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02.10.12

Saudi Writer Hamza Kashgari Detained in Malaysia Over Muhammad Tweets

A young Saudi blogger whose tweets about the Prophet Muhammad inflamed Islamists—who are calling for his execution—reportedly has been detained in Malaysia. It is not clear if he will be extradited to Saudi Arabia. Mike Giglio exclusively interviews Hamza Kashgari.

UPDATE:

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Hamza Kashgari has been detained in Malaysia. He was detained yesterday at the Kuala Lumpur International airport, the Journal reports, citing Malaysia’s state news service.

Amnesty International has confirmed that Hamza Kashgari is being held in Malaysia at an undisclosed location. He was arrested Thursday morning, Malaysia time, as he tried to board an 8:50am flight to New Zealand, where friends told the Daily Beast Kashgari hoped to apply for asylum.

Cilina Nasser, a researcher in Amnesty’s North Africa and Middle East program, tells the Daily Beast that Kashgari may be at “imminent risk” of deportation to Saudi Arabia, where he could face charges of apostasy, which is punishable by death. “We are calling on the Malaysian authorities to immediately disclose the location where Hamza is being held and to immediately grant him access to his lawyer,” she says.

While it remains unclear whether the Saudi authorities have made an official extradition request, Nasser says, Amnesty believes the Saudi authorities may have requested Kashgari’s arrest in Malaysia. “We call on the Malaysian government to stop any deportation proceedings that may have started,” she says.

A friend of Kashgari’s, who asked not to be named, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that she had accompanied him to the airport and witnessed his detention. “We were just watching him, waiting for him to pass the immigration checkpoint. Once he submitted his passport, they asked him to step away for a few minutes,” the friend said, still noticeably shaken. “And suddenly these two people without uniforms just arrested him.”

A spokesman for the Malaysian police confirmed Hashgari’s detention to Reuters today, saying that the arrest was “part of an Interpol operation which the Malaysian police were a part of.”

Last week, just before the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth, Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old Saudi writer in Jidda, took to his Twitter feed to reflect on the occasion.

“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.

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.

Video screenshot

The NewsBeast Team Discusses Hamza Kashgari

With the pressure mounting, Kashgari fled to Southeast Asia earlier today. Hours later, in his first interview with the press, he told The Daily Beast that he was stunned by the turn of events but resigned to the fact that he can never return home. “It’s impossible. No way,” he said. “I’m afraid, and I don’t know where to go.” Kashgari says he is now planning to apply for asylum abroad.

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.

When he caught wind of the tweets, Fouad al-Farhan, a respected liberal and Saudi Arabia’s most influential blogger, knew Kashgari was in trouble. He quickly got in touch with the young writer and urged him to issue the apology. “Don’t try to be a hero,” he told him. “You will lose big time.”

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.

“I think it’s because this is an extremely unique case. We’ve never had our own Salman Rushdie before. We’ve never had a case as extreme as this one of someone crossing the line,” al-Farhan says.

Al-Farhan has been harshly critical of Kashgari’s tweets. Even Kashgari’s friends, all of whom requested anonymity, say they’re reluctant to come to his defense—and have even felt the need to attack him themselves. “Everyone who tried to objectively deal with this case was immediately stigmatized and labeled an enemy of the prophet, who therefore should suffer the same fate Hamza is awaiting,” says one.

Adds another: “Right now we’re not worried about freedom of speech. We’re worried about the safety of our friend. And right now we can only help his safety if we condemn him, and [from there] try to rationalize what he said.”

Kashgari says he never expected such an outcry—“not even 1 percent.” But he knows the mindset of his critics well. He was raised as a religious conservative in a traditional Salafi community, becoming more liberal and “humanist,” in the words of one friend, as he grew older and embraced the Web. His writing also grew more provocative, particularly on Twitter, where he had attracted the ire of conservatives who kept a close eye on everything he wrote. Ahmed Al Omran, who keeps the popular blog Saudi Jeans, says it’s common for conservative activists to keep watch over liberal-minded social-media feeds. “They wait for the moment when they say something controversial to use it against them. Hamza is apparently one of the people they’ve been monitoring,” he says. “Most people feel strongly about the situation. But at the same time, I feel that conservatives are trying to take advantage of the situation, make an example out of him, and show their strength.”

By tweeting about the prophet, Kashgari crossed a line that even Saudi liberals won’t dare to touch.
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Kashgari says he knew he was being watched online; since the controversy arose, someone released a compilation of his past tweets on the Web. “I knew I was being monitored. I considered it a form of psychological warfare,” he says. “But I didn’t give it that much attention, because I didn’t want them to think I was losing the battle.”

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.”