The limits of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia
This is a translation of my column that appeared in the Feb. 24, 2012 edition of O Globo:
The young Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari could not have dreamed that his comments posted on Twitter on the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, on February 4, would have such shrill and dangerous consequences for him.
“I have loved things in you, and hated others,” wrote Hamza, 23, on Twitter, in an imaginary conversation with the Prophet Muhammad, who died over a thousand years ago. “If I saw you, I would not kiss you, but extend my hand to you as any other friend, and would smile at you. But I will not pray for you.”
As the founder of Islam, more than 1,400 years ago in Mecca, all Muslims revere Muhammad as an almost sacred person, that can never be criticized or have his teachings put into doubt. So it’s not so difficult to understand the fury of the reaction that exploded on Twitter and Facebook. More than 30,000 tweets about Hamza’s comments flew through cyberspace, mostly attacking the young former columnist for the daily Al-Bilad, with many calling him an apostate, which can lead to the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.
A group formed on Facebook, with over 8,000 members, asking for his death. Stunned by the backlash of believers across the Islamic world, Hamza removed his comments and then deleted his Twitter account altogether. He fled the country on February 9, but a few days later he was arrested in Malaysia when he tried to board a flight to New Zealand, where he planned to seek political asylum. The king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz, had ordered his arrest and the kingdom had allegedly activated Interpol to detain the young wherever he was in the world. Soon after, he was sent back to the kingdom, where he remains in detention awaiting trial.
Studious, Hamza grew up in a family of great faith, and memorized the entire Holy Qur’an, not an easy achievement. But, with his inquisitive mind, he began to devour books and, according to his mother, habitually locked himself in his room to read books and did not talk much with his family.
Days after he was arrested, she called a local religious TV program and pleaded for her son, crying while insisting that her son was a good boy, and that he had repented having made those comments. But that was not enough for Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, a religious leader and scholar, who cried in a lecture, that was filmed and later posted on YouTube, over the words that Hamza had dared to say about Prophet Muhammad.
“His repentance was said with cold words,” Sheikh Nasser said. “He’s being disingenuous, he should be executed. We must not engage in debates with atheists. But instead, we should warm up our swords to fight them.” He ended by repeating that Hamza should be tried by a Shariah court for apostasy and sentenced to death despite having repented.
But do not think that all of Saudi Arabia is in the Middle Ages. Thousands of Saudis shocked by the outpouring of intolerance against Hamza urged calm, good judgment and tolerance of a young man whose only sin was exposing the doubts of his faith on the Internet. Even Princess Basmah bin Saud al-Saud, a daughter of the late King Saud, wrote an open letter to King Abdullah and Crown Prince Naif, asking them to give a royal pardon to the young Hamza.
It is perhaps ironic that in a country where there is no freedom of expression, we find the largest number of Twitter users per capita in the Middle East, and where the billionaire Prince Alwaleed ibn Talal recently bought $300 million in shares of Twitter, which will give him a 6% stake in the company. But this is the other side of a society that few outside the region see: A predominately young and educated population, with 100,000 Saudis currently studying in the US on scholarships from the Saudi government. Religious, yes, but most moderate and wanting things that all young people want: Jobs, a less corrupt government and a voice in their future endeavors.
It is interesting to see how the Internet is being used by many young Saudis to express themselves and to hold leaders accountable for their actions. Twitter has an anonymous account that regularly denounces various excesses of princes, ranging from those who earn huge commissions on government contracts, or those who have huge palaces. And it is revealing that some of the princes have even responded to the accusations, defending themselves on Twitter, something that would never happen in traditional media that is tightly controlled by the government. On YouTube, several rookie filmmakers are gaining thousands of followers with their mini-series, of 15-minute episodes, which they post regularly, dealing with a wide variety of topics ranging from urban poverty to young love.
I do not think Hamza will be executed. He is being used as a scapegoat by the ultraconservatives in the country who do not like modernity. If the government can have him be tried by the Ministry of Information, he will likely just be fined and banned from writing for a few years. If tried in a Shariah court, he might be condemned to death. But then the king will intervene and forgive the young man. What I do know for sure is that the Internet, despite being heavily censored by the government, has changed forever the relationship between the Saudi people and their leaders, and is a channel of expression and communication that the government can never close.