A week and a half ago, on Feb. 4, a day celebrated as Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, a 23-year-old Saudi blogger named Hamza Kashgari posted three Tweets that set his country on fire.
“On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you,” he Tweeted, addressing Prophet Muhammad. “You’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, [but] I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more. I shall not pray for you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me.”
The response to his tweets surprised even Kashgari. Weeping clerics called for him to be punished for insulting Islam. An online lynch squad was formed, with over 13,000 people joining a Facebook page called “The Saudi People Demand the Execution of Hamza Kashgari,” and scores of Saudis bayed for his blood, such that King Abdullah felt obliged to issue a warrant for his arrest under the charge of blasphemy — a capital offense in Saudi Arabia.
Kashgari’s tweets weren’t heroic — certainly not by usual standards — something that Kashgari himself would be the first to admit. This was no hero challenging an overbearing theocracy; it was an ordinary person earnestly expressing his mixture of doubt, affection and confusion about the Prophet, a young man struggling to come to terms with his faith.
Despite numerous commentators hailing Kashgari as the Saudi Salman Rushdie, Kashgari’s tweets could not have been more different from “The Satanic Verses.” Far from being an exquisite work of art or a compelling critique of religion, Kashgari’s tweets were the most innocuous of messages in the most banal of mediums.
While Rushdie doggedly stuck to his guns, even in the face of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, Kashgari quickly issued a long apology and removed the offending tweets, but to no avail. The mob would not be soothed. Kashgari had unwittingly tweeted his own death warrant — virtual suicide in 140 characters.
Fearing for his life, Kashgari boarded a flight to my home country of Malaysia, from which he was to transit to New Zealand where he would seek asylum. Unfortunately, upon landing, he was detained by Malaysian police at the request of the Saudi government. After some deliberation last weekend, the Malaysian government decided to send him back to Saudi Arabia to face whatever passes for justice there.
There are a few things that are surprising about this case and a few things that are not. Under the circumstances, the actions of the Saudi and the Malaysian governments were unsurprising. I did not expect courage or humanity from the corrupt and despotic House of Saud. Nor did I expect it from the Malaysian government, least of all from the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who I regard as an unprincipled coward and whose simpering attempts to appeal to the lowest common denominator of religious bigotry are a national disgrace.
I did, however, expect a degree of courage and humanity from the U.S., the U.K. and other European governments. But despite the strident calls from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to the Malaysian government urging it not to return Kashgari, the voice of Western governments seemed conspicuously muted. They appear to have failed to pressure the Malaysian government while Kashgari was being detained, when such pressure could have made a difference.
It’s possible that Western embassies just overlooked this issue over the weekend, but that’s dubious given the extensive media coverage it received. A more convincing reason is the one alluded to by the Washington Post in an editorial: The U.S., scrambling to form a coalition against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, badly needs continued Saudi support.
I can sympathize with the utilitarian reasoning behind Western inaction — to an extent. After all, the life of one blogger has to be weighed against the lives of the thousands of Syrians who could be saved if a successful intervention were arranged. If allowing the Saudi government to parade Kashgari before howling mobs were a necessary sacrifice for uniting against Syrian violence, I’d like to see in coming weeks that it was worth it. But as the U.S. and its allies continue to stall while Assad shells his people into submission, the justification for such egregious inaction in the Kashgari case becomes increasingly hollow.
SHAUN TAN is a second-year student in International Relations. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.