When blasphemy meets Twitter

Have you heard about the plight of Hamza Kashgari? He’s a young Saudi journalist who fled his country to avoid being killed for a few things he tweeted about Muslim Prophet Muhammad. The video embedded here is of Saudi Sheikh Nasser al Omar calling on the King to enforce Islam’s death penalty for apostasy, which many Muslims believe Kashgari committed.

Kashgari fled to Malaysia to avoid being killed but Malaysia has deported back to Saudi Arabia.

The first thing to note about this is that while it’s huge news in the rest of the world, we haven’t seen terribly much coverage of his plight in American media. There were a few stories a few days ago but on the day that he was sent back to Saudi Arabia, it was relatively quiet. Perhaps we’ll see more as the week progresses.

Here’s the BBC on the matter:

Malaysian authorities have deported a Saudi journalist accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a tweet.

Police confirmed to the BBC that Hamza Kashgari was sent back to Saudi Arabia on Sunday despite protests from human rights groups.

Mr Kashgari’s controversial tweet last week sparked more than 30,000 responses and several death threats.

Insulting the prophet is considered blasphemous in Islam and is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

There are different ways of looking at the tweets and some Muslims consider them blasphemous while some think they reach the more serious threshold of apostasy. While some people believe that blasphemy should be punishable by death, too, that’s the more common punishment for convictions of apostasy. And, obviously, there are some people who think that skeptics should be allowed to tweet their thoughts, whatever they may be, without having to run for their lives, much less get sent back to face a possible execution.

The story has an angle that makes it even more serious, if true. The Guardian says that Malaysian authorities said they detained Kashgari after a notice from Interpol, although Interpol has denied any involvement:

Jago Russell, the chief executive of the British charity Fair Trials International, which has campaigned against the blanket enforcement of Interpol red notices, said: “Interpol should be playing no part in Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of Hamza Kashgari, however unwise his comments on Twitter.

“If an Interpol red notice is the reason for his arrest and detention it would be a serious abuse of this powerful international body that is supposed to respect basic human rights (including to peaceful free speech) and to be barred from any involvement in religious or political cases.”

He called on Interpol to stand by its obligations to fundamental human rights and “to comply with its obligation not to play any part in this case, which is clearly of a religious nature”.

While many stories failed to explain how the Islamic law is being interpreted in Saudi Arabia, or failed to put these charges in any sort of doctrinal context, I did think this Daily Beast article included some helpful information. It was from before he was sent back to Saudi Arabia. The article quotes the tweets — in one he questions Muhammad’s divinity, in another he says he has conflicted feelings about Muhammad, and in another he says he views Muhammad as an equal:

Twitter quickly flooded with responses to Kashgari, registering more than 30,000 within a day. He was accused of blasphemy, and enraged Saudis called for his death. By the time he removed the tweets and issued a long apology, backtracking on his comments and begging for forgiveness, the danger had already expanded beyond the Web. Someone posted Kashgari’s home address in a YouTube video, and, his friends say, vigilantes came looking for him at his local mosque. The Saudi information minister banned Kashgari’s local newspaper column and barred outlets across the country from publishing his work. Nasser al-Omar, an influential cleric, called for him to be tried in a Sharia court for apostasy, which is punishable by death. Other leading clerics decried Kashgari on their own, and Saudi Arabia’s council of senior scholars issued a rare and harshly worded communiqué condemning him and his tweets and demanding that he be put on trial. Yesterday, Saudi Arabia’s leading news site, SABQ, reported that the king himself had issued a warrant for Kashgari’s arrest.

Though Saudi Arabia has seen uproars over controversial newspaper articles or scholarly works before, no great calls for Sharia trials have ever sounded in the kingdom on account of a few tweets—and the furor has gone viral, snowballing into a bigger scandal than anything the country has seen in the recent past.

We learn that a respected liberal and Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan urged Kashgari to apologize.

By tweeting about the prophet, al-Farhan says, Kashgari crossed a line that even Saudi liberals won’t dare to touch. Even so, al-Farhan was surprised by the level of rage that Kashgari inspired, and how quickly it spread. In a span of just days, the issue came to dominate social media—from the onslaught of tweets under the hashtag #HamzahKashghri to vitriolic YouTube videos and a Facebook group, currently boasting nearly 8,000 members, called “The Saudi People Demand the Execution of Hamza Kashgari”—and reached all the way to top clerics and the king. “There was an amazing anger. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” al-Farhan says, noting that the outrage in Saudi Arabia has exceeded even the levels seen after a Danish newspaper infamously published a cartoon of Muhammad in 2005.

The article includes quotes from many of Kashgari’s friends, all denouncing him and explaining how there is no other way to plead for his life than to admit his guilt first. It ends with this quote:

Kashgari has since deleted his Twitter account, and he says some like-minded friends have done the same. He declined to comment on his apology and retraction but insisted his battle was still not lost. “I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom. I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rights—freedom of expression and thought—so nothing was done in vain,” he says. “I believe I’m just a scapegoat for a larger conflict. There are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights.”

A powerful ending indeed. It still would be nice to know more about the blasphemy and/or apostasy charges and what part of Islamic law is being used to defend these charges. It would also be nice to know more about whether everyone in Saudi Arabia (officially) agrees that Kashgari should be severely punished or whether there is any difference in belief. While various human rights groups have been working overtime to keep Kashgari from being sent back to Saudi Arabia, what is the global Muslim reaction to this incident?

