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Twitter Apostasy Case Underscores Saudi Oppression

In 140 characters or less former columnist Hazma Kashgari has become a living example of repression in Saudi Arabia.
By Gabe Kahn.
First Publish: 2/20/2012, 8:26 PM

Saudi Arabia's leading mufti is demanding former columnist Hazma Kashgari be tried in a religious court for a series of 'blasphemous' tweets he made on February 7.

"We are in a Muslim country and we have a fair justice system," Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Abdullah Al Sheikh told the local Arabic daily al-Watan. "All matters related to justice should be reviewed by Shariah courts as God the Almighty said in the Holy Quran."

"The justice system in Saudi Arabia is fair," he added.

His rejection of moving Kashgari's case to a secular court was in response to growing domestic pressure from young people in Saudi Arabia seeking social and legal reform in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

"I advise young people to follow God's teachings and to preserve religious values and avoid bad words and expressions that they might regret later," the mufti said.

Analysts say Kashgari's impending trial is not just about the content of his tweets, but stem from broader tensions in Riyadh where the monarchy has pushed back on the more conservative religious establishment.

However, in the wake of Islamist parties sweeping the polls following the Arab Spring uprsiings, the Saudi monarchy is trying to shore up support among hardliners who oppose social change.

"Certainly since the upheavals, there's been even more concern on the part of the regime to appeal to religious constituencies," political scientist F. Gregory Gause, author of "Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East," told Gulf News.

"Kashgari was an easy target," Pascal Menoret, professor of Middle East Studies at New York University Abu Dhabi, said. "This is a very characteristic story of repression in Saudi Arabia."

"Get rid of a troublesome young man – it costs nothing – and everybody's scared," he explained.

Observers say Moneret's assertion is buttressed by the actions of prosecutors with Saudi Arabia's religious courts who are pushing not only to prosecute Kashgari, but those in the Saudi blogsphere who expressed support for him as well.

Kashgari, 23, was a vocal pro-democracy activist who openly criticized the kingdom's religious police, as well as authorities detaining political prisoners, during his tenure with the Saudi Arabian daily al-Bilad.

He once wrote, "Saudi women won't go to hell because it's impossible to go there twice."

Prior to his arrest, Kashgari was on a watch list of pro-democracy activists maintained by al-Mabahith al-'Amma, the General Investigation Directorate of Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry. Al-Mabahith is commonly referred to as Saudi Arabia’s “secret police.”

Last Sunday, Kashgari fled to Malaysia after a series of Tweets he made ignited public furor and led to threats on his life and calls he be tried for apostasy – which is punishable by beheading in Saudi Arabia. 

However, Kashgari was deported back to Saudi Arabia by authorities in Kuala Lampur pursuant to a royal arrest decree issued by Saudi King Abdul Haziz.

Kashgari waded into controversy on February 7 when, on the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, he wrote, “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."

“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.

Kashgari's posts sparked outrage and prompted thousands to call on a Facebook page entitled "The Saudi people demand Hamza Kashgari's execution" for him to be executed.

Kashgari immediately apologized for his comments, tweeting: "I have made a mistake, and I hope Allah and all those whom I have offended will forgive me,"  before fleeing the country.

Hamza was arrested at Kuala Lumpur airport as he was checking out and was handed over to Saudi Arabian authorities.