Three Tweets. Such are grounds for a death sentence in Saudi Arabia.
On 4 February, 23-year-old Hamza Kashagari, a well-known Saudi writer, journalist and commentator, decided to commemorate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad by tweeting a personal poem about Him. He has now been detained by authorities in Malaysia — possibly because of these tweets — and faces possible extradition back to Saudi Arabia where Islamists in the country are calling for his execution.
In three tweets, in Arabic, he wrote:
“On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you,”
“On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more,”
“On your birthday, 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.”
Translation courtesy of the Daily Beast
The tweets were always going to be controversial in Saudi Arabia. Kashgari must have known this and steeled himself for responses, not realizing that these 536 characters may eventually threaten his very life. Within hours came 30,000 tweets filled with vitriol, anger, and violence; then came the death threats, followed by the drawing up of a petition for his trial and execution; finally, Saudi King Abdullah issued the arrest warrant in Kashgari’s name. The unthinkable had happened.
In scenes reminiscent of a religious inquisition, Islamic scholars and commentators lined up on Saudi TV seeking to outdo each other in their calls for Kashgari’s death to satisfy his theological affront. It became an ugly, bloodthirsty witch-hunt, but one that has been long called for by the Saudi clerical establishment to root out “liberals” like Kashgari who seeks a more modern, open and tolerant approach in Saudi society.
Top religious figures have now pre-emptively arranged for his trial in a Shariah court of law for blasphemy. The punishment, if he is found guilty, is death by beheading or stoning.
Kashgari’s reaction to this was understandable: he apologized, deleted the offending tweets and fled the country. Today, however, he is held in Malaysia awaiting extradition to Saudi Arabia. When returned to Saudi Arabia, he will face arrest, imprisonment, trial and, very possibly, death.
Saudi Arabia is not a safe country in which to hold non-mainstream ideas. It is a country where opinions are cloaked, theories shielded, and discussions conducted in hushed tones. In Saudi Arabia you implicitly trust your audience and carefully select your listeners, mindful at all times of the potential consequences your words or intellectualisms may bring.
Yet, there was a very modern exception to this inflexible rule: Twitter.
On Twitter many Saudis expound, share and look up information, eager to inform and be informed of both their country and the world. For years they thought they were safe from scrutiny of the police, the state and the religious establishment; safe in an Internet haven from where they could feel connected to the international community and be “controversial.” With Hamza Kashgari’s arrest and future trial this is now finished.
Outside Saudi Arabia, we use Twitter to disseminate our views on the world, politics, celebrities, sports and perpetrate the occasional “Rickrolling.” But for young Saudis, Twitter is a lifeline of news, information and debate lacking in their country. We in the West rarely take time to appreciate or enjoy the freedoms we have through this social networking site, nor do we reflect on people like Kashgari who face barbarous, unjustified punishment for merely expressing a non-mainstream viewpoint. We should all take a moment and think about the rights we all-too often take for granted, because men like Kashgari face death for lack of them.
For many of us a tweet takes a second to send, for Hamza Kashgari it may end up taking his life.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons