Saudi Writer Hamza Kashgari Flees Country After Controversy on Twitter

UPDATE 2/12/12 03:09ET: Hamza Kashgari has been deported to Saudi Arabia by Malaysian authorities, several news agencies reported. Malaysian human rights lawyers say they had a judge order to stop the deportation, but by the time they reached the airport the plane already took off.

Hamza Kashgari, a young Saudi writer, caused a firestorm when he posted a series of tweets on the birthday of Prophet Mohammad last week. In his tweets, Kashgari imagined a conversation with the Prophet in which he said they are equal, and that although he admires many of the Prophet’s characteristics there are also others that he disliked.

Saudi users on Twitter erupted with outrage, posting nearly 30,000 tweets on the topic in less than 24 hours. Many people believed that he insulted the Prophet by addressing him and speaking about him like that. They accused Kashgari of blasphemy, atheism and apostasy. Many said he must be punished and some said he should be killed. Others even went as far as threatening to kill him or offer money for his head.

The outcry resulted in a full U-turn by Kashgary, who deleted the controversial tweets and published an apology saying he has sinned and that he has now repented. He explained that what he wrote earlier was “feelings I erred in describing and writing, and that I ask God for forgiveness, but they don’t really represent my belief in the Prophet.”

The apology was not enough for many people, especially the religious conservatives who demanded that Kashgari be tried in a Sharia court. One of these people is a cleric named Nasser al-Omar, who appeared in a YouTube video weeping because he said he could not bear to see the Prophet insulted.

“These people [like Kashgari] should be put to trial in Sharia courts,” al-Omar said. “It is known that cursing God and his Prophet is apostasy. And the fact that he has repented with cold words will not probably save him in the court.”

Al-Omar and others insist that even if Kashgari has repented he should still be sentenced for apostasy, effectively calling for his death by sword. Al-Omar called on his followers to send telegraphs to the King, Crown Prince and the Grand Mufti to punish Kashgari.

Yesterday, several websites said that the King has ordered the arrest of Kashgari and today news came that he has fled the country. According to Al Arabiya’s sources, Kashgari had flown to Jordan then the UAE before reaching a country in southeast Asia.

The 23-year-old writer used to write a column for the Jeddah-based al-Bilad daily, but yesterday the information minister Abdul Aziz Khoja ordered all newspapers not to carry any article by Kashgari. “I have instructed all newspapers and magazines in the Kingdom not to allow him to write any thing and we will take legal measures against him,” Khoja said.

How a couple of tweets by an obscure writer reached the King and resulted in an arrest order and a possible death sentence in the matter of three days is nothing short of astonishing. Saudi Arabia being a conservative Muslim country, the outrage over Kashgari’s tweets was expected. Remember the Danish cartoons? Nevertheless, this case escalated rapidly.

While I understand how many Muslims would take offense at anything that touches the prophet, I don’t think it explains the whole story. Yes, many feel strongly about such matters and therefor they reacted accordingly. However, it is clear that many on the right decided to take advantage of the incident to score points and make political gains. It was a low hanging fruit.

While some may perceive religious conservatives defending the Prophet’s honor simply as piety, others say there is more behind it, that this is actually part of a long-term plan.

“This is not spontaneous,” a friend of Kashgari’s told me. “Hamza has had people marking him since the Marriott affair and before.”

There is a disturbing “bloodthirstiness” about the conservatives’ reaction, the friend said, adding that Hamza is “just the first in a list they’re targeting.”

Ironically, Kashgari had a conservative upbringing. He was part of the many “circles for memorization of Quran” in Jeddah, and according to one source familiar with the matter, his old preachers helped convince him to delete his controversial tweets and apologize. However, these very same preachers refused to come to his defense publicly in the face of the rabid attacks by the conservatives.

Contrary to reports circulating in Twitter and some sites, Kashgari was not detained upon his arrival to the airport in southeast Asia. He is free, his friend told me, but remains worried about being extradited.

This controversy emerges as an equally contentious case is finally coming to an end.

Local media reported this week that the King has pardoned Hadi Al Mutif, a man who was sentenced to death in 1996 after being convicted of allegedly insulting the Prophet. King Abdullah did not confirm the death sentence as required under Saudi law and Al Mutif remained in jail for 18 years. He is expected to walk free later this week.

UPDATE 2/9/2012 15:25ET: According to Malaysia state news agency BERNAMA, Hamza Kashgari has been detained.

