Side Views

Islam Wasatiyyah should lead defence of Kashgari’s rights — Centre for Policy Initiatives

February 14, 2012

FEB 14 — The BBC, reporting on Hamza Kashgari’s deportation from Kuala Lumpur back to his native Saudi Arabia, said the charge hanging over the young man’s head of insulting the Prophet Muhammad is considered blasphemous in Islam and punishable by death.

Kashgari, 23, who fled his country, was detained upon his arrival in Malaysia on Thursday en route to New Zealand where he was planning to seek political asylum. A journalist, Kashgari was recently sacked by Saudi daily al-Bilad where he had a column.

Three allegedly blasphemous tweets were made about Muhammad on the prophet’s birthday (Maulidur Rasul) last week and sparked vociferous calls for the death penalty to be imposed on him.

The climate of fear and caution has been such that — even merely for the purpose of reference — it’s difficult to find Kashgari’s tweets reproduced in reputable websites (although some independent blogs have carried them). One website which initially reproduced them has withdrawn the tweets.

One tweet (out of the three) can be read in this article in the The Guardian.

Amnesty International’s deputy director for Middle East and North Africa, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, warned that Kashgari “could be executed if his statements are deemed to amount to apostasy.”

An influential Saudi cleric, Nasser al-Omar, had called for him to be tried for apostasy, a crime punishable by decapitation. A committee of top clerics branded Kashgari “an infidel” and demanded he be tried in an Islamic court.

Nasser’s call elicited a massive and emotional response from supportive Muslims, including on Facebook and Twitter where campaigns began within 24 hours of the controversy erupting and with tens of thousands netizens demanding Kashgari’s head.

Another Islamic state hogging world headlines for its controversial death penalty under hudud law for the blasphemy offence is Pakistan.

Pakistani clerics have similarly engineered protests, that predictably turned violent, to entrench the enforcement of the blasphemy law. Two politicians — Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer — have been assassinated for their opposition to this law.

In Pakistan, hudud laws do not apply to just Muslims alone. Between 1988 and 2005, Pakistani authorities charged 647 people with blasphemy offences where half or 50 per cent of these were non-Muslims (even though the religious minorities represent only three per cent of the country’s national population).

Several Pakistani Christians are on death row for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad, awaiting their death penalty by hanging to be carried out. It is a grave and dangerous mistake for complacent non-Muslims to think that hudud will not affect them.

Hudud is a slippery slope where once it is imposed the surrounding social climate degenerates into proscribe-and-punish landmines of hypersensitivity. This particularly leaves the vulnerable religious minorities increasingly treading on eggshells as the Pakistan experience amply forewarns.

Although Kashgari has had to immediately flee for his life, and now faces the possibility of a death sentence, many still do not know what were his exact words and in what way the remarks could be construed as offensive.

In religiously soaked environments that are highly intolerant of “insult” (purportedly blasphemous) as well as at the mercy of mob rule in the form of spontaneous riots, who will dare to gainsay the accusation levied that Kashgari’s words were indeed insulting?

In tandem with the hudud slippery slope is the parallel war of attrition by religious orthodoxy on our freedoms.

Stealthy step by stealthy step, we retreat by instinctively self-censoring our critical thoughts and comments until the day comes when we reflexively silence our voices altogether. By then, we would have totally succumbed to the intimidation and coercion of religious conformity.

Malaysians should support and endorse the arguments and sentiments expressed in the recent enlightened statement by the Islamic Renaissance Front and appeal to the Saudi government for the humane treatment of Kashgari. In particular, proponents of Islam Wasatiyyah and a moderate outlook should lead the defence of Kashgari’s rights, and not look the other way.

We should also ask the Malaysian government to explain its decision which is likely to prove a permanent stain on our humanitarian record and our defence of basic individual rights. It is a blot that will not go away especially if the young man is put to death.  

We need to remind the authorities that we are not living in medieval times where actions such as these can pass unnoticed and be ignored. We are confident that the great majority of the international community and Malaysians — Muslims and non-Muslims — will join in the appeal for the just, compassionate and humane treatment of Kashgari.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.