Monday, February 13, 2012

Sticks and stones

 “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.” - Hamza Kashgari
That tweet has 23 year old Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari looking at the possibility of death for the offense of blasphemy.

Mr. Kashgari posted that message, and two others, on Twitter last weekend, the birthday of the prophet Mohammed. Mr. Kashgari fled Saudi Arabia last Thursday but was arrested at the airport in Kuala Lumpur by Malaysian authorities. He was deported back to Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the embargo against Cuba. Following the Cuban revolution, the Cuban government nationalized the sugar industry and seized foreign-held property on the island. President Kennedy, acting on behalf of American corporate interests, denounced the revolution, instituted the embargo and proclaimed that the US would not rest until Castro's repressive government fell.

Yet, despite its claims to support freedom and democracy around the globe, the US government has continued to sell arms to the repressive, undemocratic regime in Saudi Arabia.  Just last month the Obama administration announced the sale of $30 billion worth of fighter aircraft, ammunition and logistical support to Saudi Arabia.

Our government sends young men to die by the score "to defend democracy" yet we supply arms to one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. We provide the tools of death to a government that will murder its own citizenry for daring to say something disagreeable to the imams.

Of course at the same time we are doing our best to criminalize speech by enacting so-called hate crimes bills that enhance a charge because of the words someone spoke or the attitudes they held.

Now I would, if we were talking about a different act, write about how we all did things when we were in our twenties that we are ashamed of today and that we all acted foolishly and are probably lucky, in some instances, even to be alive today. But I'm not going to blame Mr. Kashgari's "transgressions" on his age. That would give the religious fanatics too much credibility.

The Saudi government seeks to control the thoughts of the Saudi people. Think Orwell and groupthink. I was listening to the BBC show World Have Your Say the other day driving back from the island. One of the guests was a Muslim named Sultan from Toronto. He argued that Mr. Kashgari had committed a criminal offense. Another guest asked him what would be accomplished by punishing Mr. Kashgari for what he wrote. Our friend Sultan then asked what letting Mr. Kashgari off the hook would say to the youth of Saudi Arabia.

His concern was the government's ability to control the thoughts of the Saudi people. He was more interested in preserving order. He couldn't wrap his head around the concept of allowing people to speak and communicate freely.

To answer Sultan, I would say that not pursuing charges against Mr. Kashgari would send the message that the government is more interested in freedom of thought and expression than it is in maintaining rigid control over the Saudi people. It would send the message that the government supports the notion that the people have a right to be left alone. It would indicate that the repressive rulers of that land have respect for the people they govern.

You're right, Sultan. We can't possibly allow that message to get out, can we?

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