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On Being Hashtagged

Adhwan al-Ahmari seems to think that there is some kind of war raging between Saudi journalists and activists. He said the revolution in Egypt has produced a divide between the two groups. This war is taking place in Twitter and in newspaper columns.

First, let’s get some facts straight. There is a lot of broad-brush statements and sweeping generalizations being thrown around here.

For example, Adhwan says activists are demanding the immediate release of all detainees and apply the criminal procedures law to them even for terrorism suspects. This statement is not entirely true. I never heard any activist say they want all detainees released. What most activists want is simply to have the criminal procedures law applied to all detainees, because indefinite detention is illegal and violates their basic human right to a speedy and fair trial.

The activists I have been talking with tell me that keeping detainees in prison for prolonged periods will backfire because these individuals who feel they have been locked up unfairly will leave prison — if and when they do — with a good reason to hate the government, and to act on it. The government needs to respect the law and present the detainees to a court of law, activists said, where they would get charged or acquitted.

Adhwan disagrees. He thinks that activists are exaggerating the numbers of detainees and their grievances, and even lying to promote their cause. Moreover, Adhwan thinks terror suspects should not enjoy the legal protections provided by the criminal procedures law because terrorists have killed innocent people, bombed buildings, and attempted to overthrow the government. That’s why the government, he argues, is not bound by the law when dealing with them.

Of course Adhwan is not the only one of this opinion. Other people, in the media and outside it, agree with him. Recently, some journalists who share this opinion have grown fed up with the activists rising calls on the government to respect the law. Since such topics are still sensitive for mainstream media in the country, activists have turned to social media and the international press to make their voices heard. This did not set well with some local journalists like Adhwan, who seems to have a lot of pride in his profession.

Adhwan’s colleagues, as I have written earlier this week, decided to take on what they called the “New Activism.” Activists, and their supporters, don’t have newspaper columns. They have Twitter. There, they denote their tweets about a specific topic using a hashtag. When someone says something controversial and what they said becomes a topic of discussion on Twitter, we commonly say that he has been hashtagged.

However, because we as a society are not used to critical thinking and open debate, this practice makes some people uncomfortable. I’m not saying Twitter is perfect for every kind of discussion. Sometimes people will use the hashtag to attack the person instead of discussing his ideas. Is that good? No, but I think it comes with the territory and I can live with it. Plus, in a country where frank debate of our most pressing issues is still laden with political, religious and social mines, Twitter is providing a great window into the psyche of the nation where people can freely talk about these issues

Again, I’m not saying that unchecked personal attacks are okay. All I’m saying is that if you decided to publish an opinion then get ready to be not just criticized but to take whatever you get. If you are too sensitive and can’t take criticism then you probably should not put your opinions out to the public.

If getting hashtagged hurts your feelings.. well, tough shit. Grow up. Welcome to the Internet.

Some people downplayed the role of social media in the Arab Spring. Now some local columnists like Salman al-Dossary are trying to do the same. But even if the number of Saudi users on these sites is still not very big, I think tools like Twitter and Facebook have become mainstream enough to offer a good representation of society.

Al-Dossary says it is “laughable” that anyone would take Twitter seriously when there is only 115,000 Saudi users of the service. However, when you consider that many of these users have more followers than the daily circulation of his paper, you wonder who should be laughing.

The New Activism

It is rather sad that at a time when peoples are toppling dictators and changing regimes, we are still stuck talking about women driving, underage marriage and the right of prisoners to get a speedy, fair trial. I’m not saying these issues are unimportant, but let’s face it: their importance pales quickly when compared to other countries’ struggles to change their reality.

So, what’s up in Saudi Arabia?

The latest Saudi story to make international headlines was about a proposed anti-terror law that the interior ministry has been aggressively pushing through the Shoura Council. Amnesty International somehow obtained a copy of the draft and published it on their website.

Amnesty said the proposed law would strangle peaceful protest, and asked the King to “reconsider this law and ensure that his people’s legitimate right to freedom of expression is not curtailed in the name of fighting terrorism.”

The draft, probably leaked by a member of the Shoura Council, contained comments made by the Council’s security committee. Based on the copy, they seem to have made very few and minimal changes on the text prepared by the ministry. These changes, however, do not touch on the articles that caused concern to Amnesty and activists in the country like Article 29, which says: “Anyone who doubts the king or crown prince’s integrity will face punishment of at least 10 years in jail.”

