News Analysis: When Free Speech and Islam Collide
By Rob L. Wagner
24 February 2012
Demands for religious and speech freedoms in Saudi Arabia have taken a heightened tone of urgency in the Western media following Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari’s ill-advised tweets allegedly denigrating God and the Prophet Muhammad. Imaginary conversations with the Prophet, deemed an insult in Islam, landed Kashgari in jail pending trial for blasphemy.
Kashgari’s remarks have sparked outrage in the West over how a man’s seemingly crisis of faith could lead to a death sentence. Yet there is little to debate in Saudi Arabia: Blasphemous statements require harsh punishment.
Kashgari had the poor judgment to tweet imaginary conservations with the Prophet with statements that included, “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.”
The reaction on Twitter was instantaneous with 30,000 people condemning his remarks. Many called for his death. Some Saudis created a Facebook page titled “The Saudi People Demand the Execution of Hamza Kashgari” with a membership of more than 13,000 people.
Kashgari attempted to seek asylum in New Zealand, but was detained in Malaysia and returned to Saudi Arabia where he awaits trial.
The tragic and strange case of Kashgari points to the fine line between freedom of expression and the religious obligations of Muslims. The issue is also rife with political implications that complicate Kashgari’s ability to obtain justice. His predicament also highlights the Western media’s myopic view of Muslims and the inability to explain the nuances of Islam.
Kashgari does have the death penalty looming over his head, but his execution is anything but certain. For one, Saudi Arabia has no specific laws for blasphemy. The Saudi judicial system allows judges to define the crime of blasphemy and decide punishment if the defendant is found guilty. The court also must consider Kashgari’s mitigating statements in which he apologized for the tweets and repented.
Contemporary Islamic scholars generally agree the death penalty is not mandatory if the individual repents.
If only it was that easy. The absence of codified laws and Saudi Crown Prince Nayef’s recent comments that Saudi Arabia is a nation of Salafists make it almost impossible to predict Kashgari’s fate. Salafism, which is a conservative form of Islam, permits repenting to avoid execution for blasphemy. But Kashgari and his legal team only have to look to the 2008 case of Sabri Bogday to recognize the uncertainty that lies ahead. A Saudi judge convicted the Turkish barber of blasphemy and sentenced him to death. Bogday confessed that he “swore at Allah” during an argument with a Saudi in Jeddah.
Bogday’s lawyer, Abdul Rahman Al-Lehem, said the judge refused to allow Bogday to repent, although judges in other blasphemy cases allow individuals to retract their words.
According to the Jeddah-based English language daily newspaper Arab News, Bogday’s death sentence stemmed from a ruling based on huddud, or crimes against the rights of God. The judge chose not to issue a ta’azir ruling, which is based on Sharia and are crimes against public security. There is disagreement among Islamic judges whether blasphemy and apostasy are even huddud offenses. But Bogday escaped execution thanks to a pardon by King Abdullah and Saudi authorities deported him to Turkey in 2009.
To add further confusion, there is nothing in the Qur’an that clearly identifies blasphemy as a specific crime. Rather, the offense stems from incidents recorded during the Prophet’s lifetime and defined later by Islamic scholars as “reviling” God or the Prophet. The most prominent incident involved the killing by Muslims of poet Ka’b Al-Ashraf, chief of the Jewish tribe Banu Nadir, who denigrated the Prophet and plotted his assassination.
Notwithstanding the veritable crapshoot Kashgari faces in the kingdom’s legal system, Saudi Arabia has demonstrated some measure of consistent leniency in blasphemy cases. The last known execution for blasphemy was 19 years ago when Sadiq Abdul-Karim Malallah, a Shi’ite, was executed following convictions blasphemy and apostasy. It’s unclear how the charges originated, but Malallah’s execution followed his refusal to agree to a Saudi judge’s request to convert from Shia to Sunni.
Since Malallah’s execution, Saudi authorities have taken a more tempered approach, although religious politics sometimes tinges the prosecution of blasphemy cases.
Schoolteacher Muhammad Al-Harbi was sentenced in 2005 to 40 months in prison on a blasphemy conviction for discussing the causes of terrorism and Christianity and Judaism.
In 2006, journalist Rabah Al-Quqai wrote about hardline Islamists’ strict interpretations of the Qur’an and warned of extremists intending to attack targets in Riyadh. He avoided prison by promising to defend Islam in future articles.
