Why is Saudi Arabia beefing up its blasphemy laws?

Why is Saudi Arabia beefing up its blasphemy laws?

Some Saudi Arabian officials evidently feel that their country’s blasphemy laws — which treat transgressions as hudud or "limits," punishable by death in some cases — are too lax. To rectify the situation, Reuters reports, the government is considering regulations that would criminalize insulting Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, or elements of Sharia:

‘Within the next two months the Shura Council will reveal the outcome of study on the regulations to combat the criticism of the basic tenets of Islamic sharia,’ unnamed sources with knowledge of the matter told al-Watan, adding that there could be ‘severe punishments’ for violators.

Criticism penalised under the law would include that of the Prophet, early Muslim figures and clerics, it said.

‘The (regulations) are important at the present time because violations over social networks on the Internet have been observed in the past months,’ the sources said.

What is puzzling about the proposed legislation is what exactly it would fix. Saudi officials do not appear to be hamstrung by the existing legal apparatus, which metes out justice to dozens of blasphemers every year. In fact, Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code, meaning that judges already issue rulings based on their own interpretation of the Quran. According to Human Rights Watch, this means that blasphemy convictions are often handed down without citing any legal basis. As a result, anything from insulting the Prophet’s companions, to mocking religion, to using "un-Islamic terminology" can get you convicted of blasphemy.

Nor do lily-livered judges or lenient sentences appear to be the problem. In 2008, for instance, a Mecca appeals court upheld the death sentence for Sabi Bogday, a Turkish national, who allegedly insulted God during an argument. In this case, the testimony of two witnesses was sufficient to prove Bogday’s guilt.

In fairness, the death sentence for blasphemy seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Flogging and prison time are more standard fare. Still, the argument that Saudi’s blasphemy laws are too permissive has a decidedly hollow ring.

Indeed, even the charge that social media is frustrating efforts to keep Saudi’s public sphere squeaky clean doesn’t hold water. Earlier this year, for instance, 23-year-old Hamza Kashgari was extradited from Malaysia to stand trial after he tweeted that the Prophet was merely inspirational, not divine.

The rumblings in Riyadh, then, probably have less to do with a perceived blasphemy pandemic and more to do with the ruling family’s growing unease with the democratic transitions now underway in much of the Middle East. Although it has historically kept the country’s religious establishment at arms-length, recent events have convinced the royal family to take all the support it can get.