The Long Arm of Saudi Blasphemy Laws

Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old columnist, stands accused of blasphemy in his homeland of Saudi Arabia for tweets he posted on Islam’s prophet Mohammed that many of his countrymen find insulting to Islam. In his postings on the occasion of Mohammed’s birthday last week, Kashgari imagined a skeptical discussion with the founder of Islam. Many Saudis are enraged, demanding that he be arrested and put to death, in accordance with Saudi sharia. As the New York Times reported, “more than 13,000 people [the number now tops 14,000] have joined a Facebook page titled ‘The Saudi People Demand the Execution of Hamza Kashgari.’”

His apologies and deletions of the postings were rejected as insufficient by the offended Muslims and, more significantly, by Saudi Arabia’s council of senior Islamic scholars, who issued a fatwa condemning him and demanding that he be put on trial. Kashgari fled for his life. He went to Malaysia, a purportedly moderate Muslim country, for refuge. King Abdullah issued an arrest warrant and called for Kashgari’s extradition. He was taken into detention at Kuala Lumpur international airport on February 9, as he tried to catch a flight to New Zealand.

The British Guardian is now reporting that Kashgari was caught after Interpol, the 190-country-member international police agency based in Lyon, France, issued an alert for him at the request of Saudi Arabia. If true, this violates the Article 3 neutrality clause of Interpol’s constitution, which states that it is “strictly forbidden” for the organization to undertake any intervention of a religious character. If this is allowed to become a precedent, the longtime goal of Saudi Arabia — and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — of a universal law punishing “defamation of Islam” will essentially be realized.

Meanwhile, back in the Kingdom, Hadi Al-Mutif, one of the longest-held religious prisoners in the world, was released from prison on a blasphemy charge on Friday, February 10. He was imprisoned as a teenager in 1994 for an offhand remark he made about Islam’s prophet and was sentenced to death. While on death row for 18 years, he was the subject of worldwide appeals, which undoubtedly played a role in sparing his life. He was freed after being granted a pardon by the king. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found that Al-Mutif, a member of the kingdom’s large Shiite minority, had “suffered tremendously” during his imprisonment, both physically and emotionally.

― Nina Shea is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author, with Paul Marshall, of Silenced: How Apostasy & Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide (Oxford University Press, 2011).

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