Like the Kashgari case, many Saudi blasphemy cases stem individuals’ personal views of Islam. To the Ummah, one’s relationship with Allah is a matter best kept to one’s own counsel. While the Muslim world largely embraces freedom of speech, it parts ways with the Western interpretation when discussions turn to Allah and the Prophet.
“You can belong to any of the four schools of thought in Islam – Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki or Hanbali – but when it comes to Allah and the Prophet, peace be upon him, no one is to ever question or challenge them,” one Saudi told me recently.
While Kashgari’s tweets are egregious in the minds of Muslims and leave no doubt among Saudi authorities that blasphemy and apostasy charges are necessary, the wider issue remains whether Kashgari’s activism will play a role in whatever punishment he is likely to face.
Kashgari told The Daily Beast website that he was a “scapegoat for a larger conflict” over his comments. “I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom,” he said.
“I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rights – freedom of expression and thought – so nothing was done in vain.” In a tweet, he wrote that Saudi women “won’t go to hell because it’s impossible to go there twice.’”
Although his views on women’s rights probably will never be aired in a courtroom, his feminist advocacy looms large among influential conservatives who have aggressively condemned campaigns by Saudi women and their male supporters for the right to drive a car and to ease or drop male guardianship laws to make it easier to find employment or pursue an education.
Conservatives have waged a campaign to silence reform-minded Saudis by attacking their faith, making Kashgari a prime target.
In effect, the Saudi conservative establishment views his tweets, compounded by his attitudes towards a liberal democracy, as evidence of pattern of conduct to erode the fabric of Saudi society. The Saudi legal system criminalizes such conduct as criminal offenses, although there is no precise definition.
Despite the vagaries of the Saudi judicial system, Kashgari’s death sentence is not a sure thing if the courts follow Salafism and accept his repentance.
But add his political activism to his ill-tempered religious remarks and Kashgari may find the path to re-enter Saudi society a difficult journey.
News Analysis: Islamic Feminism in the Middle East
By Rob L. Wagner
2 February 2012
As Islamist political groups continue to make gains in Middle East elections, women activists are evaluating their strategy to improve their roles to help form new governments and to strive for equality. The minefield facing Muslim women is whether to embrace a secular or Islamic feminist approach to achieve their goals and to gain a foothold in Arab politics.
Observing from the sidelines are women in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain hoping for answers to forge their own feminist path. But the 400-pound gorilla in the room that gives women pause is the Egyptian military’s organized campaign of sexual violence and the sexual harassment in the Saudi media of outspoken feminists.
Women in other Arab countries are experiencing varying levels of violence and harassment to crush their own rights campaigns.
The emerging role of women – and the physical and rhetorical violence that color that role – has highlighted the gulf between secular feminists who embrace the Western ideal of a liberal democracy and Islamic feminists seeking to shape their future within the context of religion. However, the secular approach to women’s rights is a luxury few Muslim women in the Middle East care to indulge in.
Secular feminism has never held much attraction for Muslim women forging a place in the Middle East’s patriarchal society. For one, the baggage of secular feminism is too great. It is perceived among Muslims as loosening morals and threatening family cohesion. Justified or not, it is also seen as encouraging women to abandon the hijab and modest dress. At a time when Muslim women activists need the support of men in powerful positions, a secular movement not only would fail, but also roll back progress.
The reemergence of the Egyptian Feminist Union following a 60-year ban is encouraging, but there are worrying signs from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Freedom Party. The Brotherhood’s Azza Al-Garf, who is among only five women elected to the new 500-member Egyptian Parliament, has taken a regressive position on women’s rights. She argues that women should marry, procreate and remain separated from men. Reforming divorce laws is not her priority. The Salafists’ Al-Nour Party has given similar indications.
It is this environment where women activists tread carefully. More palatable to Muslim women is an Islamic feminist movement that seeks to marginalize cultural and tribal influence and grant women rights guaranteed in the Qur’an. Islamic feminism is not a new or novel concept. Iranian scholars Afsaneh Najmabadeh and Ziba Mir-Hosseini pioneered Islamic feminism in the early 1990s. Saudi scholar Mai Yamani popularized the concept in her 1996 book, “Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives.”
