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A Poet, Three Tweets and an Online Mob

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As you read this, a small, thin 23 year-old Saudi with a Bambi-like physicality, awaits trial in a Riyadh prison. His crime was to write a poem. Barely hours after posting three tweets, a supernova of anger exploded on Twitter and Facebook against him. Thousands of Saudis, mainly in the Arabic language, were outraged at the young writer's tweets; which were parts of a poem describing an imagined conversation with the Prophet Muhammad. Hamza Kashgari quickly went from poet, blogger and sometimes columnist, to Hamza Kashgari the alleged blasphemer.

Hamza's friends warned him of a brewing firestorm; he quickly left for Malaysia, expecting a semblance of protection there. Saudi Arabia was quick to go after its citizen. According to Malaysian police (though denied by Interpol), they were merely responding to a posting on Interpol's global notice board. Fragile Hamza was swiftly arrested and extradited. For those Malaysians who complain about wealthy Saudi men who act above the law, highly inebriated, often accompanied by a prostitute on their arm in the high-flying Bukit Bintang entertainment district of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia police's devotion to assisting the Saudis was bitter food for thought.

I couldn't help but think that if Saudi Arabia hadn't executed Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem in December for "witchcraft and sorcery," they might've been better served using her broomstick-powered skills in apprehending Hamza sooner.

What has followed since Hamza's arrest, on social media, has been nothing short of outrageous. Those initial Facebook groups and tweets condemning Hamza from within Saudi Arabia, have been dwarfed by a deluge of hate speech in the English language, baying for blood, from all over the world.

Yes: there have been many, many groups calling for Hamza's freedom, spanning the spectrum from Amnesty International to bottom-up Facebook groups, to small daily pickets outside Saudi embassies, involving Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Saudi citizens and foreigners. They need to be commended for highlighting the plight of Hamza. His close friends have also chimed in on mainstream and social media to ask for clemency, to testify to his good character; his piety; imploring that he didn't mean to insult anyone; that he apologized and deleted the tweets... All of this is encouraging. But -- we live in the year 2012, isn't all of this expected?

What was unexpected, perhaps in the intoxicating naivety that may have washed over many of us in recent months after seeing the power of social media, from Tunis to Minsk and beyond in galvanizing young people to express themselves as they attempt to slay the dragons of dictatorship, oppression and censorship, is the fact that a substantial portion of those who have plugged themselves into the online realm of free expression, are taking unofficial membership in an online mob, calling for blood.

I scanned some Facebook feedback of news coverage of Kashgari's case, including the feedback we received on The Stream's coverage of the story. Here are some of the comments:

Khalid Ibrahim: Kill that son of bit*h

Maamun Hashim Al-rumhy: U abuse the beloved prophet Mohammad(saw) then u deserve death penalty,cut his head,no mercy,end of discussion

Saydi Moh'd: The guy must face the wrath of insultin our beloved prophet s.a.w, we dnt care about wat other religious pupet r sayin. Islam is not man made religion were anyone can tweet about it and such act wil lead to grave consequences.

Shaheen VK: The punishment for blasphemy in Christianity and Judaism is also death penalty.

But only Islam gives four options.

Execution or Crucufication,

Cutting off Hands and Feet from opposite sides OR

deportation from the Muslim Land.

Now, its upto to Saudi Arabia govt which punishment they implement.

Jay Azzam kashgari: deserve to be punished by Death.

Adamu Idris: I dont know if Kashgari is a Muslim or not but having said that, he has allowed western indoctrination affected his sense of reasoning all in the name of freedom of speech. Whatever judgement the Saudi authorities passed on him, i think he deserved it. Period!

Shueb Ahmed: This son of a dog deserves the death penalty, why pardon him for blasphemy. Needs to be hanged under the state law

One of these individuals, had just earlier that day posted on his Facebook wall about his attendance at a rally for the people of Syria, calling for an end to the bloodshed there and respect for people's human rights.

Judging by the venomous passion of some of these posts, you'd think that Kashgari's tweets were a collection of expletives against the Prophet and/or Islam. But here's what he wrote on Twitter:

I love many things about you and hate others, and there are many things about you I don't understand. 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.

Some of Islam's greatest, most celebrated poets of past ages like Kabir and Rumi, who often wrote about being drunk on God and whose words often danced around the boundaries of spiritual metaphor meets literal sexual prose, would arguably never be heard of, or from, if they were subjected to the same kind of scrutiny.

Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Abdul-Azeez ibn Abdullaah Aal ash-Shaikh has called for Kashgari to be tried. If the charge of blasphemy is "proven," Hamza will be executed. Saudi Sheikh Nasser al-Omar's wailing, Oscar-worthy performance, calling for Kashgari to be killed has been gaining views with Rebecca Black popularity on YouTube. One hopes people view his teary-tirade for the same reason they viewed Black's song "Friday."