The Saudi embassy in London responded to Amnesty’s leak by saying the concerns of the human rights organization were “baseless and mere assumptions.”

Local media did not report much on the news, but newspaper columnists made a point of attacking Amnesty and activists who raised their concerns about the proposed law on social media sites. “Amnesty have committed a crime by interfering [in a domestic matter] and publishing confidential documents,” wrote Ahmed al-Towayan in Okaz daily. “They proved that they are an organization that includes a group of ignorants, rebels and people who have interests; an organization morally and financially bankrupt seeking money any way they can.”

But the most severe and sinister attacks were saved for local rights activists, who have gotten increasingly vocal in their criticism of some government practices lately. In the same week, the Saudi edition of Al-Hayat daily carried two columns calling activists “erotic dancers” and outlaws.

“There is no doubt that the new activism has become a dangerous phenomenon,” Saud al-Rayes wrote, “because it aims to challenge the state and its organizations.” Al-Rayes linked local activism to the Iranian influence in the region, a bold statement for which he did not bother to provide any evidence, then called activists to support the National Society of Human Rights instead of questioning government policies.

The article understandably angered activists who turned to Twitter (where else?) to release their fury. Al-Rayes, as we now say in Saudi Arabia, has been hashtagged.

His fellow columnist in the same paper Hani al-Dhaheri could not just stand their while his colleague gets ripped up by the kids in social media. Few days later, he penned this column in which he called rights activists khawarij who use social media to incite people against the government.

After getting a slap on the wrist for signing one of the reform petitions earlier this year, al-Dhaheri has learned his lesson and conformed.

“How could a whiner in Twitter, Facebook or YouTube assert that someone is innocent or oppressed unless they have an ulterior motive beyond this cause which they use to cover their agenda,” al-Dhaheri wrote today. He kept repeating a line about targeting the “legitimate leaders” of the country, despite the fact that none of the local activists actually question the legitimacy of the royal family.

After writing 457 words, al-Dhaheri concludes in the last paragraph that this “suspicious project run by activists ‘from their homes’ is not new,” and that those activists will either end up distracted by fame and money or leave the country to join the opposition in London. Again, al-Dhaheri does not bother to tell us how he reached that definitive conclusion. Maybe he has a magic ball?

Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani, co-founder and president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, noted what he called an “attack campaign” on human rights activists.

“My message to all #saudi columnists who ridicule and humiliate people that one day you will be held accountable in people’s court,” he tweeted.

One day.

On June 17

  • Saudi women did drive on June 17. More than 50 of them drove, and the day went by peacefully for the most part. Check out my post for NPR’s Two-way blog to read more and hear from some of the women who got behind the wheel and defied the ban.
  • I somehow made Foreign Policy’s Twitterati 100 list for the most influencial people on Twitter, and what’s great about it is that I’m in good company.
  • Speaking of Foreign Policy, they published a good piece by Ebtihal Mubarak looking into the historical background of the demands for women driving in the country.
  • Remember when I asked if there was hope for Saudi Arabia? ColdRevolt thinks there is none. She says, “Our society is not only backward for debating a basic human right, but looking at its reaction to the revolutionary movements across the Arab world, and the uprisings in Bahrain specifically… it’s absolutely hopeless.”

Saudi Gov Releases New Law for Online Media

It’s finally here.

After months of uneasy waiting and gestation, the Saudi ministry of culture and information (MOCI) has bestowed its new law for regulating online publishing upon us. According to the state news agency, minister Abdulaziz Khoja has approved the addition of a new set of rules and guidelines to the current publishing law concerning the new forms of publishing on the Internet and mobile phones.

Before delving into some of the highlights of the new old law -new in its terminology, old in its spirit- allow me to congratulate the ministry on their exquisite sense of timing. Although the law has been in the works for months, the first few signs were made public on the country’s national day back in September, and now the details of the law are released on new year’s day. The ministry knows this is exactly how we want to start the second decade of the millennium.

The ministry of culture and information, being on the cutting edge of all things tech, has made the new law available for download as a Word document on their website here. If you have not been following this story, here is some background.

Now let’s take a look at some of the articles in the law. Some of the expressions and sentences may sound very clunky, that’s because I’m trying to stick to literal translation.

