Demands for religious and speech freedoms in Saudi Arabia have taken a
heightened tone of urgency in the Western media following Saudi journalist
Hamza Kashgari’s ill-advised tweets allegedly denigrating God and the Prophet
Muhammad. Imaginary conversations with the Prophet, deemed an insult in Islam,
landed Kashgari in jail pending trial for blasphemy.
Kashgari’s remarks have sparked outrage in the West over how a man’s seemingly
crisis of faith could lead to a death sentence. Yet there is little to debate
in Saudi Arabia: Blasphemous statements require harsh punishment.
Kashgari had the poor judgment to tweet imaginary conservations with the
Prophet with statements that included, “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
The reaction on Twitter was instantaneous with 30,000 people condemning his
remarks. Many called for his death. Some Saudis created a Facebook page titled
“The Saudi People Demand the Execution of Hamza Kashgari” with a membership of
more than 13,000 people.
Kashgari attempted to seek asylum in New Zealand, but was detained in Malaysia
and returned to Saudi Arabia where he awaits trial.
The tragic and strange case of Kashgari points to the fine line between freedom
of expression and the religious obligations of Muslims. The issue is also rife
with political implications that complicate Kashgari’s ability to obtain
justice. His predicament also highlights the Western media’s myopic view of
Muslims and the inability to explain the nuances of Islam.
Kashgari does have the death penalty looming over his head, but his execution
is anything but certain. For one, Saudi Arabia has no specific laws for
blasphemy. The Saudi judicial system allows judges to define the crime of
blasphemy and decide punishment if the defendant is found guilty. The court
also must consider Kashgari’s mitigating statements in which he apologized for
the tweets and repented.
Contemporary Islamic scholars generally agree the death penalty is not
mandatory if the individual repents.
If only it was that easy. The absence of codified laws and Saudi Crown Prince
Nayef’s recent comments that Saudi Arabia is a nation of Salafists make it
almost impossible to predict Kashgari’s fate. Salafism, which is a conservative
form of Islam, permits repenting to avoid execution for blasphemy. But Kashgari
and his legal team only have to look to the 2008 case of Sabri Bogday to
recognize the uncertainty that lies ahead. A Saudi judge convicted the Turkish
barber of blasphemy and sentenced him to death. Bogday confessed that he “swore
at Allah” during an argument with a Saudi in Jeddah.
Bogday’s lawyer, Abdul Rahman Al-Lehem, said the judge refused to allow Bogday
to repent, although judges in other blasphemy cases allow individuals to
retract their words.
According to the Jeddah-based English language daily newspaper Arab News,
Bogday’s death sentence stemmed from a ruling based on huddud, or crimes
against the rights of God. The judge chose not to issue a ta’azir ruling, which
is based on Sharia and are crimes against public security. There is
disagreement among Islamic judges whether blasphemy and apostasy are even
huddud offenses. But Bogday escaped execution thanks to a pardon by King
Abdullah and Saudi authorities deported him to Turkey in 2009.
To add further confusion, there is nothing in the Qur’an that clearly
identifies blasphemy as a specific crime. Rather, the offense stems from
incidents recorded during the Prophet’s lifetime and defined later by Islamic
scholars as “reviling” God or the Prophet. The most prominent incident involved
the killing by Muslims of poet Ka’b Al-Ashraf, chief of the Jewish tribe Banu
Nadir, who denigrated the Prophet and plotted his assassination.
Notwithstanding the veritable crapshoot Kashgari faces in the kingdom’s legal
system, Saudi Arabia has demonstrated some measure of consistent leniency in
blasphemy cases. The last known execution for blasphemy was 19 years ago when
Sadiq Abdul-Karim Malallah, a Shi’ite, was executed following convictions
blasphemy and apostasy. It’s unclear how the charges originated, but Malallah’s
execution followed his refusal to agree to a Saudi judge’s request to convert
from Shia to Sunni.
Since Malallah’s execution, Saudi authorities have taken a more tempered
approach, although religious politics sometimes tinges the prosecution of
Schoolteacher Muhammad Al-Harbi was sentenced in 2005 to 40 months in prison on
a blasphemy conviction for discussing the causes of terrorism and Christianity
In 2006, journalist Rabah Al-Quqai wrote about hardline Islamists’ strict
interpretations of the Qur’an and warned of extremists intending to attack
targets in Riyadh. He avoided prison by promising to defend Islam in future
Like the Kashgari case, many Saudi blasphemy cases stem individuals’ personal
views of Islam. To the Ummah, one’s relationship with Allah is a matter best
kept to one’s own counsel. While the Muslim world largely embraces freedom of
speech, it parts ways with the Western interpretation when discussions turn to
Allah and the Prophet.
“You can belong to any of the 4 schools of thought in Islam – Hanafi, Shafi’i,
Maliki or Hanbali – but when it comes to Allah and the Prophet, peace be upon
him, no one is to ever question or challenge them,” one Saudi told me recently.
While Kashgari’s tweets are egregious in the minds of Muslims and leave no
doubt among Saudi authorities that blasphemy and apostasy charges are
necessary, the wider issue remains whether Kashgari’s activism will play a role
in whatever punishment he is likely to face.
Kashgari told The Daily Beast website that he was a “scapegoat for a larger
conflict” over his comments. “I view my actions as part of a process toward
freedom,” he said.
“I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rights – freedom of
expression and thought – so nothing was done in vain.” In a tweet, he wrote
that Saudi women “won’t go to hell because it’s impossible to go there twice.’”
Although his views on women’s rights probably will never be aired in a
courtroom, his feminist advocacy looms large among influential conservatives
who have aggressively condemned campaigns by Saudi women and their male
supporters for the right to drive a car and to ease or drop male guardianship
laws to make it easier to find employment or pursue an education.
Conservatives have waged a campaign to silence reform-minded Saudis by
attacking their faith, making Kashgari a prime target.
In effect, the Saudi conservative establishment views his tweets, compounded by
his attitudes towards a liberal democracy, as evidence of pattern of conduct to
erode the fabric of Saudi society. The Saudi legal system criminalizes such
conduct as criminal offenses, although there is no precise definition.
Despite the vagaries of the Saudi judicial system, Kashgari’s death sentence is
not a sure thing if the courts follow Salafism and accept his repentance.
But add his political activism to his ill-tempered religious remarks and
Kashgari may find the path to re-enter Saudi society a difficult journey.