Sheikh Ali Gomaa, The Grand Mufti of Al Azhar in Cairo, for many centuries seen as the seat of Sunni Islam in the world, seemed far less enthusiastic about the prospect of Hamza being executed. He called for calm until he can ascertain what Hamza actually said, and whether his poetry signaled doubt or deliberate provocation. If it signaled doubt, Gomaa spoke of "talking to" Hamza to try to iron out those doubts. However, he didn't explicitly say what he would suggest if it was decided that Hamza was being deliberately blasphemous.

With the prospect of the death penalty being passed against Hamza in Saudi Arabia, people have been quick to draw the parallel with Ayatollah Khomeini's Fatwa against author Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses in 1989.

An obvious difference is that that was then, this is now; and the Sunni, Wahhabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the revolutionary Shi'ite Islamic Republic of Iran are on different ends of the ideological panorama of Islamic thought. Kashgari is a Saudi citizen, Rushdie is not Iranian but British of Indian descent. Khomeini essentially mandated anyone, anywhere to kill Rushdie, while the Saudis want to try Kashgari in a court of law that prescribes death for insulting the Prophet which is deemed as blasphemy and apostasy.

From a purely literary perspective, in Rushdie's (fictional) book the (fictional) character Gibreel Farishta has dream sequences that transport him back to the 6th century where he encounters the Prophet Muhammad. While Rushdie's book, with that fiction within a fiction paradigm, calls the Prophet the derogatory "Mahound," among other things -- he was essentially writing about a man's doubts -- a Muslim, Indian expat living in Britain, whose restless push and pull of past, present, tradition and the west, are playing out in dreams in different forms. Kashgari too was writing about one thing, doubt.

What remains clear is that those who supported the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Rushdie back then (and today), and those sharpening their online knives for Hamza, have a high probability of having never read what these men wrote in the first place. And in Hamza's case in particular, the fragile-looking 23 year-old Bambi is Bambi compared to Rushdie when you compare his work from the viewpoint of the perceived potential to insult and rattle sensitivities of the devout. The online mob is happy to receive hand-me-down views from Sheikhs and demagogues who tell them, "this man insulted God, the Prophet, insulted Islam, and you know what we do to blasphemers... "

The mob takes this, inside the playground of free thought on social media, and repeats and amplifies it.

Nuance, context, subtext, irony, intention -- these are never considered.

Hamza wrote about doubt. If you're not free to doubt, you're not free to think, and if you're not free to think, then thought-crime becomes a prophecy, where we're all perpetually staring down a trap door that swings beneath our feet and threatens to plunge us into an Orwellian vortex.

Theological issues within Islam are no doubt complex, especially when enmeshed with other issues in a globalized word. Many Muslim-majority countries are fractured by pre and post-911 political conflict and post-colonial baggage; where many Muslims living as minorities in the west find themselves under the microscope merely for being Muslim. This is evident in many of the angry, aggressive (and defensive) posts of those that choose to join the social media mob, livid at those who they deem to be trashing their sacred values.

But all of this should have nothing to do with Hamza. Bambi, who wrote a poem, and now may face death. Hamza doesn't bear the burden of history.

The Internet also allows for a form of theological midgetry, where Google searches allow people to cherry pick verses from the Qur'an and Hadith (canonical sayings and actions of the Prophet), to prove their assertions that Hamza should be punished. But for every person that ploughs into the sources to isolate a narration or something that looks like it supports your hawkish view, its inverse is also true, where you can find a narration that proves that Hamza should be pardoned and left alone.

For example: It has been narrated in Sahih Muslim, Book 19, that when the Prophet Muhammad was signing a peace treaty with the Quraish, the tribe with political and economic power in Mecca who had forced the small group of early Muslims to flee to Medina because of sanctions and persecution, the scribe, Ali, was instructed by the Prophet to begin the text of the treaty with "In the name of God, most gracious and most merciful." The Quraysh delegate, Suhail, said they didn't recognize these terms, "most gracious, most merciful." So The Prophet asked Ali to amend it to, "From Muhammad, the Messenger of God," and again Suhail responded by telling him that if the Quraysh accepted him as the Messenger of God they'd have no reason for fighting him, they'd be his followers, so that needed to be struck out too. Despite the ire of his companions who took great offense at the flagrant disrespect shown to the Prophet, he calmly instructed Ali to strike it out, and said, "write Muhammad, the son of Abdullah" instead.

Is this the Prophet that needs an online mob to defend him against poetry?