Where to begin?
The 1961 Press and Publications Law in Kuwait stipulates that blasphemy is a crime punishable by a prison sentence that ranges from a few months to several years. Following more stringent laws in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the Kuwaiti Parliament just approved provisionally--pending a second vote--the death penalty for those who defame God, or the Prophet and his wives. Apparently, ”[t]he move to stiffen penalties for religious crimes came after authorities last month arrested a Shiite tweeter for allegedly cursing the Prophet Mohammed, his wife and some companions.” It also comes in response to increasing incidents of sectarian graffiti on mosques throughout Kuwait since the 2011 Arab uprisings as well as to growing calls to execute Hamza Kashgari in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Some Shi`i Parliament members also demanded the same penalty for those who curse any of the sect’s twelve revered Imams, but to no avail. The background to all this is in part the growing sectarian tension in Kuwait, and in the region. One potential ray of hope: the vote was not unanimous, though maybe for the wrong reasons.
Again, where to begin? There are many ways to engage this legislative absurdity. At the moment, a few come to mind.
The “Dignity Finally” Route: It’s About Time We Take Over God’s Work
Finally, we now (will) have a law in place (God willing) that will set matters straight in Kuwait and throughout the region. Cursing God, the Prophet and his wives, as well as the twelve Imams, has perennially stood in the way of social justice and progress in the region. All these years, from the time of al-Ma`arri to Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu `Issa al-Warraaq, Ibn al-Muqaffa`, and millions more heretics, the fortunes of people in these lands were hampered by blasphemy and disrespect for the sacred and metaphysical (all such figures are chronicled in Abdur Rahman Badawi’s book, من تاريخ الالحاد في الاسلام (From the History of Atheism in Islam). But no more. Once we stop cursing God, dignity will reign and the fountain of justice will gush out into our societies, endowing each and every citizen with a blessed aura and with several angels revolving around them in a most parabolic manner. Just think about how much work we will be saving God if we punish the heretics here on earth too, by killing them before they burn eternally.
The “Timely” Route: That’s Precisely What Is Needed Today
Let’s face it. What else could Arab parliaments be doing at a time like this (“و الخير لادّام”)? The social and political upheavals throughout the region are but a manifestation of lack of respect for the almighty over the years, and only the Kuwaiti Parliament, with its stinging wit and wisdom could capture the tenor of this era’s ills and encapsulate it in a cute (mahdoum) law. Thousands of people were killed for rising up against injustice, but all they had to do is stop cursing God. Poverty, exploitation, imperialism, sexism, classism, racism, oppression, and all such minor infringements should take a back seat to paying attention to our utterances about the almighty at a time when poverty, exploitation, imperialism, sexism, classism, racism, and oppression is all around us. Now, with this legislation, everything is going to be okay.
The “Palestine” Route: Drop Your Arms and the Cause, We’re Home Free
Needless to say, this legislation, more than anything else out there, is likely to set the stage for the liberation of Palestine and for ending Israeli Apartheid. Victory over injustice is yonder. Drop your arms Hizballah, the Kuwaiti Parliament’s got us all covered. There we were, with millions of other human beings of conscience, struggling to fight Israel’s racism and brutality, not recognizing the handicap at hand. Now, with the increasing of the prison sentence to a death penalty upon cursing God, the keys to Jerusalem, and to the tens of thousands of Palestinian homes, will once again be restored to their rightful owners. Racist and illegal Jewish-only settlements and all the roads that connect the racist and illegal Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian territory will now be dismantled by the pro-divine force of this legislation. Merci Kuwait Parliament. You hit the nail on the head. If only some of the godless Palestinian fighters in the 1960s and 1970s (and beyond) refrained from cursing God then . . . because to be anything but thankful when it comes to Palestine is just irrational from all kinds of perspectives.
The “Really?” Route: The Modal Reaction
Are you f*cking kidding me? You want to execute a human being for uttering something? Do you have a calendar?
Seriously now . . .
The “Shameful” Route
Despite orientalist and other local and international reactionary narratives about Islam, the Arab world, and it’s peoples, perhaps few cultures other than that of the region have historically produced a pungent level of irreverence to the sacred, or anything that existed or did not exit. The list is very long and includes some of the most prolific and eloquent writers humanity has known, and extends from the days prior to the coming of Islam all the way until this very moment. The spirit of critique and rebellion against oppressive norms has been a mark of this region for millennia. And so has been the abuse of norms and of the sacred precisely for the purpose of silencing critics. A wise person once told me that reactionary voices often increase because reactionary interpretations are not being adhered to sufficiently.
The irony is that, Baghdad, the apex of the fantastic critical trajectory in Arab culture historically, is not too far from the building in which the Kuwaiti legislation was “emitted” (see image above). Despite various forms of official political rule, then and now, and despite apparent reversals in the spirit of critique and skepticismevery now and then, that spirit is firmly lodged in the region and among Arabs—as I suppose it is everywhere else. It can coexist with religion and God, and a myriad of ideologies, but it will not be eviscerated by anything around it, not least by an infantile legislation, political parties, dictators, or imperialists. If monotheist (and other) religions and ideologies are here to say, so will this critical and rebellious spirit, at least to the same degree.
Now, to take this legislation too seriously is not entirely fair. It remains at the level of speech and, in most cases, it will not be adhered to in practice (otherwise, more than half of the Arab population from Yemen to Morocco will be exterminated should this be adopted and enforced in the region). And, clearly, material conditions of exploition and oppression in the region (by local and international actors) trump this kind of reactionary discourse, and take precedence as the culprit in real life. Having said that . . .
This legislation might be passed, but will die in its tracks in most practical cases and will be considered another attempt to register something that serves small sentiments and minds, and for short moments. It will surely lapse in terms of its application to everyday speech, for it will be impossible to keep up with such utterances in the region. The phrase “yil’an rabbak” (may your God be cursed) is among the most uttered curses in many parts of the Arab world, not least in the Levant, especially in Syria and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon (where you will hear “yil`an rabbak” a lot more than “yil`an Allah,” which you will hear more in Syria (though perhaps less so this year as now you can also curse the regime more openly, changing the political economy of cursing—a rational idea as Syrian society begins an unfortunate turn to the right, making irreverence to the “other” sacred entity more costly.).
Having diminished the importance of the applicability of this potential legislation to everyday “private” speech, one should note its potency in relation to public statements in a neighboring country. In Saudi Arabia, the execution of the penalty is being considered seriously in the case of Hamza Kashgari. In fact, there’s somewhat of a standoff between the King and the religious establishment, where the latter has called for the death penalty in Kashgari’s case. The religious establishment put forth his execution as an ultimatum for continued support to Al Sa`ud against the Arab uprisings and their continued condemnation of protests in the mighty Kingdom.
Finally, whether in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, such legislation is intended to maintain existing power relations, whether in relation to sect, class, or community. It is a shameful and reactionary defensive measure that has nothing to do with preserving the professed sanctity God, the Prophet, or his wives.