Week in Review

by by Christina McCausland, Alex Ronan & Barry Elkinton

illustration by by Annika Finne

There is a Lot I Don’t Understand About You
Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year old columnist for Saudi Arabia’s Al Bilad newspaper, may face trial after posting Twitter messages considered offensive to the Prophet Mohammed. The messages, tweeted last week on the anniversary of the prophet’s birth, were deleted from Twitter but have since been published by Agence France Presse. They read, in part: “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 shall speak to you as a friend, no more”; “I will not pray for you.”

The tweets received over 30,000 overwhelmingly negative responses on Twitter within a day, and have incited many of his fellow Saudis to demand his arrest and execution. A Facebook group entitled “The Saudi People Demand the Execution of Hamza Kashgari” has over 21,000 members. An influential Saudi cleric, Nasser al-Omar, called for Kashgari to be tried for apostasy, which, in Saudi Arabia’s classical sharia legal system, is punishable by death.

Kashgari attempted to flee Saudi Arabia after issuing an apology via Twitter, but was detained by authorities at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport while boarding a flight to New Zealand, where he hoped to seek asylum. He was deported to Saudi Arabia on Sunday morning, a move that was met with objection from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. An unidentified official from Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the New York Times that Kashgari was sent back “because he is on the watch list of Saudi Arabia.” Malaysia, also a majority-Muslim country, has a strong diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia.

In a statement, Amnesty International said they “[consider] Hamza Kashgari a prisoner of conscience ... for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and [call] for his immediate and unconditional release.” Though it is unclearexactly what charges Kashgari will face, many are concerned that he will be treated harshly in order to set an example. In a country known for its strict censorship laws, and where bloggers are required to obtain an official license from the Ministry of Culture and Information, Kashgari “crossed a line even Saudi liberals won’t dare to touch,” Fouad al-Farhan, an influential liberal blogger in Saudi Arabia told the Daily Beast. Saudi officials have not yet publicly commented on the situation. —CM

Antiques roadshow
Out with the old, in with the older. A patch of seagrass known as Posidonia oceanica has just had its DNA sequenced, and some patches are 200,000 years old. With this discovery Posidonia oceanica wrests the title of oldest organism on Earth from the previous world record holder, a Tasmanian plant believed to be approximately 43,000 years old. Native to the Mediterranean, this particular patch is composed of 40 undersea meadows stretching some 2,000 miles from Spain to Cyprus. Professor Carlos Duarte, of the University of Western Australia, said the patch of asexual seagrass contains “a broad diversity of different ways to resolve the problem of becoming a life” … whatever that means.

Speaking of all things timeworn, the world’s oldest works of art have just been discovered in one of the Nerja Caves on Spain’s Costa del Sol. After reviewing new image testing data results, scientists believe six paintings of seals (or rust colored blobs, depending on how much you squint) are at least 42,000 years old. Professor Jose Luis Sanchidrian, of the University of Cordoba, called the discovery “an academic bombshell” as the works, the only known artistic images created by Neanderthals, push the origin of painting back 10,000 years. All previous artwork has been attributed to Homo sapiens.

The Nerja Caves are a series of enormous caverns that were discovered in 1959 by five boys out exploring. In addition to the seal paintings, they are also home to the world’s largest stalagmite, which stands at 105 feet tall. Researchers believe that the cave where the paintings were discovered was one of the last places in Europe where Neanderthals sought refuge before their extinction, escaping Cro-Magnons in a high-stakes game of hide-and-go-seek. AR

Whale People
Considering that corporations are people (my friend), it’s high time to consider what other entities or beings should enjoy the fruits of legal personhood. Great apes and whales, for example, have considerable powers of intelligence and self-awareness. If it can be shown that these creatures compare favorably to humans cognitively, what’s to stop them from achieving a certain modicum of legal consideration?

If that sounds like a job for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, well, it is. Last Monday, after months of publicity and anticipation, PETA lawyers went before a District Court Judge in San Diego and presented a lawsuit against SeaWorld for “enslaving” the five killer whales SeaWorld owns between its San Diego and Orlando theme parks. Citing considerable evidence showing that whales have complex personalities, cultures and social relationships, PETA argued that the whales were, in effect, persons enslaved against their will. On Wednesday, however, Judge Jeffery Miller dismissed the case, writing that ‘slavery’ and ‘involuntary servitude’ are “uniquely human activities.” Although PETA’s case quickly floundered, the mere fact that a federal court agreed to hear their argument is being heralded by the organization as an “historic first case for the orcas’ right to be free under the 13th Amendment.”

The issues raised by PETA’s case point towards the larger legal challenge of defining personhood. As the decades-old debate over the status of a human fetus and the recent furor over Citizens United demonstrate, courts have often struggled to demarcate exactly where personhood begins and ends. While the SeaWorld orcas will remain, in PETA’s words, “compelled to perform meaningless tricks for a reward of dead fish,” many observers see no reason why animals might not gain full legal consideration in the future. Utilitarian philosophers such as Peter Singer, for example, have persistently argued that, if pleasure and pain are the primary categories of moral significance, highly developed animals should receive equal moral consideration to humans. Many legal scholars cautiously agree that a day may come when species distinction, much like categories of race or gender, might increasingly be recognized as an arbitrary distinction under the eyes of the law. “Ours is a vibrant Constitution, more than capable of warding off past evils while also speaking to circumstances in which we come to recognize that familiar principles apply in ways previously unforeseen,” said Harvard Professor Laurence Tribe about the PETA case. “So it seems to me no abuse of the Constitution to invoke it on behalf of non-human animals cruelly confined for purposes of involuntary servitude.” —BE