In Defence of Hamza Kashgari
The chalk outline of societal protection is increasingly being coloured in by personal offense and we’re left with a corpse called justice. Yet, whatever name we give the gallows, call it tolerance or relativism, necks are shattered and lives are lost because tongues and fingers didn’t and don’t dance to the tune set by others. Defending free speech is defending “outrageous” claims – whether apostasy or failed humour – since it is when we start deciding what constitutes "acceptable" speech that freedom is gradually lost. Freedom dictated is not freedom: We are cutting off its legs and proclaiming that the corpse writhing is in fact a joyously dancing.
Whenever we restrict speech we must do so for very good reasons. Erring on the side of freedom is necessary given humanity’s poor history of dealing with dissent from the norm. Therefore, when calling for restrictions or punishments because of speech utterances, the argument must at least present a case of, as Judge Oliver Holmes said, “clear and present danger”. It must be recognised that the targeted speech poses a direct threat, primarily physical, in order for we even begin considerations for its restriction. If it does not present such a case, then we are merely bowing to the whims of the offended.
But of course not all of us understand or agree with this, especially in relation to a minority of vocal Muslims. Indeed, the story is becoming exhausting in its regular recurrence and themes: Someone publicly portrays Muhammad in an unfavourable light. Muslims, usually a vocal minority, and often leaders of some kind, call for the death of the provocateur(s). Somewhere down the line, a fairly unrelated group messes up and gives in to the demands of the offended Muslims – the news media not reproducing offending cartoons; Western academics blaming a writer for the threats against his life; and, now, a foreign country bowing to the demands of another Muslim country to obtain a citizen who fled its clutches.
The case we should concerning us is Hamza Kashgari's, a Saudi journalist accused of insulting the Prophet. As Kate Hodal says in The Guardian:
“Kashgari, 23, a newspaper columnist, tweeted doubts about Muhammad on the prophet's birthday last weekend. After death threats, he fled to Malaysia on Tuesday and was detained at Kuala Lumpur airport while trying to leave on Thursday. Malaysian police said Kashgari was handed over to Saudi officials and flown back on Sunday morning, with flight arrangements handled by the Saudi authorities.”
The Tweets in question was made about the Prophet last week. For example, one tweet was: “I have loved things about you and I have hated things about you, and there is a lot I don't understand about you. I will not pray for you.” Though it was deleted, it still received 30,000 responses. Those great place of civil discourse, YouTube and Facebook, also picked up on it and Kashgari received more threats. For example, the Facebook page ‘The Saudi People Demand the Execution of Hamza Kashgari’ is reported by the New York Times to have the terrifyingly large number of 13,000 members. But, obviously, the reason we should be concerned is that blasphemy and, especially, apostasy are crimes punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.
The reason Malaysia sent Kashgari back is due to the close ties the two countries have, especially concerning Islamic matters. The fact that Malaysia – with help from Interpol – sent him, essentially, to his death appears irrelevant to Malaysia, who are merely maintaining these ties. Furthermore, we do have reason to think that Saudi Arabia is merely using Kashgari's blasphemy as an excuse to stifle his criticism of their various backward policie (such as not allowing women to drive, etc.).
Amnesty International and others are, thankfully fighting back, in order to shed some light or at least remove some heat from Mr Kashgari.
This comes around at the same time as the recent Twitter Joke Trial. The trial concerns a British man who jokingly threatened the Robin Hood Airport, after it closed due to weather, and who is now fighting a legal battle against his supposed violent threat. Paul Chambers tweeted: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I am blowing the airport sky high!” It is truly bizarre that anyone would think Chambers was seriously contemplating any terrorist act, based on this Tweet. Because, naturally, if one is going to engage in terrorist acts, which you want no one discovering, you’ll put it on a very public platform, like Twitter.
It’s bizarre and frightening to realise that these horrible cases have occurred because of less than 140-characters expressing personal (and unthreatening) views. But in each case, some form of outrage has shaped itself according to some country’s stupid legal lines. The fact that we can talk about Britain and Saudi in the same breath also indicates something is not quite right.
Whatever we think is an appropriate response to these two cases surely cannot fall within the realm of sentencing these men to either imprisonment or death. Regardless of laws, we as moral individuals must consider whether there is any reason to think harm is being caused that requires such drastic, governmental reaction. After all, in Britain, blasphemy as a crime was only repealed in 2008; in South Africa, miscegenation laws were only repealed in the 1980’s. Laws are not by definition moral – a constant theme of this blog – so we need to at least ask ourselves these questions before we can even take it further.
If we arrive at the conclusion that these rulings are incorrect, misguided, stupid or unjustified, we should and can at least make a noise. If we can increasingly show that we not repulsed by offensive or blasphemous material; that we can, in fact, as adults take insults; then we can increasingly demonstrate how out of touch our opposition - like those prosecuting and creating such laws - has become. After all, it is to protect innocent citizens that Mr Chambers was brought in; it is, supposedly, to “protect” Islam and Saudia Arabian stability that Mr Kashgari was brought in (it’s hard to see who needs protection from a harmless 23-year old man whose only crime was speaking his mind). We don’t need protection from bad or offensive ideas – we need effective protection from totalitarian ones.
Maryam Namazie's call for action and please help where you can.
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