The story of the young Saudi journalist, Hamza Kashgari, whose tweets on the Prophet’s birthday led to charges of blasphemy and calls for his death, highlights the widening gulf between the liberals and the conservatives and the challenges faced by the Kingdom in its attempts to modernize.
Kashgari, a 23-year-old journalist with Al-Bilad newspaper in Jeddah, last week posted a series of tweets of imaginary conversations with the Prophet, in which he spoke to him as an equal, showing his admiration for the man but also confusion around his persona.
“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” said one Tweet quoted by The Daily Beast.
Within an hour, 30,000 people had responded to those tweets according to AFP; a hashtag with Kashgari’s name had been created, and as the outrage spread in the course of the next few days, so did a video of a Saudi cleric weeping while calling for Kashgari to be tried under Islamic law for blasphemy.
Blasphemy is punishable in Saudi law by death and due to the sensitivity of the issue it is difficult to ascertain how many times the law has been applied. A cursory search, however, indicates that the king can pardon the accused as has happened in the past.
So Kashgari is not the first to have reportedly blasphemed in Saudi Arabia he may be the first to have taken to social media to air them, hence the instant reaction. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have provided Saudis with a unique opportunity to debate on all sorts of issues, notably the right for women to drive but Kashgari’s tweets prove the limits of free speech.
Kashgari, who told co-founder of Cyber Dissidents David Keyes on Friday that he could not have imagined the reaction, had by then already deleted the controversial tweets upon seeing the immediate furor and issued an apology but to no avail.
A cleric who told a newspaper that he had encouraged Kashgari to issue the apology has, however, not come forward to defend him.
Instead there is an environment that can best be described as an online community baying for blood. A page on Facebook calling for his execution had 12,000 members at last count according to an article in Digital Journal. A Facebook page showing support for him has 700.
The polarization of society on contentious issues ─ the right can be heard loud and clear while the liberals fight to find any space to air their views ─ also highlights the power of the religious lobbies in the Kingdom and the enormous clout they wield on the administration.
The government seems hesitant to take any action against those openly making such threatening calls ostensibly because the issue is as sensitive as it is. It was King Abdullah himself who allegedly ordered Kashgari’s arrest which proves the clout of social media in the Kingdom and how closely it is monitored by those who fear it.
The latest news on Kashgari is that he has been detained in Malaysia, allegedly en route to New Zealand where he was planning to apply for asylum, and plans are reportedly afoot to deport him back to Saudi Arabia. It is likely that he will be tried and jailed for some years for blasphemy but not sentenced to death despite the calls because of the international spotlight on the issue.
However, what is difficult to ascertain is the impact, if any, Kashgari’s case will have on how social media is used in Saudi Arabia and whether officials will monitor it even more closely to regulate the free speech employed there.
(The writer is Editor of Al Arabiya English and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)