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.