More than a month since Saudi Arabian poet and former columnist Hamza Kashgari was arrested and thrown into Saudi jail for posting on his Twitter feed what many in his home country deemed to be blasphemous tweets, friends and family of the young man continue to fight for his release.
A friend of Kashgari’s and active member of the Free Hamza Kashgari Facebook group, who prefers to go by ‘Morooj B.S.’, has said via email that Kashgari’s case is not being dealt with by the Saudi Commission for Investigation and Prosecution, but by the Saudi Ministry of Interior, whose representatives continue to question the Saudi poet.
She confirmed that Kashgari has repented to Saudi authorities for blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad in a succession of posts on his Twitter feed, that members of his family had been granted access to visit him in jail and that he was in “good condition.”
Morooj B.S. added that friends and supporters “are still working to raise up his case internationally because we are not sure which scenario the case will take, though we believe that the international support will have a big influence in the decision that will be made.”
A Twitter Apostate
On February 4, 212, the day of observance for the Muslim holiday, Mawlid, Kashgari posted to his Twitter feed the following succession of tweets, supposedly an imagined conversation between himself and the Muslim prophet Muhammad:
- 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.
- 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 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.
The response from the Saudi public was swift and harsh. Many Saudis, including prominent religious leaders, deemed Kashgari’s tweets blasphemous. A Facebook group calling for his death gained well over 26, members in under two weeks. Clerics began to call for Kashgari to be tried for apostasy, a crime which — just as with repeated drug use, adultery and witchcraft and sorcery — is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.
Fearing for his own safety, Kashgari fled the country in hopes of being granted political asylum in New Zealand. Soon after that, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah ordered Kashgari’s arrest for “crossing red lines and denigrating religious beliefs in God and His Prophet.”
Kashgari was detained by Malaysian authorities at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 9, and was summarily deported to Riyadh on February 12, where he was arrested by Saudi authorities.
While media coverage of Hamza Kashgari’s case has dwindled in recent weeks, friends and members of the Free Hamza Kashgari Facebook group (which, as of publishing, is over 6,6 members strong) have kept themselves informed by maintaining contact with his family and lawyer as proceedings continue with Saudi authorities.
Anoud Al-Ofaysan, one of Kashgari’s personal friends, posted on the group’s wall today, confirming that Kashgari’s mother was able to visit him a few days ago, adding, “she said he got thinner but his face had that same brightness we’ve always known about him.”
Al-Ofaysan provided the group with a little more information, saying that Kashgari had been in al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh for the past month, before listing off a number of tasks that group members could do in order to raise global awareness.
After numerous attempts to contact the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., a Saudi representative finally responded, saying that the embassy had “no information” regarding Kashgari’s case.
A U.S. State Department official said on Tuesday that the United States understands that the messages written by Kashgari could be taken as offensive and/or disrespectful to Muslims:
At the same time, we strongly defend the universal human right of freedom of speech. We believe that when speech is viewed as offensive, be it via social media or any other means, the issue is best addressed through open dialogue and honest debate. The United States is firmly committed to the universal human rights of freedom of religion and freedom of expression that all governments have committed to uphold. Freedom of expression includes the ability to seek, receive, and impart information through any media.
Dr. Nasim Rehmatullah, national vice president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and representative of Muslims for Peace, said in an email that, since he has not seen Kashgari’s tweets, he can not speak as to whether or not they constitute as blasphemy. But if it were to turn out that they were, in fact, blasphemous, his stance would be as follows:
“Islam promotes freedom of speech and expression. Blasphemy is condemned on moral and ethical grounds, no doubt, but no physical punishment is prescribed in Islam despite the commonly held view by many Muslim countries and its people.
Although the Holy Quran very strongly discourages indecent behaviour and indecent talk, or hurting the sensitivity of others, Islam does not advocate the punishment of blasphemy in this world nor vests such authority in anyone.”
Dr. Rehmatullah says that in no instance in the Quran is blasphemy met with punishment. Therefore, “if a country or a people institute a punishment of death for a person who has allegedly committed an act of blasphemy it should be condemned very strongly.” Beyond that, if, as in Kashgari’s case, the blasphemer repents, “(t)here is no basis for punishment.”
Supporters believe that global attention is highly important in regards to how the Riyadh authorities will respond to Hamza’s repentance. They have laid out a multi-tiered approach in hopes of raising awareness, including contacting organizations, government entities and newspapers, revitalizing the Twitter hashtags and Facebook groups in support of Kashgari and documenting as much as possible on the events surrounding his arrest, case file and everything else that is to come.
Now is a pivotal moment in Kashgari’s case. Perhaps unfortunately, it has come along in the same moment as Invisible Children’s Kony 212 viral video campaign, the one-year anniversary of the Syrian Revolution and George Clooney’s arrest in Washington D.C. in protest of the events taking place in Sudan. One could perhaps argue that Kashgari’s supporters will have to compete for global attention with these other movements. On the other hand, one could also say that Kashgari’s campaign for awareness comes at a moment in which the world is absolutely percolating with a desire to campaign for change.
While perhaps not everyone in the Muslim world will share Dr. Rehmatullah’s views, the friends and family of Hamza Kashgari may find some support outside of Saudi Arabia’s borders. Saudi Arabia is notorious as one of the most conservative nations in the world and, having topped Reporters Without Borders’ Enemies of the Internet list yet again, Saudi Arabia is perhaps already under the microscope.
But now, said Al-Ofaysan to her 6,6-plus fellow group members, “now we must get down to work.”