There’s just so much more that would be helpful to know about this story, the doctrinal issues at play, the debates over those doctrinal issues, and how various Muslims are reacting.

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  • http://pursiful.com Darrell Pursiful

    “The article quotes the tweets — in one he questions Muhammad’s divinity”

    Isn’t this supposed to be standard Muslim teaching? That Muhammad is a *human* prophet and that it would in fact be idolatry to say he is more than that?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Excellent point. Let me quote the translation of the tweet in question. I may have been too sloppy in my summary:

    “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 wrote in one tweet.

    Perhaps better to say the journalist questioned the divine interaction.

  • Bain Wellington

    A fuller quote from the deleted twitter account can be found on the multi-lingual asianews.it website (operated by the Pontifical Institute for the Foreign Missions):-

    Last week before the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, Hamza, 23 yearsof age, wrote a brief comment on Twitter: “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”. And he continued thus: ” On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more. , 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”

  • Bain Wellington

    Those living under the protection of the US Constitution might be surprised to learn that blasphemy and blasphemous libel were still criminal offences under the common law of England (which protected only Christian beliefs) as late as 2008, when they were abolished under one of the periodic criminal justice amendment statutes. The same statute – among its multifarious provisions – increased the penalties for publishing obscene items (another mystery for Americans).

    The last successful prosecution for blasphemous libel in England had been in 1977 – a prosecution brought by a private individual regarding a poem published in the British newspaper Gay News. The newspaper and its editor were fined and the editor was given a 9-month suspended prison sentence. See the Guardian’s 2009 obituary of James Kirkup (the author of the blasphemous poem). On appeal, the prison sentence was quashed, but the fines were upheld. A subsequent appeal to what is now the UK Supreme Court (but what was then the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, composed exclusively of senior judges) failed, and the expense bankrupted the newspaper. wikipedia has an impartial account of the prosecution.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    Thanks to Brian for the fuller quotation.
    I suspect that the key phrase here is the one about “hating” certain aspects of Muhammad. Islam emphatically rejects the notion that anyone who walked this earth was divine. I suspect that the “halos of divinity” line was a critique of popular Islam, implying that it was incorrectly transforming Muhammad from a human prophet into a godlike figure.

  • Matt

    Funny, I thought 8,000 people in a Facebook group was well above the usual threshold for a major story in the New York Times.

  • Will

    “I shall not pray for you.” Uh, does Islam incorporate prayers for the dead.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, I found another version of what he tweeted according to the Daily Beast:

    “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 wrote in one tweet.

    “On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more,” he wrote in a second.

    “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,” he concluded in a third.


    I think the entire series, if accurately translated, is critical to understand what he wrote and to use to judge the media coverage. This is how I interpreted what he wrote:

    A Prophet in Islam is considered to be greatest of human beings and thus worthy of respect. So to write “I shall not pray for you” is to refuse to utter “Peace be unto Him” which is a prayer Muslims add to mentions of Muhammad as the Prophet of Islam. To write “I shall speak to you as a friend, no more” is to deny that Muhammad is amongst the greatest of human beings.

    We also need to understand how Muslims differentiate blasphemy from apostasy to understand what is going on with him.

    So, for non-Muslims, there is a great burden on reporters to provide these critical facts.

    As an aside, I appreciate Bain’s informative post about a relatively recent analogous prosecution in the UK.

  • http://www.waihak.blogspot.com Tariq

    Hi all,

    I wrote about this on my blog (unfortunately in Arabic), but I’d like to point out a few things:

    First, the story here states that Kashgary “questions Muhammad’s divinity”. I don’t think this is accurate, since I don’t know of any Muslims who view Muhammad as divine.

    Secondly, there are several aspects of this story that need unpacking. In my post, I wrote about two different supposed “crimes” in Islamic jurisprudence. The first is “insulting the Prophet.” The second is “apostasy,” which is when a Muslim renounces his/her religion.

    Let me start by saying that as a practicing Muslim who is reasonably well-read, I don’t believe that there is a valid punishment for apostasy or insulting the Prophet in Islamic law. Islamic law is based on texts: The Quran, and, to a lesser degree, the hadith. In order for an Islamic scholar to make a argument for ANYTHING, even in terms of mundane practices, not just judiciary matters, he/she MUST rely on one of these texts. A cleric can’t just decree something, he/she must make an argument, and that argument must be supported with “sacred” texts, which are analogous to the US Constitution in certain ways. For example, it is prohibited for a Muslim to drink alcohol because of 5:90.

    Now, with regards to apostasy and “insulting the prophet,” there is no “textual evidence” to support either one of those. The religious establishment in Saudi Arabia rely on the views of a 13th century scholar named Ibn Taymiyyah who, in my view, does not present a convincing argument. But even if we were to take Ibn Taymiyyah’s position, there still is no grounds on execute Kashgary from a “Sharia” perspective.

    What is absent from these reports is the dynamic that exists between the “Soruri” movement and the Saudi state. The Soruris do not have any defining features in terms of belief. They are run-of-the-mill Wahhabis. In practical terms, however, they are somewhat oppositional to the entrenched state-sponsored religious establishment. And they are using this Kashgary guy to mobilize their “constituents” and put pressure on the government because they feel they are being consistently marginalized. In an absolute monarchy, this is one of the few methods they have to exert political pressure. I guarantee you that IF Kashgary goes to a Saudi court, he will simply say that he “repents” and that will be the end of it. There is a zero percent chance of him being executed.

    In short, this incident has little to do with religion and everything to do with politics.