Enormously popular, extremist Saudi clerics are promoting hatred, violence, and intolerance on Facebook and Twitter. Can they be stopped?
Despite assurances from the Saudi government that it is cracking down on religious radicalism, the kingdom’s top clerics continue calling for attacks on Christians across the Arab world. And in the Internet age, these voices of hate have been handed a larger megaphone than ever before.
You don’t have to look hard to find examples of religious intolerance emanating from the very top of the Saudi religious hierarchy. On a visit to Kuwait in March, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, told the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society — which has been designated as a "specially designated global terrorist" entity by the United States and the United Nations for arming and financing al Qaeda — that it is "necessary to destroy all the churches in the Arabian Peninsula." And there’s more where that came from. The mufti also believes that proponents of women’s rights are "advocates of evil and misguidance."
These sentiments are particularly troubling as Saudi clerics flock to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and mobile apps to amplify their messages. Despite Saudi religious figures’ historical opposition to modern technologies, they now see online social media as a crucial means of communicating with the Saudi public and the Muslim world. The top three Saudi clerics on Twitter — Salman al-Odah, Mohamad al-Arefe, and Aidh al-Qarnee — all have well over 1 million followers.
To put this in perspective, Arefe’s 1.5 million Twitter followers rival the number who follow football phenom Tim Tebow. Tebow’s religious messaging may be controversial, but Arefe has him beat. In a July 2010 sermon, Arefe declared, "The desire to shed blood, to smash skulls, and to sever limbs for the sake of Allah and in defense of his religion, is, undoubtedly, an honor for the believer."
Qarnee spews similar invective. Shortly after Israel and Hamas completed the prisoner swap for Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit in October 2011, Qarnee rushed to the defense of a fellow Saudi cleric who offered $100,000 to any Palestinian who could capture another Israeli soldier. Qarnee lauded "all who struggle with their tongue, their money, their blood, or their knowledge [against] the Zionist entity."
This is just a taste of the messaging we sampled in our six-month study, conducted from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2011, to learn what these clerics are saying online and how they spread their messages.
With the help of ConStrat, a Washington-based technology company, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies collected and analyzed more than 40,000 social media entries in both English and Arabic. ConStrat’s researchers combed through the online data, which included content Saudi clerics posted personally, as well as content referencing the Saudi clerical establishment. ConStrat then assigned a sentiment to each post and flagged them by topic to help us better digest the large amount of data.
Alarmingly, of the thousands of messages ConStrat scored, 75 percent could be described as xenophobic, bigoted, or openly hateful. Some Saudi clerics like Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, head imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, still describe Jews as "sons of monkeys and pigs." Saleh al-Fawzan of the Council of Senior Ulema (CSU) ruled that fathers may arrange marriages for their daughters "even if they are in the cradle." And the Permanent Committee for Research and Ifta, one of the kingdom’s highest religious bodies, suggested in December 2011 that repealing the Saudi ban on female driving could "provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, and divorce," predicting that in 10 years, there would be "no more virgins."
Calls for violence accounted for only a small percentage of our total content — less than 5 percent — though such messages are still getting out. This appears to be the direct result of the Saudi crackdown on "deviant" ideologies after the 9/11 attacks. Since then, clerics have adapted and found ways to promote intolerance without running afoul of Riyadh. But not every cleric understands the state’s red lines, and some have paid the price for crossing them. In September 2008, Saleh al-Luhaidan, another CSU cleric, declared it "morally permissible" to kill the owners of satellite television channels that promoted "moral depravity." To the monarchy, the statement was beyond the pale, and King Abdullah fired Luhaidan from his position as chief judge of the Saudi Supreme Judicial Council.
To put it mildly, Saudi Arabia has never been known for freedom of speech and assembly. But now the kingdom faces an even tougher challenge — balancing greater freedom of expression with the need to counter extremist and hateful language. As social networks have enabled clerics to disseminate their radical Wahhabi sentiments more widely, the monarchy is now trying to temper the views it once promoted.
The Saudis endured three major confrontations with religious figures in the 20th century alone. In the 1920s, Islamist marauders rebelled against the state, leading to a 10-month battle for control of the Saudi state. In 1979, a violent group of Salafi separatists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. And in the early 1990s, the Sahwa (Awakening) clerics denounced the U.S. military presence in the Gulf and demanded a more Islamic government. Indeed, this was a message that Osama bin Laden leveraged to build support for his nascent al Qaeda network.
In all those situations, Riyadh successfully quelled dissent by co-opting its challengers or crushing them through harsher measures. In co-opting the radicals, the regime embraced their dangerous worldview, but carefully channeled it elsewhere, "exporting" radicalism abroad. This approach worked, but only to a point. Indeed, extremists re-emerged within the kingdom in each instance to challenge the regime again.
Saudi Arabia, like the rest of the Arab world, confronts a new, rapidly changing political environment. For decades, the Saudi state has attempted to cater to radical elements of the religious establishment while also placating Washington’s demands for moderation and reform. This balancing act is now more difficult than ever, however, due to the clerics’ use of social media and growing demands for change.
For Washington, the challenge is to ensure that the Saudis keep social media free from draconian censorship while simultaneously ensuring that the radicals who employ it cannot threaten international security. But with radical clerics gaining Twitter and Facebook followers at eye-popping rates, it won’t be easy.