Palestinian arrested for insulting Islam on Facebook

Mother calls for life imprisonment to protect family from shame, son from murderous vigilantes; second PA Facebook arrest this Fall.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
November 12, 2010 23:00
4 minute read.
A Palestinian internet cafe in Bethlehem

311_Palestinian internet cafe. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

A mysterious blogger who set off an uproar in the Arab world by claiming he was God and hurling insults at the Prophet Muhammad is now behind bars — caught in a sting that used Facebook to track him down.

The case of the unlikely apostate, a shy barber from the backwater West Bank town of Kalkilya, is highlighting the limits of tolerance in the Western-backed Palestinian Authority — and illustrating a new trend by authorities in the Arab world to mine social media for evidence.

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Residents of Kalkiliya say they had no idea that Walid Husayin — the 26-year-old son of a Muslim scholar — was leading a double life. Known as a quiet man who prayed with his family each Friday and spent his evenings working in his father's barbershop, Husayin was secretly venting his anti-religious opinions on the Internet during his free time.

The media in the Palestinian Authority, as in the Arab world in general, are largely government-controlled, driving dissenting voices to the relative freedom of the Internet. The blogger's arrest showed a willingness on the part of the Palestinian government to clamp down on freedom of speech on the Web as well. He now faces a potential life prison sentence on heresy charges for "insulting the divine essence."

Many in this conservative Muslim town say that isn't enough, and suggested he should be killed for renouncing Islam. Even family members say he should remain behind bars for life.

"He should be burned to death," said Abdul-Latif Dahoud, a 35-year-old Kalkiliya resident. The execution should take place in public "to be an example to others," he added.

Kalkilya man called Islamic God a primitive Beduin

Over several years, Husayin is suspected of posting arguments in favor of atheism on English and Arabic blogs, where he described the God of Islam as having the attributes of a "primitive Beduin." He called Islam a "blind faith that grows and takes over people's minds where there is irrationality and ignorance."

If that wasn't enough, he is also suspected of creating three Facebook groups in which he sarcastically declared himself God and ordered his followers, among other things, to smoke marijuana in verses that spoof the Muslim holy book, the Koran. At its peak, Husayin's Arabic-language blog had more than 70,000 visitors, overwhelmingly from Arab countries.

His Facebook groups elicited hundreds of angry comments, detailed death threats and the formation of more than a dozen Facebook groups against him, including once called "Fight the blasphemer who said 'I am God.'"

Husayin used a fake name on his English and Arabic-language blogs and Facebook pages. After his mother discovered articles on atheism on his computer, she canceled his Internet connection in hopes that he would change his mind.

Husayin postings monitored for weeks by PA security

Instead, he began going to an Internet cafe — a move that turned out to be a costly mistake. The owner, Ahmed Abu-Asal, said the blogger aroused suspicion by spending up to seven hours a day in a corner booth. After several months, a cafe worker supplied captured snapshots of his Facebook pages to Palestinian intelligence officials.

Officials monitored him for several weeks and then arrested him on Oct. 31 as he sat in the cafe, said Abu-Asal.

Two cousins attributed the writings to depression, saying Husayin was desperate to find better work. Requesting anonymity because of the shame the incident, they said Husayin's mother wants him to remain in prison for life — both to restore the family's honor and to protect him from vigilantes.

Husayin is the first to be arrested in the West Bank for his religious views, said Tayseer Tamimi, the former chief Islamic judge in the area.

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority is among the more religiously liberal Arab governments in the region. It is dominated by secular elites and has frequently cracked down on hardline Muslims and activists connected to its conservative Islamic rival, Hamas.

The case is the second high-profile arrest in the West Bank connected to Facebook activity. In late September, a reporter for a news station sympathetic to Hamas was arrested and detained for more than a month after he was tagged in a Facebook image that insulted the Palestinian president.

Gaza's Hamas rulers also stalk Facebook pages for suspected dissenters, said Palestinian rights activist Mustafa Ibrahim. He said Internet cafe owners are forced to monitor customers' online activity and alert intelligence officials if they see anything critical of the militant group or that violates Hamas' stern interpretation of Islam.

Both governments also create fake Facebook profiles to befriend and monitor known dissidents, activists said. In September, a young Gaza man was detained after publishing an article critical of Hamas on his Facebook feed.


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