However, Islamic feminism has stalled since 9/11. It has gained little traction in the Western media that often confuses Islam with cultural and tribal oppression of women. The Arabic press conflates Islamic feminism with the secular women’s movement. In Saudi Arabia, for example, feminism is deemed a threat to society. It doesn’t help that the influential Islamic scholar and women’s rights ally Mohammad Akram Nadwi implied in his recent book, “Al-Muhaddithat: the Women Scholars in Islam,” that secular and Islamic feminism are a single movement with a common goal to give women all that men have.
To tamp down the burgeoning movement, government-controlled Arab media and shadow military forces in some countries attempt to intimidate activists. Egypt continues to wage a brutal war against women challenging the patriarchal order.
Under Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government waged a systemic campaign of sexual violence against women activists in 2005. The military then initiated so-called virginity tests for female protesters in 2011. Secular feminist Egyptian-American Mona Eltahawy says the tests are nothing more than rape with a foreign object.
Egyptian women responded by developing HarassMap, an initiative that helps women report sexual assaults and harassment through text messaging. The organization reports that more than 80% of the Egyptian women have been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted since the overthrow of Mubarak.
Systemic sexual violence is absent in Saudi Arabia, but organized media campaigns have targeted Saudi women challenging conservative clerics, male abuse of power and draconian guardianship laws.
A judge recently demanded the government revoke Saudi journalist Nadine Albodair’s citizenship when she complained in a television interview about Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban and abuses by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The Arabic language daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat responded to her interview not to address her concerns, but evaluate her body and sexual appeal.
In 2009, 13 Saudi women journalists filed libel complaints with the Ministry of Interior following a report by the online newspaper Kul Al-Watan that “women journalists rely on illicit relationships with newspaper bosses to get support and fame.” Male readers almost daily write obscene comments about high-profile Muslim women in the sensationalistic online Saudi newspapers Al-Weeam and Sabq.
Attacking the morality of women and bringing shame to their families have proven a useful tool to quiet advocacy for Saudi women’s rights. Leading women activists who were vocal last June during the women driving ban demonstration have toned down their advocacy after the Saudi government implemented tougher media and speech laws and journalists waged ad hominem attacks, including doubts about their religious faith.
Yet the greater weapon to silence critics who say that Arab feminists seek to destroy the moral fabric of the Ummah is the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations described at a recent Arab women’s rights conference in New York that Islam is the “cultural touchstone” that allows women to argue for rights that address child marriage, polygamy and education. By using the Qur’an to counter patriarchal interpretations, Islamic feminists have the ability to introduce discussions about rights without the secular revolutionary rhetoric that threatens government institutions. It has also helped that the literacy rate has improved dramatically for young Saudi women, who once relied on the men in their family to interpret the Qur’an. The literacy rate for Saudi females between the ages of 15 and 24 has risen from 81.7% in 1992 to 96.5% in 2009. Coleman points out that this grassroots movement challenges conservative traditions and provides the necessary steppingstone to gain rights.
Muslim women living in conservative cultures that have marginal contact with the West recognize that the mere label of being a feminist spells trouble. Adopting secular feminist language that eschews religion and promotes a woman’s personal goals above the family is likely to leave a woman’s reputation in tatters and shaming her family, which is no small thing in Arab culture.
Although the label of Islamic feminist carries the similar dangers, Saudi women avoid the discussion of feminism and frame women’s rights as an Islamic obligation while at the same time appealing to the better nature of men.
Since the fall of 2011, the Saudi Ministry of Education has tightened its rules that require female university students to have a male guardian living with them while studying in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Many young Saudi women send their guardians home, and live and study independently. The enforcement of the rules has stricken these women with the fear of losing their government scholarships. It forced them to beg to have their guardians return. The issue received considerable attention in the Saudi press.
Although Islam requires women to have a guardian during travel, there are no other mandates once the woman arrives at her destination. Almost to a man, male journalists endorse the Saudi interpretation of guardianship as vital to protect Saudi society. And with few exceptions, Saudi female university students see it as simply male control.
Yet the guardianship issue opens a window for Saudi women to loosen patriarchal dominance by arguing there is no religious justification for infantilizing women. By appealing to institutions to replace patriarchal interpretations of Islam with a more gender-neutral approach, women secure a foothold that leads to greater participation in society.