“A merchant in Baghdad…sent his servant to market….The servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace…I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me….Lend me your horse, and…I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse…and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. The merchant went down to the marketplace and saw [Death] standing in the crowd. He asked, Why did you make a threating gesture to my servant…? [Death replied]…I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra. — W. Somerset Maugham, “The Appointment in Samarra” (1933)
By Barry Rubin
Nageeb Kashgari is a young man in a lot of trouble. The 23-year-old Saudi has been spirited back to his country from Malaysia in a manner reminiscent of a kidnapping to be put on trial for his life.
His crime? To write three Tweets that Saudi clerics have deemed to be heretical. The lynch mob is baying for his blood. Nobody in the world is helping him. Kashgari might well be doomed, despite his quick apology and erasure of the Tweets.
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For details on his case and situation click here.
Even if Kashgari were an atheist or someone who renounced Islam or did indeed violated its precepts his freedom of speech and religion should be defended. But what is most interesting about his case is that he did not really do any of these things. He merely expressed a liberal, modernist-style interpretation of Islam, the kind of thing that developed in Christianity—and was sometimes punished then–about 250 years ago and became very common 150 years ago.
Nothing tells us more about the profound difficulty of reforming Islam, the totalitarian threat of Islamism, and the danger of Sharia law—to Muslims above all—than does the Kashgari case.
Let me begin, though, with a brief discussion about why freedom of speech is so important. In the U.S. Constitution, the first amendment says, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of the speech, or of the press….”
Why did they understand this to be so essential more than two centuries ago in a way that applies perfectly to today? Because once someone can decided what is legal speech—beyond a minimal limit of “fire in crowded theatres” and national security secrets endangering lives—they can interpret what is acceptable in any way they choose. And people being people, anyone in power is certain to do that in a way that enhances their own power and serves their own interest.
And that is why the very concept of “Politically Correct” is inevitably anti-democratic and will be inevitably abused. This is what we see today. When, as in Europe and Canada, courts start determining criminal expression then that country is in serious trouble.
Of course, in traditional societies such rules usually prevail and they are being reinstalled in Islamist polities, some of which have been established with Western assistance. Indeed, if the organization of Islamic states and Western supporters have their way, heresy against Islam will become an international crime for which even non-Muslims can be prosecuted.
Kashgari came from a Salafist family but developed liberal beliefs that he expressed in Tweets. There are two lessons here, showing how hard it is to develop a democracy in Muslim-majority countries or any liberal interpretation of Islam. In the first case, there is no freedom of speech on critical issues; on the second, the ability of mainstream or hardline clerics to interpret any other view as heretical will be enforced.
Earlier, Kashgari had tweeted: “No Saudi women will go to hell, because it’s impossible to go there twice.” This is, of course, a witty statement of the status of women in Saudi Arabia.
More recently, Kashgari sent three tweets, addressed to Islam’s founder on his birthday. These form the basis of his “crime.”
Tweet 1: “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.”
This is an attempt to present Muhammad as a rebel, a man supporting change that is common in Christianity (and especially on the political left) regarding its own founder. It is a pro-Muhammad statement and, of course, Islam strongly denies Muhammad’s divinity. Yet the clerics have the power to judge this statement heretical and have it punished by the political authorities.
Tweet 2: “On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.”
Again, this is just an honest and very human statement about religious faith. Saying that he finds Muhammad “wherever I turn” is a profoundly religious sentiment. Here, though, his implication that he might dislike any aspect of Muhammad whatsoever—even one—makes him a candidate for the chopping block.
If the questioning of a single, even unnamed, precept of Muhammad is heresy than you can forget about reformers or liberal movements.
Tweet 3: “On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.”
Again, since Islam holds that Muhammad is a man—a point that Saudi Wahhabi Islam especially emphasizes—this is hardly apostasy. One should not bow to him or kiss his hand. Here is one point Kashgari might have better covered himself, say by referring to Muhammad as a teacher or a respected man. Still, if Muhammad is just a “friend” does that mean he isn’t a prophet? Kashgari seems to have meant this as an expression of love. At any rate, nobody responded by asking him to reply or even to repent but only to die.
There is no eternal or deterministic “essence” to Islam that decides what it will be like. Still, if Islam is interpreted by those who have power, even life and death power, over hundreds of millions of Muslims are requiring total obedience to hardline and Islamist clerics there is no hope in our lifetime that things will get better. People can only obey, fight against overwhelming odds, or, like Kashgari, flee to New Zealand. And even to such places, as we have seen, the intolerant interpreters will follow them.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com