The case of journalist Hamza Kashgari has entered a new and deeply worrying phase as Malaysian authorities have deported the 23-year-old journalist back to Saudi Arabia, where he could be executed for “blasphemy”. There has been widespread and rightful opprobrium of the Saudi government’s response but few seem to question the official Saudi line that their indignation at alleged blasphemy is behind the call for the death penalty. Specifically, the government claims Hamza’s tweets, in which he appeared to express irreverence for the Prophet, is the source of its vendetta against him.
The tweets represented an imaginary conversations with Prophet Mohammed, in which Hamza expressed both admiration, reproach and confusion: “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”, he stated. Few have questioned whether the charges are actually a front to stifle discussion over broader political issues, which Hamza raised in other tweets and writings. According to Hamza himself, he is part of the young generation of Saudis who are increasingly resentful of the state’s intransigence and are seemingly willing to risk official wrath in expressing their views. “It’s not logical that, if someone disagrees with the Saudi government, that he should be forced to leave the country. Many of those who have been arrested are fighting for simple rights that everyone should have — freedom of thought, expression, speech and religion.”
The masquerade of religious offence is a poorly constructed artifice to continue to limit the basic human rights of Saudi nationals, including freedom of speech and gender equality. Fostering a climate of fear and oppression is the best guarantee of compliance and Islam is a traditional rallying cry for the masses, ensuring public support at a time of broader upheaval. The monarchy is particularly concerned about dissent at a time when the region has been rocked by protests which have seen longstanding despots ousted and others relinquishing political concessions to avoid instability.
One of Hamza’s tweets was a criticism of the status of women in the kingdom, which the monarchy is keen not to see stirred up, particularly in the wake of the on-going campaign by Saudi women to challenge a long-standing driving ban. It is entirely likely that Hamza’s tweet that “No Saudi women will go to hell, because it’s impossible to go there twice” along with his broader critiques of the regime, are at the real root of the government’s fury.
Saudi Arabia presents itself as the defender of Islam and justifies much of its unacceptable legal and political repression through the prism of religious exceptionalism. The reality is that fewer and fewer Muslims look to Saudi Arabia as reflection of Islamic values and many more support the young generation of Saudis’ struggle for basic human rights.
The current controversy is an opportunistic attempt to rouse Islamic sentiment for a profoundly illegitimate dictatorship, whose shameful abuses of power cannot and should not be masked by the ill-fitting “defence of Islam”. If Saudi Arabia executes Hamza, it will be in the name of perpetuating its fundamentally un-islamic political oppression and nothing to do with the compassionate model of the Prophet, whose name they claim to be acting upon.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a writer, journalist andbudding academic