Saudi blogger Hamza Kashgari—whose tweets about the Prophet Muhammad set off a firestorm in his home country and whose plight has garnered international attention—was detained yesterday in Malaysia as he boarded an early-morning flight to seek asylum in New Zealand, according to friends of the blogger who spoke with The Daily Beast. Amnesty International has confirmed that Kashgari is being held at an undisclosed location and fear he could be extradited to Saudi Arabia, where he would be likely charged with apostasy and face a possible death sentence.
A friend of Kashgari’s, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Daily Beast on Thursday that she had accompanied the blogger to the airport and witnessed his arrest. “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,” she said, noticeably shaken by the incident. “And suddenly these two people without uniforms just arrested him.”
The uproar over Kashgari began after the 23-year-old Jidda resident posted a series of tweets on the occasion of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. In the reflections, he told the prophet, “I have loved the rebel in you” but “I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.” He also wrote, “I shall shake [your hand] as equals do … I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.”
The Saudi Twitter-sphere exploded with responses to Kashgari, with most commentators accusing him of blasphemy and many calling for his death (as of press time, more than 10,000 people had joined a Facebook group titled “The Saudi People Demand the Execution of Hamza Kashgari”). Kashgari issued an apology and removed the tweets, but vigilantes began trying to hunt him down in real life and a series of increasingly powerful leaders condemned the young blogger and called for him to be tried for apostasy. The Saudi Arabian media also reported that the king had issued an arrest warrant for Kashgari.
Before his arrest, Kashgari told The Daily Beast that he was stunned by the rapidly escalating vitriol against him and that he never expected such an outcry—“not even 1 percent.” Still, he acknowledged that he knew his Twitter feed was being watched by potential foes—as a relatively liberal columnist in a local paper, Al Bilad, his writing had recently been attracting the ire of Saudi conservatives. “I knew I was being monitored. I considered it a form of psychological warfare,” he said. “But … I didn’t want them to think I was losing the battle.” Speaking from Malaysia, Kashgari seemed frustrated and nervous. “I’m afraid and I don’t know where to go,” he said.
Now it seems his fear was well founded. Cilina Nasser, a researcher in Amnesty International’s North Africa and Middle East program, told The Daily Beast that the rights group is “calling on the Malaysian authorities to immediately disclose the location where Hamza is being held and to immediately grant him access to his lawyer.” Amnesty believes the Saudi authorities may have requested Kashgari’s arrest, Nasser says. Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Malaysian minister of home affairs reportedly released an official statement saying the country’s police were contacting Saudi Arabia “to determine the next course of action.”
Back home, many of Kashgari’s supporters have scrambled to distance themselves from the controversy. Some of his friends have taken down their Twitter accounts and have denounced him publicly in an attempt to help calm opinions inflamed against him. “Right now we’re not worried about free speech,” a friend told The Daily Beast. “We 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.”
Other friends report fearing that they would be “immediately stigmatized and labeled an enemy of the prophet, who therefore should suffer the same fate Hamza is awaiting.”
The furor over Kashgari’s tweets is reminiscent of the 2005 controversy surrounding a Danish newspaper that published a series of cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad. The Arab world exploded with fatwas against the illustrator, who continues to face death threats. More recently, in November of last year, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo published a satirical “Sharia Hebdo” edition that was allegedly “guest-edited” by Muhammad; just before the publication of the issue, the publication’s offices were gutted by a firebomb.
Middle Eastern authorities remain particularly wary of Twitter, which has been credited with helping to coordinate and spread the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as widespread demonstrations against Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the aftermath of a supposedly rigged presidential election. Kashgari seemed to view his case as part of a larger social and generational struggle engulfing the region today. “I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom,” he told The Daily Beast before his arrest. “I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rights—freedom of expression and thought—so nothing was done in vain. 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.”