Monday, July 11, 2011

Saudi Arabia’s Social Media Battles

By Isobel Coleman

A screenshot of Sheikh Youssef al-Ahmed's Twitter page on July 11, showing his current number of followers, displaying Tweets from others with updates on his post-arrest status, and featuring a link to an open letter to King Abdullah delivered by the Sheikh in a recent sermon and uploaded to Facebook.

The Financial Times recently published a fascinating article by Abeer Allam about how Saudi clerics are embracing social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. While some of the early adopters of social media, not surprisingly, were liberal clerics, it is now the conservatives who are coming on strong.

One well-known conservative, Sheikh Youssef al-Ahmed, has nearly 16,000 followers. Sheikh Ahmed uses his online presence to rail against anything in Saudi society that smacks of reform. He gets particularly agitated by attempts to break down the Kingdom’s strict system of gender segregation. (In an apparently unrelated development, reports came in over the weekend that Sheikh Ahmed was arrested for denouncing the Kingdom’s lengthy detentions without trial of terror suspects. A #freealahmad hashtag soon appeared on Twitter.)

A few years ago, Sheikh Ahmed gained notoriety for harshly denouncing King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) for allowing female students to study alongside men. Despite King Abdullah’s patronage of the university, Sheikh Ahmed deemed it a “source of unbelief” in Saudi Arabia, claimed its president and faculty were nonbelievers, and decried its lack of “religious surveillance.” For this outburst against KAUST, and by extension against King Abdullah, Sheikh Ahmed was fired from his official government position, which might help explain his uptake of social media. With many official outlets for his views now closed, he promotes his conservatism in the free-for-all world of Twitter and Facebook.  Last summer, when the government approved the appointment of women as cashiers in several Panda shopping centers, Sheikh Ahmed issued a fatwa against it saying it was “prohibited because it is part of the Western project that is imposing itself upon our society.” He called for a boycott of Panda stores, and the government backed down, removing the women. So much for trying to address the high levels of female unemployment in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, conservatives like Sheikh Ahmed do not need Facebook and Twitter to issue their fatwas. Sheikhs have been doing that just fine on their own for centuries. But social media gives them new outlets and ways to connect with their followers. Last week, as noted by Abeer Allam, Sheikh Ahmed held a “town hall meeting” on Twitter discussing the evils of the liberal agenda (using the hashtag #libraliah) which lasted long into the night. While it is worrying that conservative clerics are mastering social media to connect with a new young generation, it is important to note that they have been using the internet effectively for nearly two decades to do so—and before that, plain old cassette tapes distributed during Friday prayers. The openness of social media has it downsides, too. Twitter and Facebook tally up popularity, and on this level, the conservatives are way behind. Sheikh Ahmed’s following pales in comparison to that of more progressive thinkers like former-extremist-come-reformer Sheikh Salman al-Odah, who has 113,000 Twitter followers and half a million Facebook fans.

With no official polling in the Kingdom, sizing up the number of followers a person or an idea has is one way to gauge influence. During the recent women’s driving campaign, the number of Saudis on Facebook who “liked” women driving far outweighed those who did not. Moreover, Facebook and YouTube are helpful in exposing just how bizarre and outlandish the business of issuing fatwas has become. Last year, a Saudi cleric’s remarkable fatwa—that women can get around gender segregation in the workplace if they just suckle their male colleagues (I’m not making this up)—made the rounds on social media, quickly becoming the subject of ridicule. If social media can help play a role in demystifying, and debunking, many of the ridiculous, not to mention dangerous, fatwas that are thrown around, then I say bring it on.

-This commentary was published on The Council On International Relations blog on 11/07/2011
-Isobel Coleman is a Senior Fellow in CFR for U.S. Foreign Policy, Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative

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