The first article is basically a list definitions. Boring. The second article details the forms of electronic publishing that the new law covers, and those include:

  1. Electronic journalism
  2. Websites of traditional media (tv, radio, newspapers, magazine, etc)
  3. Forums
  4. Blog
  5. Websites displaying audio and visual material
  6. Electronic advertisement
  7. Broadcasting via mobile phones (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)
  8. Broadcasting via other messages (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)
  9. Personal websites
  10. Mail lists
  11. Electronic archive
  12. Chat rooms
  13. Any other form of electronic publishing that the ministry may choose to add

Obviously, MOCI wants to extend its control over everything. No surprise here; government bodies in general are well known for their obsession with control. The weird thing is that they also want to regulate advertising online, plus two other things that I don’t really understand: broadcasting via other messages and electronic archive. What are they talking about?

MOCI are kind enough to tell us of the goals behind this new law:

  1. Supporting benevolent electronic media
  2. Regulating the activity of electronic publishing in the Kingdom
  3. Protecting society from malpractices in electronic publishing
  4. Declaring the rights and duties of workers in electronic publishing
  5. Protecting the rights of individuals to create and register any form of electronic publishing
  6. Protecting the rights of individuals to petition concerned authorities in the case of grievance
  7. Support and patronage of the ministry for electronic websites and their employees by facilitating their work

This is MOCI’s rationale for why they think this law is such a great idea. It is not, according to most people I’ve talked to. Protecting society? I don’t recall hearing the society screaming for help. Protecting individuals’ rights to publish online? Hey, we kind of have been doing this for a while now, and we really don’t need your protection and/or permission. Instead of trying to support the newly born online media, why don’t you try to improve the state news agency and television channels? They have been barely surviving on life-support for a long time.

The fifth article lists the forms of online publishing that need permission:

  1. Electronic journalism
  2. Websites of traditional media (tv, radio, newspapers, magazine, etc)
  3. Electronic advertisement
  4. Websites displaying audio and visual material
  5. Broadcasting via mobile phones (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)
  6. Broadcasting via other messages (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)

The sixth article lists the forms of online publishing that may be registered:

  1. Forums
  2. Blogs
  3. Personal websites
  4. Mail lists
  5. Electronic archive
  6. Chat rooms

Apparently this is the distinction that Abdul Rahman al-Hazza was talking about in September of last year. Bloggers do not need permission, but they may register if they want. Why would any blogger do that is beyond me, but if I understand this correctly, the distinction does not mean anything because whether you register or not you would still be operating under this law. That means the government, or anyone else, really, can use the law and its stretchy articles and loopholes against you in court if they believe you have violated any of them, and the punishment can be very severe.

The seventeenth article of the law details the penalty of violating any part of this law, which includes monetary fines and blocking your website, partially or completely, temporarily or permanently.

I have no plan to register my blog with MOCI, but if you are considering that choice you probably want to know that not anyone can do this as they please. To register, a Saudi citizen must be at least 20 years old with a high school degree or above, and if you plan to launch a so-called “electronic newspaper,” the ministry must approve of your editor-in-chief, just like they do for dead tree newspapers. The law says the editor is held accountable for all content published on the website, but says nothing readers’ comments. Is the editor also held accountable for those?

Another worrying piece in the law says those who get permission must provide the ministry with the information of their hosting company. We can conclude from this that MOCI won’t simply block your website for readers inside the country, but they can also deny access to your website from anywhere by forcing the hosting company to take your site offline altogether. Scary.

What do you think about all of this? Discuss.

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Law professor held, Saudis all atwitter

Mohammed al-Abdulkarim, a Saudi law professor, was arrested Sunday after publishing an article about the royal succession and the possibility of a power struggle inside the ruling family. The article was firs published on al-Abdulkarim’s Facebook profile, and later republished on Royaah magazine website.

Four men, variously wearing civilian clothes and uniforms, arrested him at his Riyadh home, the Human Rights First Society of Saudi Arabia (HRFS) said. Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, head of HRFS, told AFP that al-Abdulkarim’s arrest was illegal on two counts: he was taken without a court warrant for his arrest, and has been held for 24 hours without charge.

As usual, local media in Saudi Arabia has ignored the story, but the social web was quick to pick it up. Not too long after the arrest, the news was flying all over Twitter and Facebook. Users on Twitter used the hashtag #FreeDrAbdulkarim to denote their reactions. Most of them expressed anger and frustration at the arrest. “I, and many others, believe in every word Dr. al-Abdulkarim said in his article. Are you going to arrest us too?” Abdulrahman Alnasri said.

