It’s hard to know where to begin in cataloging the outrages associated with the arrest of Hamza Kashgari. The 23-year-old Saudi columnist was recently detained on trumped-up “blasphemy” charges, for which he potentially faces execution.
First, Saudi extremists took umbrage at some tweets in which he expressed admiration, disapproval and bewilderment at various aspects of the Prophet Mohammed’s legendary life. This outrage was orchestrated by clerics as part of a campaign to increase their power.
Second, the Saudi state reacted by appeasing the fanatics and ordering Kashgari’s arrest for “blasphemy.” In effect, they confirmed the ability of extremists to dictate the agenda of, if not bully, the government on religious matters.
Third, Kashgari had already left the country to evade persecution, but was apprehended by Malaysian authorities in Kuala Lumpur, possibly with the assistance of Interpol, and returned to Saudi Arabia. So at least one foreign government and possibly a multilateral policing agency have connived in this travesty.
Fourth, the Saudi government says it may seek the death penalty for Kashgari. There can be no freedom of conscience or religion where blasphemy is a crime, but the Saudi state has never respected or acknowledged either of those principles. Yet Kashgari hasn’t committed blasphemy. All he did was express complex religious feelings. And it is shocking that a government would consider executing, or even prosecuting, anyone for either of these “crimes.”
Fifth, while there have been some limited efforts to protest this scandalous injustice and intercede on behalf of Kashgari’s life and liberty, they have thus far been insufficient. Muslim states, governments and individuals have an especial, and urgent, responsibility to categorically oppose this outrage.
Muslims, including Saudi officials and citizens, are properly vociferous in denouncing Islamophobic misrepresentations of Islam as an inherently violent and intolerant religion. Doctrinally and historically, it is clearly not. However, the reputation of Muslims and Islam is also, and far too often, called into severe disrepute by the conduct of some important Muslim-majority states claiming to act in the name or defense of Islam.
The persecution of Kashgari, not by cynical Saudi clerics weeping hysterically on YouTube, but by the state itself, is another disturbing reflection of this phenomenon. One cannot claim to be tolerant or opposed to violence while considering beheading someone for expressing mild religious doubts about a figure who, in his own lifetime, reportedly insisted on his own status as a fallible human being.
The government of Saudi Arabia doesn’t represent the norm or authority for the Muslims of the world. But it is a large and influential Muslim state and is claiming to act on behalf of Islam in this ugly affair.
Silence implies consent. If Muslims don’t want their religion to be misrepresented by such actions, they must openly and loudly repudiate them. And, if there is any virtue or truth in religion, it hardly needs enforcement on pain of death.
The good news is that because he is a relatively prominent Saudi citizen, and the case has become a minor international cause célèbre, Kashgari is unlikely to be executed. The pattern in such cases suggests that if he shows “repentance” or there is an international outcry, or both, Kashgari’s sentence may initially be harsh but will almost certainly be commuted.
The most likely outcome is that Kashgari will end up sometime in the next few years permanently relocated to another country. Kashgari is lucky that he’s not from a remote village or irrelevant family or, worse, a migrant worker. In that case he might really need to start contemplating bearing his neck to the sword.
This scandal is indicative of a broader growth of intolerance in Saudi social and religious rhetoric of late, which also comes in the context of Shia unrest in the Eastern Governorate of Qatif. Extremist clerics have been upping the ante at every stage over the past few months, and clearly believe that they have just won an important victory. They are now demanding the cancellation of cultural and book festivals. At public events, their thuggish, unauthorized and un-uniformed street forces, known as the “Mohtasbeen,” have been reportedly trying to upstage the official religious orthodoxy beadles, the “Muttaween.”
While non-Muslims cannot honestly claim that Saudi Arabia represents Islam, Muslims cannot dismiss the kingdom as irrelevant either. Saudi Arabia’s religious and cultural influence, byproducts of its wealth and custodianship of the two most holy Muslim sites, is undeniable. The extremist shift in Saudi social and religious attitudes therefore has troubling implications.
Nobody can force the Saudi state to behave in a reasonable manner if it doesn’t want to. But all other Muslims can and should make it clear that they strongly disapprove of the persecution of Hamza Kashgari and the mentality that lies behind such actions.