The Price of Dissent in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia appears determined to sacrifice one of its young on the altar of domestic politics. At the center of a brewing storm is Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old journalist who faces charges of apostasy and a potential death sentence for posting controversial views of the Prophet Muhammad on Twitter in early February. In three short messages, in which he expressed a mix of devotion, frustration and uncertainty about his faith, Kashgari has stirred rancor across Arabia. His greatest affront, it seems, was giving voice to doubt. Many in Saudi Arabia share his views, but it is a poisonous environment for those who harbor uncertainty. In a place that demands public conformity to a narrow interpretation of Islamic orthodoxy and servility to religion’s gatekeepers, Kashgari said too much.
Tens of thousands of self-righteous Saudis responded venomously, including the country’s king, who allegedly personally ordered Kashgari’s detention. Amid calls for his death, a desperate and frightened Kashgari tried and failed to flee. An escape to New Zealand, where he hoped to press for political asylum, was interrupted after authorities in Malaysia deported him back to Saudi Arabia. Should Kashgari face formal criminal charges of apostasy, prosecutors will argue that he blasphemed Islam’s most important figure. It is an accusation fraught with peril. Angry clerics serve as gatekeepers of the law and, more important, as dispensers of cruelty masked as justice.
While the most vituperative responses to the Kashgari affair are no doubt rooted in zealous conviction, the reality is that this episode, and particularly the government’s support for the case against him, has little to do with protecting the sanctity of Islam. Rather, the Saudi regime is playing a calculated political game, one that aims to oppress some critics, to outmaneuver others and to bolster its thin claims to religious legitimacy.
While his postings on Muhammad suggest contemplative self-reflection, Kashgari subsequently confided that he was aware not only of the potential risk but that by courting controversy he was deliberately testing the limits of his freedom. Before his deportation, he described his actions as practicing “the most basic human rights—freedom of expression and thought…there are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights.”
Kashgari was hardly a revolutionary, but his views most certainly were. The kingdom’s government is intolerant of free speech, especially anything that challenges political authority. Dissenting religious and political views, including those expressed by Kashgari, are widely shared inside the kingdom. Among the droves of death threats and the cries of angry critics, Kashgari also commands a sympathetic following. Thousands have rallied in his support. And the regime in Riyadh is well aware, particularly in an era of revolutionary upheaval, that a significant number of its subjects bristle against its authority. Such sentiment is hard to quantify, and criticism is only safely asserted anonymously. But the critics are there, most notably in the new social media. And they have potential power, which the regime grudgingly understands.
But while Twitter and Facebook have opened avenues for dissent, there are still significant dangers, something the Kashgari affair makes painfully clear. The regime is notorious for filling its prisons with political activists. In November the kingdom sentenced seventeen activists to long prison terms for daring to demand greater human and political rights. And there are other pressures at work that inhibit any public mobilization in support of Kashgari or against the regime. Many who have called for his death demand exactly the same for the thousands who support him. Given the power accorded by the regime to extremists, it is enough to shock most into reticence. Ultimately Kashgari proved vulnerable not because he is alone but because the regime has rendered the price of dissent unbearable. By arresting and threatening him under the cloak of Islamic law, the regime has also sent a clear message to others like him.
Kashgari’s persecution also marks an effort by Saudi Arabia’s leaders to shore up support from within the halls of religious authority. The royal family has long leaned on the country’s senior clerics to stamp its temporal power with the imprimatur of religious legitimacy. But many in the kingdom see through the claim. Pious and agnostic alike consider the royal family corrupt and irreverent. It is commonly held that Riyadh’s assertion of Islamic authority is spurious, a fiction that the government peddles as an excuse to protect its personal fortunes and power. Whether genuine or not, the result has been the empowerment of a class of religious scholars who are committed to protecting their own authority.
The Saudi-scholar alliance has proven a devil’s bargain at times. Over the past three decades these frustrations have generated significant challenges to the regime, with outspoken clerics periodically targeting the government for its infidelities. Mindful of this, the kingdom’s leaders regularly seek opportunities to placate potential critics in the mosques. In doing so, they have assured the rise of a clerical class that is simultaneously a pillar of support and a potential threat. An unfortunate consequence of this arrangement has been the de facto encouragement of extreme figures at the expense of more reasoned voices.
As the drama surrounding Kashgari unfolded Nasser al-Omar, a particularly odious scholar with a history of calumny, emerged as the leading figure in his public persecution. Al-Omar’s radical credentials are considerable. In the 1990s he was an advocate of an especially shrill anti-Shiite sectarianism, a sentiment that is deeply entrenched in Saudi society today. More important, he is part of a generation of scholars that has openly questioned the fitness of the Al Saud to rule. In a video commentary that quickly went viral, al-Omar broke down in tears as he called for Kashgari’s execution. Al-Omar tapped into widespread sentiment, but his visibility and the government’s accommodation of figures like him speaks directly to both the cravenness of the government’s agenda as well as royal anxiety about the potential for the clergy to rally against the crown.
Hamza Kashgari, then, is a sacrifice the royal family is not just willing to make, but that its continued power depends on. In the torrent of invective and recrimination that has swept through Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, the country’s rulers no doubt find comfort in pitting its citizens against one another. Better to encourage culture wars than allow critics to direct their ire toward the seat of power.