Image Credit: Gulf News archive

It may very well be ‘micro-blogging’, but the recent global row over what were considered to be blasphemous tweets by Saudi columnist Hamza Kashgari have proven, yet again, how ‘macro’ the impact of just 140 characters can be.

The whole issue started 10 days ago, when — on the occasion of Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) birthday — Kashgari posted several tweets which were meant to illustrate an imaginary dialogue between him and the Prophet. In his posts, the 23-year-old journalist said that he addresses the Messenger of God as an equal, emphasising that while he admires many of his attributes, there are others which he dislikes.

Within 24 hours, Kashgari’s tweets are said to have generated an excess of 30,000 responses, most of which were extremely angry at what was considered a blasphemous attack on Islam. Realising the intensity of the situation, the young Saudi quickly deleted his tweets, apologised and declared that he had ‘repented’, alas it was already too late.

Kashgari was quickly labelled by fellow tweeps as a murtad (an apostate), a sin which is punishable by death according to Sharia Law. Others found an opportunity in the situation to launch an attack on what is often referred to as the ‘liberal movement’ in Saudi Arabia; in fact, when acclaimed BBC World Radio programme “World Have Your Say” covered the on-going saga, a caller phoned in to suggest that Saudi media is controlled by a bunch of “liberal extremists”. Other Twitter users chose a more personal attack, making racist comments directed at Kashgari for being not enough of a ‘pure’ Saudi, since the young writer’s family originates from Turkmenistan.

One memorable reaction came from Shaikh Nasser Al Omar, an influential Saudi cleric, who appeared in a 30-minute YouTube video dedicated to the incident. Shaikh Al Omar actually wept online and called for people like Kashgari to be placed in front of Sharia courts. Another reaction came from the Saudi Information Minister, Dr Abdul Aziz Khoja, who tweeted his instructions to ban Kashgari from writing in any Saudi newspaper and/or magazine.

Of course, not all tweets were critical. Many users tried to defend Kashgari, calling upon others to cease their attacks given that the young Saudi has actually apologised, repented and even deleted his tweets.

Before long, Kashgari escaped the country and headed to Malaysia as rumours were spreading quick that a warrant for his arrest has been issued. A few days later, Kashgari was on a plane back to Saudi Arabia after the Malaysian government responded to a request from the kingdom to hand him back. He now awaits trial after his story had attracted attention globally from both a media and a human rights perspective in fear that the 23-year-old may now face the death penalty.

Twitter, the real-time information network which is partly owned by Saudi billionaire Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Bin Abdul Aziz, has grown enormously in popularity in the past few months. According to a recent tweet by veteran Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — who is heading Al Waleed’s soon-to-be launched Alarab news channel — usage of Twitter in Saudi Arabia has grown at a staggering rate of 600 per cent, which is highest growth-rate worldwide.

Of course, more users inevitably means that Twitter has now become more mainstream, especially that ‘First Generation’ users, who were generally tech-savvy early adapters and avid bloggers, are now being over-taken by society heavy weights, such as Saudi royals, government officials, members of the clergy and other sports, entertainment and media celebrities.

This obviously means that the days of tweeting something and hoping it goes un-noticed are long gone. In fact, a recent case in England portrays (in a less draconian way) that laws which were once applied under different circumstances are now being extended to include social media sites.

Like Kashgari, a young Brit by the name of Paul Chambers now finds himself having to pay a hefty price for his tweets (£2,600 or Dh15,038 to be exact). A few days ago, Chambers lost his appeal against his conviction of sending a “menacing electronic communication”.

 In January 2010, the 27-years-old accountant from Doncaster, jokingly tweeted his frustration against the cancellation of his flight by saying to his 600 followers that he would “blow up” Robin Hood Airport, which was closed down due to snow.

Neither the airport staff nor the judge found his joke amusing, in a very similar manner to how many people in Saudi Arabia found Kashgari’s comments distasteful. Now, different countries have different laws and in some circumstances, some issues are considered more important than an individual’s right to express him/herself freely, which is why it may be wise for us to think carefully about the outcomes and consequences of what we post online.

Then again, this isn’t a case for imposing self-censorship against one’s beliefs, but merely a call to remember to be ready, more than ever, to deal with their outcomes, because in today’s world; once you tweet, you can never retreat.

A final note when it comes to Kashgari’s case: perhaps people should remember that after years of battle with his tribe in Makkah who not only disowned him, insulted and fought him but also tortured and killed a large number of his followers, Prophet Mohammad still forgave all.

Faisal J. Abbas is a London-based journalist, blogger and social commentator.