh in 2003,” and “felt it his duty . . . to enlighten his students and warn them of terrorism and its consequences. He went to great lengths by talking to students, hanging anti-terrorism signs around the school and speaking against terrorism.”

That seems to have upset some Islamic studies teachers at the school. When al-Harbi went so far as to post an antiterrorism article by a Saudi columnist on the school bulletin board, it was “ripped off and torn to pieces.” Al-Harbi told Arab News that the Islamic teachers would “visit students in their homes, encouraging them to disobey [him] and calling him names.”

Al-Harbi also told the paper that the students who filed the lawsuit against him had failed the monthly chemistry test, and when he refused to give them the test again, they complained to the principal who backed him up. Some of the Islamic studies teachers then exploited the students’ anger to convince them to file the lawsuit, which also included allegations that Al-Harbi prevented students from washing their hands for prayer and was himself a student of witchcraft.

According to details of the trial that Al-Harbi’s lawyer, Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem, gave Arab News, it was something less than exemplary. The judge listened to the complainants but refused to give the defendant the right to interrogate them, and refused to recognize Al-Lahem as his lawyer. He also declined to question anyone from the school except the students and teachers who filed the lawsuit, though some of Al-Harbi’s colleagues would undoubtedly have backed him.

What is not clear is the extent to which the “charges” were cooked, and whether Al-Harbi actually went so far as to say good things about Jews or the Bible. At the very least, he got himself in trouble by condemning terrorism, and some reports say he encouraged tolerance for all faiths.

The Saudi Education Ministry has meanwhile removed Al-Harbi from his teaching job and transferred him to an administrative post in a government education office. The lawyer, Al-Lahem, plans to appeal the horrendous verdict. A recent ominous precedent is that of a schoolteacher tried for apostasy in 2004 who was sentenced to three years in jail and 300 lashes.

The relatively good news is that the Al-Harbi affair seems to be sparking much controversy in Saudi Arabia. The Khaleej Times of the United Arab Emirates says Arab News further reported that:

“Al Harbi’s case has attracted attention in the press with both columnists and the public in general strongly attacking what is widely seen as a harsh and unjust sentence. . . . The case has been a prime topic on Saudi Internet forums with Saudis of both sexes from all over the country joining in the debate. The majority showed deep concern. . . . Many Saudis asked about the efficiency and fairness of the Saudi legal system. . . . ”

Both skeptics and optimists about the Arab world can find ammunition in this case. On the one hand is the success of Islamists in framing a lone individual who stood up for decency, and the cruel, farcical “justice system” to which he was exposed. On the other hand is the popular ferment and open expression of anger at the establishment.

It appears, at this point, that the dominant reality is Mohammad Al-Harbi’s helplessness before the grim workings of the Saudi tyranny.