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Photo of Hamza Kashgari
The Satanic tweets

Posted on 16 February 2012, 4:21

When Salman Rushdie was given his very own fatwa calling for his death back in 1989, it was because he had written a large novel, The Satanic Verses. But now it seems you only need to post three tweets to get yourself a blasphemy trial and death sentence in Saudi Arabia.

Hamza Kashgari, a 22 year-old Saudi poet and former newspaper columnist, posted his tweets on Mawlid, the birthday of the prophet Muhammad (on 4 February) and fled the country a few days later. He’s now languishing in a Saudi jail while the talk among Muslim clerics is of a trial for blasphemy or apostasy, even though Kashgari has apologised. ‘I have made a mistake, and I hope Allah and all those whom I have offended will forgive me,’ he’s reported to have said.

Here are English translations of the three tweets…

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.

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.

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.

It’s chilling (but not all that surprising) to think that such polite scepticism towards the prophet could lead to a Facebook group calling for your execution, with 25,000 members and climbing. Most of the posts there are in Arabic, but it’s worth looking at in a motorway rubbernecking sort of way. It’s a surprise that Facebook allows such a group.

Christians have no cause to be smug. Comments such as these expressed in the Middle Ages would have earned you an interview with your handy local branch of the Inquisition. And as recently as 1921, a Bradford trouser salesman, John William Gott, was sentenced to nine months in prison with hard labour for the crime of blasphemy. He had published a pamphlet depicting Jesus entering Jerusalem like a clown on the back of two donkeys. Gott died soon after his release.

I’ve never been able to get my head around the idea of blasphemy. I know as a believer that it can feel hurtful or embarrassing if someone ridicules the Lord or makes a joke about the crucifixion, but the idea that the honour of God might in some way be damaged by that seems laughable. The Victorian Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon once said, ‘Defend the Bible? I’d as soon defend a lion!’ and my take on blasphemy is that God is big enough to take it on the chin.

When the Saudi information minister, Abdul-Aziz Khoja, said that he ‘wept and got very angry’ when he read Hamza Kashgari’s tweets, I read his comments as the sort of pious grandstanding that has always given blasphemy its fearful power. After all, this is never a private ‘sin’. The discovery and punishment of blasphemy is always public, and it’s all about social control.

A Facebook page, Save Hamza Kashgari, has now been set up and has just over 3,000 likes (i.e. it’s eight times smaller than the group calling for his execution). Check it for comments and the phone numbers of Saudi embassies in various countries. People there are encouraging each other to give them a call.

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