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The Saudi Twitter ‘Blasphemy’ Case

2:10 PM, Feb 21, 2012 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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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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