Keep your eye on Hamza Kashgari. He's the 23-year-old former columnist for Saudi Arabia's Al-Bilad newspaper who had the extremely bad judgment to tweet an imaginary conversation he was having with the Prophet Muhammad. In almost no time, he was running for his life, hopping a plane in Jeddah and hoping to reach New Zealand. In Malaysia, where he apparently had to change planes, he was held incommunicado until a private plane arrived from Saudi Arabia. He's now back home, in jail and possibly facing a death sentence.
I have a certain soft spot for fellow columnists who get into trouble, especially when the issue is what we in America would call freedom of speech. But I have a certain soft spot, too, for Saudi Arabia. When I was there, I was treated with great courtesy and hospitality, and, like any romantic schooled in multiple viewings of "Lawrence of Arabia," I am besotted by the considerable charms of the desert. I have had many weird experiences in my career, but one of them, surely, is turning around in a stadium outside Riyadh and realizing that my host was one of several thousand men dressed identically in white robes, their heads also covered in the exact same way. When my host said, "Follow me," I grabbed his garment and held tight.
Sooner or later, however, Saudi Arabia has to choose what century it is in. It cannot both strive for the high-tech world of tomorrow and at the same time have medievalists dictate and limit the boundaries of freedom. Kashgari may be something of a jerk for the way he taunted the religious authorities -- and picking the Muslim nation of Malaysia for a stopover wasn't too smart, either -- but nothing he did remotely resembles a capital crime. In almost any other nation he would have been ignored, or given a shot on talk radio.
In his new book, "Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally," my former Washington Post colleague Thomas W. Lippman writes that Saudi Arabia could choose to become another Norway, an oil-rich nation transforming an abundant natural resource into a knowledge-based economy. This is what Saudi Arabia says it wants to do. Its websites bristle with news about business, about investment opportunities and the great advances the kingdom has made in just about everything. In a certain sense, this is all true.
But the Kashgari affair shows a Saudi underbelly that is just plain revolting. There is nothing romantic about beheadings, and there is nothing romantic about religious zealotry. The kingdom in fact was founded by marrying the House of Saud with the zealous and intemperate Ikhwan, a fierce Bedouin tribal army. The alliance enabled Ibn Saud to conquer much of the Arabian Peninsula. It has been an absolute and extremely conservative monarchy ever since. Its state religion is the severe Wahhabi strand of Islam.
Saudi Arabia's history and culture are unique -- and so, too, is the role the nation plays in Islam. It is host to Mecca and Medina, cities of immense religious significance, and if the royal family comes under any pressure for religious reasons, it is not for being intolerant but for not being intolerant enough. This is a very strange land.
I am aware of the king's role as custodian of the holy places, and I am aware of his political need to mollify the country's powerful and totally medieval religious establishment. But Saudi Arabia cannot remain under the thumb of an extremely reactionary religious establishment that in some sense is as powerful as the royal family. It's hard to attract -- or keep -- first-class talent in what, after all, is a very weird place. Women are not permitted to drive, and the chance remark, if it is deemed heretical, can result in draconian punishment.
Frankly, the economic progress of Saudi Arabia does not concern me today -- and neither do the complicated role and obligations of the king. My cultural relativism takes me only so far. It stops way short of condoning the execution of anyone for an errant, if silly, tweet.
A life is on the line. I asked the Saudi Embassy in Washington the status and the whereabouts of Kashgari and was told to put my request in writing -- an email. That was late last week and I have heard nothing. So keep your eye on Hamza Kashgari -- in some ways the future of Saudi Arabia, in all ways merely a terrified human being.
Richard Cohen's email address is email@example.com.
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group