The future of Saudi Arabia lies in Hamza Kashgari

(and incidentally, vice versa…)

On the occasion of Mawlidon February 4, 2012, Hamza Kashgari, a columnist for the Jeddah-based daily Al-Bilad, published three tweets about an imagined meeting with Muhammad, addressing him as an equal. One tweet read, “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.”

30,000 agitated responses and several death threats later, Kashgari deleted the posts and issued a formal apology. But the damage had already been done. As of 6pm (GMT) today, a Facebook page entitled « “The Saudi people want the execution of Hamza Kashgari” » had 26,708 members, a figure larger than the number of people who have signed a petition urging the Saudi government to drop all charges of blasphemy against him.

Today, the High Court and Judge Datuk Rohana dismissed the habeas corpus application filed by his lawyers. Kashgari’s counsel, Surendran, told the press that Hamza was denied his rights as he was illegally deported back to Saudi Arabia, before commenting on Rohana’s decision, saying that the court had failed in its duty to safeguard personal liberties.

Hamzi may have been careless in mocking the religious authorities, and has certainly caused a lot of commotion within the Muslim community – Sheikh Nasser Al Omar wept as he pleaded to the King for Kashgari to be executed. A stopover in the Muslim nation of Malaysia (where he was arrested at Kuala Lumpur airport and sent back to Saudi Arabia) may not have been the best idea either, but nothing he did remotely resembles a capital crime. In any other country, his tweets would have gained him his 15 minutes of fame. Only two days ago (on his 88th birthday) did Robert Mugabe mock press reports claiming he was gravely ill with the words, « I have died many times. That is where I have beaten Christ. Christ died once and resurrected once ». Granted, a completely different situation, but nonetheless it demonstrates the absurdity of Saudi Arabia’s riculously severe and anachronistic enforcement of law and order. As Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, put it, « It is near certain [Hamzi] will not get a fair trial in Saudi Arabia, where religious scholars have concluded that he is guilty of apostasy and should be put to death. »

Kasghari’s case certainly brings to light the great juxtaposition that is Saudi Arabia. It is not the first time Saudi Arabia has made headlines with its controversial convictions. Just a few months ago, newspapers were filled with the stories of women protesting the driving ban. Although many who visit the country are charmed by its people’s courtesy and hospitality, sooner or later Saudi Arabia has to decide which century it belongs to. It cannot strive to become a place of modernity and advancement and at the same time restrict and regulate peoples’ freedom. If Saudi authorities go through with the execution of this man over a tweet, who knows what its future may be? A life is on the line, and even though Hamza Kashgari may merely be, at this point, a terrified human being, he in some ways dictates the future of Saudi Arabia. As the world holds its breath, Saudi Arabia can choose to divert from it’s typically despotic nature, or to completely overstep the mark. In the case of the latter (let’s hope not), how will the world react? In any case, it’s bound to be an eye-opening episode, so keep your eyes peeled…

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