Muhammad Najeeb Kashgari, better known as Hamza Kashgari, is a 23-year-old Saudi writer and the first victim of the global enforcement of radical Sharia by international legal authorities.
After writing several tweets that presented a liberal interpretation of Islam well within the normative boundaries of that religion, Kashgari was proclaimed a heretic by Saudi clerics. Fleeing to Malaysia he was captured with the reported help of an Interpol system and extradited back to Saudi Arabia to face a grim fate. The charge? Apostasy.
For an analysis of his tweets, see Barry Rubin, “Manufacturing Heresy.”
Almost immediately, he faced a social media backlash. In the 24 hours following his posts, around 30,000 responses were received by his Twitter account. By February 17, over 26,000 people joined a Facebook group titled “The Saudi people demand retribution from Hamza Kashgari.” Kashgari apologized online, and deleted his own tweets.
The apology and deletions weren’t enough for Riyadh’s Wahhabist religious establishment. Sheikh Nasser Omar went so far as to cry out on television about Kashgari’s “cursing of the prophet,” saying his apology was “cold” and demanding that he be executed.
Saudi Arabia’s Information Minister Abdul-Aziz Khoja announced, “I have given instructions to ban him from writing for any Saudi newspaper or magazine, and there will be legal measures to guarantee that.” Kashgari recognized the danger and planned to flee to New Zealand.
But Kashgari was arrested in Muslim-majority Malaysia while boarding his flight to New Zealand. According to some reports, Kashgari attempted to seek asylum in Malaysia. Despite this request, without a hearing, and refused any chance to meet with a local lawyer, Kashgari was held incommunicado. He was quickly shuttled aboard a private Saudi jet and sent back to Saudi Arabia where he is now awaiting trial with a probable death sentence as the verdict.
For radical groups, Islamic conservatives, and Islamist regimes, Muslim liberals pose a great threat, especially their modernist interpretations of Islam. Many of these regimes have jailed, exiled, or even killed those who’ve offered dissenting views.
With quickly expanding technological advances in the Islamic world, liberals can now bypass censorship by publishing on the Internet and social media. Yet this in no way protects them from the most severe punishment. Now, even a 120-character comment can win someone a date with the chopping block.
The Saudis are not the only ones moving to censor the Internet and social media.
Earlier in February, a man was arrested in Pakistan’s Sindh province for “spreading derogatory electronic messages” about the four caliphs that succeeded Muhammad. In Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, one can be prosecuted and jailed for 7 to 12 years for using the Internet (including Twitter accounts) for “blasphemy.”
In 2008, Kuwaiti parliamentarians and the director of censorship at the Kuwaiti Ministry of Communication banned YouTube so they could “protect” Kuwaitis from those who “blasphemed” against Muhammed. Egypt’s blasphemy laws were used to go after Coptic Christian businessman and liberal politician Naguib Sawiris after he tweeted a cartoon of a bearded Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse wearing the clothing prescribed by Islamists as properly Muslim.
When Western journalists praised the tweeting revolutionaries of Libya, Egypt, and Syria, they missed a key element. As tech-savvy as many in the Islamic world appear, it is still an extremely closed environment. The normal Western paradigm of technological and social advances going hand-in-hand is hardly the case in the Islamic world. The same blogging sites that appeared to offer an outlet for religious dissenters can just as quickly be turned against them. With a new wave of Sunni Islamist regimes sprouting up in the post-Arab Spring landscape, cases like Kashgari’s may soon become the norm.