For months he was one of the most hated internet users in the Muslim world. His Facebook page, which went by the name Ana Allah ("I am God"), was full of blasphemous sallies and barefaced arguments in favour of apostasy. But when the mystery poster was arrested at the start of the month, to everyone's surprise he turned out to be a shy young barber from Qalqilya, a small town in the West Bank.
Walid Husayin, 26, who is now being held in a cell belonging to the Palestinian Moukhabarat (secret service), led a double life hidden from his entire family. During the day Walid worked in his father's barber shop, to all intents and purposes a committed Muslim. His friends knew him as an unassuming young man, disappointed not to have found a job in computing, which he had studied at university. But whenever Walid had the opportunity, he would escape to an internet café situated well beyond the town centre to write his incendiary posts. In one posting he claimed that Mohammed was a backward Bedouin; in another he declared that he was God and ordered his devotees to drink whisky and smoke hashish.
As well as having a Facebook page, Walid’s blog, which appeared under the pseudonym Walid Al Husseini, has received almost 100,000 visitors since going live last November. To anyone accusing him of playing into the hands of the Christian West, the young barber replied that "all religions are a mass of myth and nonsense that flies in the face of reason" and that "they compete to see which is the most stupid".
The inhabitants of Qalqilya: angry
This outburst of free-thinking in a medium as uncontrollable as the internet ended up worrying the Sunni religious authorities both in Saudi Arabia and at the University of Al Azhar in Egypt. An investigation was mounted. In the end it was the owner of the internet café in Qalqilya who alerted police, intrigued by his unusual customer who would spend up to seven hours without a break in front of his screen.
The news of Walid's arrest was like a bomb going off in Qalqilya, a conservative town that elected a mayor from Hamas in 2005. Since the announcement the population has been fuming against the apostate blogger whom it describes at best as "mentally ill" and at worst as an "infidel". The strength of this emotion is one of the reasons cited by the Palestine authorities to justify Walid’s imprisonment. "If he left prison today, I couldn’t guarantee his safety", claims the chief of police. The other reason is an article in Jordan's penal code, still in force in the West Bank, which punishes any religious slur with between one and three years in prison.
Will the Palestinian Authority go as far as a trial that would run the risk of making the "barber of Qalqilya" a martyr in the cause of freedom of expression? Nothing could be less certain. Local rumour suggests that if Walid disowns his writings he could be set free. Another option would be to send him abroad to give tempers a chance to die down. In God's hands, anything is possible.
The above article first appeared in Le Monde, November 30, 2010, and