However, the most intense exchange of the day on Twitter was between Abdulrahman al-Enad, member of the Shoura Council, and Waleed Abulkhair, the lawyer of Mohammed al-Abdulkarim. Al-Enad said al-Abdulkarim has made a mistake and should be punished. Some of what al-Enad said did not set well with Abulkhair, who demanded the Shoura Council to apologize for what he considered impoliteness. Al-Enad refused to apologize and told Abulkhair in a relatively salty language to shut up.

I was momentarily startled by al-Enad’s choice of words and thought it was a slip of the tongue, but the Shoura member stood by what he said. That prompted the creation of another hashtag, #koltebin, which people are using now to discuss the issue of al-Abdulkarim and the kerfuffle between Abulkhair and al-Enad.

Last week I told you that Twitter is big in Saudi Arabia, but did not elaborate on why is that. This is why.

Read more:

Top Ten Twitter users in Saudi Arabia

Twitter is big in Saudi Arabia. There, I said it. While no one can say for sure how many Saudi Twitter users exist, I think it is safe to say that the number is in the thousands. Regardless of the numbers, there have always been questions about the influence of social media on public discourse in the Middle East, with many dismissing these new tools as factors for stimulating change. However, I think that the past few months have showed some clear examples for what is possible using social media, as we have seen in stories like those of Samar Badwai and Abdulwahab al-Essa. With Twitter announcing their plan to launch an Arabic version next year, we can only expect that the influence of Twitter will grow and increase.

Now when you first register to Twitter, the website shows lists of suggested users to follow. Unfortunately, these lists are not exactly helpful if you are interested in following people in a certain country. That’s why I wanted to create this list. The list, which ranks users according to the number of their followers, is based on my own personal unscientific research, and it includes only real humans, compared to those Twitter accounts populated by bots/feeds. If I missed anyone, feel free to correct me in the comments.

Without further ado, here is my list for the top 10 Twitter users in Saudi Arabia:

  1. @Azizshalan: This was a surprise to me. I have never heard of Aziz Shalan before working on this list, and his bio offers very little on who he is or what he does. What we know is that he is based in Jeddah, he has more than 12,000 followers, and he tweets in both Arabic and English about many different things.
  2. @TurkiAldakhil: Turki al-Dakhil hosts a popular weekly talk show on Al Arabiya channel, owns Al-Misbar research center in Dubai, and writes a daily column for Al Watan newspaper. Since joining the service last year he has been pretty active, using Twitter to express his thoughts and opinions. He recently asked his followers to suggest names for his show and what questions to ask them.
  3. @RayeD_X: Another surprise on the list. I don’t know much about this user except for what he provides in his bio: he is apparently an engineering student at Umm Al-Qura University, and he ranks #2 on the world in Killzone, which is a first-person shooter video game.
  4. @essamz: A relatively distant fourth, Essam Al-Zamil is an entrepreneur and blogger from the Eastern Province. He focuses on economics, especially issues related to real estate and unemployment in Saudi Arabia.
  5. @alfarhan: Fouad al-Farhan is the most well-known Saudi blogger. Even when he was not blogging, he was regularly tweeting, and has been for the past four years. Fouad tweets about politics, society, and entrepreneurship.
  6. @Nejer: Cartoonist Malik Nejer uses Twitter to share his latest work and comment on social and political issues. In his bio, he describes himself as someone who is interested in natural sciences and human rights. Recently, Malik announced his engagement to another user, @contradict1987, and they occasionally have cute exchanges on Twitter ;-)
  7. @ahmed: Yours truly.
  8. @alzaid: Saleh Alzaid is not merely a Twitter user. As the founder of TwitEmail and the owner of TwtBase, this programmer has made his mark on the Twitter community not just in Saudi Arabia but around the world.
  9. @ibrahemsu: Ibrahem AlSuhaibani blogs in Arabic about marketing, branding, and corporate identity. This kind of content is severely lacking and much needed in the Arab speaking internet. On Twitter, Ibrahim shows a more lighthearted side, but also shares links to creative works with brief commentary.
  10. @Bandar: Bandar Raffah is a graphic designer who makes beautiful things. You can take a glimpse of his recent work by looking at successful iOS apps such as 2Do, QamarDeen, and iPray. His Twitter stream is a mixture of distinctive ranting with occasional links.
  11. Bonus! @azizkhoja: With 123 tweets only, the Saudi minister of information and culture Abdulaziz Khoja is not the most prolific Twitter user. However, his presence as a senior government official on this social network is definitely interesting. The minister links to his recent articles and sometimes replies to fellow tweeps questions.