The case of Hamza Kashgari, the 23-year-old ex-columnist for the Saudi Arabian daily newspaper Al-Bilad (The Land), has exposed the convoluted internal situation in the desert kingdom. The controversy began on the birthday of Muhammad, when Kashgari wrote an imaginary dialogue with the Muslim progenitor in three tweets.

In the first, Kashgari declared, “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.” In the second, he continued, “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.” In the third he wrote, “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.”

Kashgari’s comments were met with nearly 30,000 tweets condemning him for blasphemy and threatening him. He deleted his tweets about Muhammad within six hours, renouncing them in a lengthy public apology, and then tweeted, “I have made a mistake, and I hope Allah and all those whom I have offended will forgive me.” Nevertheless, a Facebook page was established, titled, “The Saudi people demand the execution of Hamza Kashgari,” and quickly gained 20,000 supporters.

The young commentator, a graduate in Islamic studies from Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz University, had left Al-Bilad some weeks before, after disagreements over payment and his work. Following the reaction to his tweets about Muhammad, he attempted to flee to New Zealand, traveling first to Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, according to the blog Saudi Jeans. The influential al-Arabiya news channel and website reported that “King Abdullah himself… allegedly ordered Kashgari’s arrest.” Kashgari was detained in Malaysia, a country with strong affinities for radical Islam. On February 12, Malaysia deported him back to Saudi Arabia, where retrograde clerics and government officials alike have called for punishment of the young writer, including beheading.

The response to Kashgari’s tweets reflect Saudi Arabia’s difficulty in contending with social media and its anxieties over the “Arab Spring.” Millions of Saudis now have Twitter and Facebook accounts. In December 2011, Saudi prince Alwaleed Bin Talal invested $300 million in Twitter. (Alwaleed is still best remembered for his rejected offer of a $10 million check to then-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, after the Al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001.) But the chief Islamic cleric in the Saudi kingdom, Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, a descendant of Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, said Twitter is “a great danger not suitable for Muslims… it is a platform for spreading lies and making accusations.”

The Kashgari affair further shows the confused condition of the Saudi clerical elite and the public it agitates. Western media noted that the original Kashgari tweets were written by the author on Muhammad’s birthday. That occasion is celebrated in the Islamic third lunar month of Rabi-Ul-Awwal, which began on January 24 in the Western calendar this year. Sunni Muslims assign it to the 13th day of the lunar month, which fell on February 5, 2012. Shia Muslims prefer the 17th day of Rabi-Ul-Awwal, or February 9.

But Saudi Wahhabism forbids commemoration of the birthday, and Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim-majority country in the world that does not honor it. It is similarly prohibited by the radical South Asian Deobandi sect, which inspires the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, but is maintained by mass participation in both countries. Fundamentalist opponents censure the practice as an imitation of the Christian Christmas holiday, among other complaints. Wahhabis additionally condemn any “halo of divinity” attached to Muhammad.

Yet none of the Saudi denunciations suggest that Kashgari desecrated Muhammad’s birthday. Rather, Saudi Information Minister Abdul-Aziz Khoja said he wept when he read the tweets, and accused Kashgari of “attacking our prophet.” Nasr Al-Omar, one of the most vociferous Wahhabi bigots in the country, also shed tears, in a February 5 video calling for Kashgari’s arrest and trial, accessible with English subtitles through the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). (Al-Omar is known for encouraging Saudis to cross the northern border with Iraq for jihad against the U.S.-led intervention against Saddam Hussein in 2003.)

The Saudi daily Arab News noted that preachers in Mecca and others alleged Kashgari’s comments were “insulting,” “slanderous,” “blasphemous,” “heinous,” “apostasy,” “sacrilegious,” and “mocking.” Others accused Kashgari of “heresy” and “unbelief.” The newspaper reported calls for trial and punishment of Saudis who defended Kashgari in blogs and tweets.

Rather than inflammatory insults, Kashgari’s musings seemed characteristic of a person who was described sympathetically by an anonymous editor at his former employer, Al-Bilad, as follows: “He’s a poet and had a lot of philosophical ideas.” The same editor said Kashgari had memorized the Koran and never wrote about controversial religious topics in the newspaper.

The young writer remains in the hands of the Saudi authorities, awaiting interrogation and possible trial. He and his family insisted on his “repentance,” and the prominent Saudi human rights lawyer Abd Al-Rahman Al-Lahem announced he was prepared to defend Kashgari. Malaysian attorneys protested their government’s handover of the author to the Saudis without recourse to counsel or established regulations.

Kashgari and others have interpreted the uproar as part of an extremist revival in Saudi Arabia. The now imprisoned blogger has said, “I believe I’m just a scapegoat for a larger conflict. There are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights.”

Saudi sources describe a recent intensification of repression against women, religious minorities, and dissidents. The hard-line Wahhabi Sheikh Saleh Al-Luhaidan had been removed from the Saudi supreme judicial council by King Abdullah in 2009, at the height of the reform wave, after Al-Luhaidan said Arab television executives broadcasting “immoral” programs during the fasting month of Ramadan could be murdered legitimately. But Al-Luhaidan was then named to a senior clerical body, and last year expressed his disaffection with King Abdullah’s grant of limited voting rights to women. Al-Luhaidan recently called for women to be barred from Al-Jenadriyah, an annual Saudi cultural exposition in Riyadh. Members of the hated “morals patrols” or mutawiyin, officially styled the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, stormed the event.

Similarly, a lecture by Samar Al-Megren, a Saudi woman who has written in criticism of abuses by the mutawiyin, announced in the north-central Saudi city of Al-Qaseem, was cancelled after the local Literary Club received a Wahhabi ultimatum warning that Al-Megren would be killed if she appeared, and stating, “Be ready for the verdict of retaliation!”

And there’s another wrinkle: One wonders how Twitter executives will fit the Kashgari case with the microblogging company’s new policy of allowing governments to censor content. On February 15, U.S. senators from both sides of the aisle, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), wrote to Twitter head Dick Costolo asking for clarification of the company’s intended compliance with demands by governments to block its use. It’s likely that they will be even more eager for a response after this latest set of events.

The treatment of Hamza Kashgari, now that he has been returned to his homeland, may prove an important milestone for Saudi Arabia. Kashgari has been forced to recant, threatened, and pursued across the world for comments that he may have believed were inoffensive according to Wahhabi doctrine. All signs point to King Abdullah and the reform forces in retreat, and the Wahhabi diehards, encouraged by Crown Prince Nayef Bin Abd Al-Aziz, on the march, with their customary fanaticism raised to a frenzied pitch.

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