Hamza Kashgari, a Saudi journalist accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammad, was on his way back to his home country on Sunday to face a possible beheading - the victim of a dangerous mixture of ancient religious strictures and 21st-century technology.
Kashgari fled to Malaysia last week amid a massive public outcry by ordinary Saudis, conservative clerics and even government officials after he posted three controversial Tweets on the birthday criticizing the Prophet Muhammad earlier this month. Kashgari quickly apologized and removed them from his feed, but by then the campaign against him had grown too powerful to reverse course.
Charges of blasphemy against the Islamic faith as well as the more serious charge of apostasy are fairly common in Saudi Arabia, whose official faith is a strict form of Islam known as Wahabism. But Kashgari’s case sent off a firestorm because, unusually, his remarks were broadcast on one of the world’s leading social media platforms, said Rothna Begum, the Campaign on Saudi Arabia director for the human rights organization Amnesty International.
“It’s unusual in the sense in sheer public outcr... this one has been quite large,” Begum told The Media Line. “The reason is that in other cases you have two people [witnesses] who will have heard the remarks and press charges against him. In this case they were published in Twitter and it spread like wildfire.”
Amnesty as well other human rights organization called on Malaysia not to deport Kashgari after he was arrested February 9, but a Malaysian court put him on a plane back home on Sunday before his lawyers could petition to block the order. Amnesty is now asking Riyadh to refrain from arresting him.
Kashgari’s arrest comes as the Saudi royal family tries to square popular calls and the needs of its economy for more openness and fewer Islamic strictures with the demands of the country’s powerful religious establishment to keep to traditional ways. Last month, women were allowed to work as sales assistants in lingerie shops, previously a male monopoly.
And even as Kashgari was facing charges of apostasy, local media reported this week that King Abdullah had pardoned Hadi al-Mutif after 18 years in prison on charges of insulting the Prophet. He had been sentenced to death in 1996, but the king had never confirmed the punishment as required by Saudi law and Mutif remained in jail.
Kashgari, age 23, drew the apostasy charges after he posted the three Tweets, which combined both praise and criticism, addressed to the Prophet on his traditional birthday.
In the first, Kashgari declared “I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me,” but then added: “I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.” He followed that with a second tweet, “I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.”
In a third, Kashgari said: “I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.”
The response was massive and virulent. Within 24 hours, it had elicited more than 30,000 tweets accusing him of blasphemy and calling for his death. Someone posted Kashgari’s home address in a YouTube video, which friends said led vigilantes to come looking for him at his local mosque. A Facebook page demanding retribution garnered more than 18,000 members. Information Minister Abdul Aziz Khowja banned Kashgari’s local newspaper column and barred outlets across the country from publishing his work.
But perhaps most dangerous of all for Kashgari was remarks by Nasser al Omar, an influential cleric, who called for him to be tried for apostasy, a crime punishable by death. In a YouTube video Omar can be seen weeping as he calls for Kashgari’s execution, saying he is crying because Muslims are not doing enough to defend the honor of their faith.
“When Ibn al Arabia was told, ‘We should engage atheists in debate,’ he replied: ‘That is a cold response that should be warmed by the heat of the sword,’” Omar said. “The scholars say that whoever curses God and his Prophet should be sentenced to apostasy, even if he repents.”
Kashgari, indeed, had repented. But by February 6, he felt he had no choice but to flee the country and would seek asylum in New Zealand. “It’s impossible. No way,” he told The Daily Beast website. “I’m afraid, and I don’t know where to go.”
Two days after he fled, the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta headed by Saudi Grand Mufti Abdul-Azeez ibn Abdullaah issued a statement calling for Kashgari to be tried. Abdullah ordered the arrest “for crossing red lines and denigrating religious beliefs in God and His Prophet.”
Human rights groups have accused Interpol, the international police information-sharing agency, of helping the Saudis conduct what they call a political arrest by issuing a so-called red notice that alerted Malaysian authorities that Kashgari was a wanted man.
How often and how strenuously Saudi Arabia enforces its strict rules on blasphemy and apostasy are murky because the justice system is so opaque, said Begum of Amnesty International.
Cases are not always publicly reported and when they are it is often long after they have been tried. Amnesty, for instance, did not know of the fate of Mutif until his release was announced. Judges have wide latitude in interpreting what constitute blasphemy or apostasy, giving them power over life and death. Blasphemy is punishable by lashing and/or imprisonment; apostasy is punishable by execution.
According to the US State Department, Saudi Arabia announced 26 executions during 2010, all by beheading, for charges that included witchcraft and sorcery. The government executed 67 people in 2009 and 102 in 2008.
Last December, Australian national Mansor Almaribe was sentenced to 500 lashes and a year in a Saudi Arabian jail (commuted from two years) after being convicted of blasphemy. But Begum said Amnesty is concerned that Kashgari will receive little mercy from the courts because public officials have come out against him. “That is seriously worrying because it leaves little room for what will happen if he is sent back,” she said.