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Jalees Rehman, M.D. Headshot

Reacting to Reactionary Muslims

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Last week, the Saudi writer and blogger Hamza Kashgari tweeted about Prophet Muhammad and his tweets caused an unanticipated fire-storm of outrage among many Saudis. They formed an "electronic lynch mob" and responded with hate-filled tweets, Face-book posts, comments, threats and YouTube videos, calling for the arrest and punishment of Kashgari.

A prominent Saudi cleric accused Kashgari of apostasy ("Ridda"), which could be punishable by death under Saudi law. Multiple sites reported that an arrest warrant was issued by the King of Saudi-Arabia, even though Kashgari deleted his tweets and apologized for them. Realizing that his life was in danger, Kashgari escaped from Saudi-Arabia. However, at the request of the Saudi authorities, Kashgari was detained mid-journey by the Malaysian police at the Kuala Lumpur airport, so that he was unable to reach his destination New Zealand, where he had intended to ask for political asylum.

The government of Malaysia is now in the process of deciding whether or not to extradite Kashgari back to Saudi-Arabia.

It is appalling that Saudi clerics and the Saudi government would resort to such measures in response to a few tweets by a 23-year old writer, who was merely expressing his personal views on his faith and Prophet Muhammad. However, in light of the horrific human rights record of Saudi Arabia, these responses do not come as a surprise. What is even more shocking than the response of the Saudi officials is the fact that thousands of Saudi citizens as well as thousands Muslims in other countries are joining the chorus of hatred directed against Kashgari.

Contemporary Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries often demand severe punishments for apostasy, blasphemy or even "sorcery", sometimes using legal precedents and interpretation of laws that were established more than a thousand years ago. According to Amnesty International, two people were executed for "sorcery" in Saudi Arabia last year. The crimes of blasphemy, apostasy or sorcery are poorly defined and can be used to prosecute and punish people with dissenting views.

Poets, artists, thinkers and others who challenged established or traditional interpretations of faith have often been labeled as heretics or apostates and been subject to harsh punishments or oppression in Muslim history. For example, the Muslim poet Mansur Al-Hallaj was executed in the 10th century for saying "I am the Truth" ("Ana l-Haqq"), which was thought to be an insult to God since only God could be Truth. It seems like a scene from an absurdist play when contemporary Muslim clerics appeal for such 10th century punishments using 21st century Twitter and YouTube.

A recent book entitled The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin may shed some light on this matter. The book analyzes the reactionary elements in American conservatism and how it responds to ongoing (progressive) revolutions. Corey Robin suggests that conservatism tries to co-opt the methods of an ongoing (progressive) revolution and creates a reactionary counter-revolution which fuses the dynamic and populist nature of a progressive revolution with the conservative goal of preserving and enforcing the existing order.

This same concept can be similarly applied to contemporary Muslim conservatism, especially in theocratic countries such as Saudi-Arabia or Iran. In the face of the cultural, technological and political revolutions that are sweeping the Middle East, it is likely that conservative Muslim clerics will co-opt some elements of the revolutions to create a dynamic and reactionary popular movement that attempts to preserve the existing order or perhaps even restore a more conservative structure. The weeping Saudi Sheikh in this YouTube clip is appealing to his audience to send in petitions to the Saudi officials to request the punishment of Kashgari and possibly other apostates.

The use of YouTube videos and requests for sending in petitions to an authoritarian government is reminiscent of the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring. However, this revolutionary spirit is co-opted for the reactionary-conservative goal to reduce the individual freedom of expression instead of increasing individual freedom. It is difficult to ascertain what ultimately convinced the Saudi government to issue the arrest warrant for Kashgari and what role such reactionary populist appeals played in that decision. However, armed with the power of social media and religious fervor, such grass roots reactionary activism is emerging as a powerful conservative force in Muslim countries. Its potential for harm is especially concerning because large proportions of Muslims in Muslim countries already appear to subscribe to conservative-reactionary views. A Pew Research Center survey in 2010, for example, revealed that 84% of Muslims in Egypt and 76% in Pakistan would support the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion.

In light of this situation, it becomes imperative for progressive-liberal Muslims to stand up to the spread of reactionary-conservative ideas in Muslim countries. Due to the oppression and censorship that exists in many Muslim countries such as Saudi-Arabia or Iran, it is very difficult for progressive-liberal Muslims living in those countries to openly counter the reactionary-conservative movements without risking harsh punishments. On the other hand, Muslims, who are fortunate enough to live in countries which reasonably guarantee the freedom of expression, may be able to help and support fledgling progressive-liberal movements in Muslim countries.

Unfortunately, in the case of Hamza Kashgari, this support has been somewhat muted. Two of the largest Muslim organizations in the USA are ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) and CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations). Both organizations are usually quick to point out any potential discrimination of American Muslims or immigrant Muslims in the USA by American institutions. However, they also frequently comment about international affairs and human rights violations involving Muslims outside of the United States. On its Twitter account, CAIR describes itself with the progressive-liberal sounding label "Leading advocates for justice and mutual understanding", but it rarely criticizes the egregious human rights violations committed by reactionary Muslim governments against Muslims and non-Muslims.

On February 10, 2012 while many news websites and Facebook pages were discussing the arrest of Hamza Kashgari in Malaysia, CAIR posted a Chicago Tribune story about how the international soccer federation FIFA was driving away Muslim women from playing soccer by restricting the length of the Muslim head-scarves of female soccer players. Throughout the day, many additional stories were posted on the CAIR Facebook page, but there was no mention or criticism of the Saudi government's violation of Hamza Kashgari's freedom of expression. On the same day, the ISNA Facebook page posted a story on Friday about the NYPD discrimination of Muslims, and also failed to mention the Kashgari incident.

An online petition was started to collect signatures in support of Kashgari's freedom. The supposed goal of the petition is to alert organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These organizations do not really need to be petitioned, since they have already made statements in support of Kashgari and are trying to contact the Saudi authorities. However, the signatures on the petition show that a large number of the supporters of the petition hail from Muslim countries.

This suggests that there are indeed a number of Muslims in Muslim countries who may be willing to oppose the reactionary-conservative movements, but it also reminds us that they need additional support, both from within Muslim countries as well as from outside.

Muslims living in North America or Europe can provide some degree of support by increasing the awareness of the problems. Mosques or Muslim community centers in North America and Europe rarely discuss the suppression of dissenting religious views in Muslim countries. Another step is to contact national organizations such as ISNA and CAIR and request that they intervene on behalf of Muslims and non-Muslims alike who suffer under oppressive Muslim governments that use religious injunctions to stifle dissenting views in matters of religion.

Hopefully, CAIR and ISNA will not only criticize the violation of Kashgari's freedom of expression by the Saudi government but also take a broader approach to help protect the freedom of expression of journalists, writers, thinkers, academics, artists as well as all others who wish to express their opinions in Muslim countries without having to fear punishments and retributions by governments or vigilante mobs.