Saudi clerics have toned down calls for violence in the decade since the
September 11 attacks, according to a new report on social media in the kingdom,
but still regularly use web technology to disseminate religious rulings hostile
to women, non-Muslims and the West.
The report, titled “Facebook Fatwa,”
examined some 40,000 online postings written by or about Saudi religious
figures. The study, conducted over six months around the tenth anniversary of
the 9/11 attacks, was released this week by the US-based Foundation for Defense
Working in conjunction with the technology company
ConStrat, authors Jonathan Schanzer and Steven Miller examined some 40,000
online entries from Arabic and English web forums and social media websites such
as Facebook and Twitter. The findings show a relative improvement in Riyadh’s
willingness to clamp down on religious extremism, but also the alarming
persistence of deeply conservative, intolerant views aired by both
state-sponsored and unsanctioned clerics.
“Of the information we pulled
for this study, we found only 5 percent were outwardly calling for violence. The
jihadi factor is down, and that’s good news,” Schanzer told The Jerusalem Post
“The bad news is that 75% of them [in Arabic] were xenophobic, misogynist and
intolerant of other religions and minorities.”
were generally less antagonistic, with about half of all postings airing views
categorized as conservative or radical.
The authors classified a
conservative opinion as one advocating rigidity on socioeconomic matters,
reluctance to adapt to modernity, associating only with other Muslims or strict
interpretation of Islamic law and texts. Opinions deemed radical are those that
express disdain for non- Muslims, demands disassociation of believers from
“unbelievers” and sanctions “treachery” in dealing with anyone not deemed to be
a proper Muslim.
“No one has ever done anything like this, collecting
social media data from Saudi Arabia,” Schanzer said. “This is one of the few
open windows into the kingdom, which is an incredibly closed-off
Fifteen Saudis were among 19 hijackers on 9/11 , and following
the attacks Riyadh came under fierce criticism from Western allies – foremost
the US – for its decades-long promotion of extremist Wahhabi Islam at home and
abroad. In the years immediately following the attacks the kingdom itself became
a frequent target of terrorists – led by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – and
Saudi authorities began to clamp down on homegrown extremism in
Saudi Arabia houses Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in
Islam, and clerical rulings emanating from the kingdom resonate with believers
across the Islamic world.
“Saudi Arabia’s success in reducing militant
online content is a positive sign that the Saudi government can, when
sufficiently motivated, temper the radicalism that percolates in the kingdom,”
the report said.
“This is also a sign that when the US properly applies
pressure, it can have a noticeable impact,” it added. “However, the kingdom’s
recent attempts to convince the West that it is promoting ‘religious tolerance’
and embracing change do not resonate with the content mined during this
An example of “intolerance” is Muhammad al-Arefe. One of Saudi
Arabia’s most popular clerics, with over a million followers on Twitter and
855,000 on Facebook. As late as 2010 – several years into the Saudis’ campaign
to rein in what they called “deviant” ideologies – Arefe issued a fatwa
endorsing violence against non-Muslims.
“Devotion to jihad for the sake
of Allah, and 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,” he said in a YouTube clip. “Allah said that if a man fights the
infidels, the infidels will be unable to prepare to fight.”
Arefe is a
member of the Wahhabi juridical establishment, but is not officially sanctioned
by the Saudi regime. Still, the report found state-sponsored clerics regularly
incited followers against non-Muslims and the West.
al-Sudais is another such example. The regime-sponsored imam of the Grand Mosque
in Mecca, has condemned mystical Sufi Muslims as apostates, vilified Christians
and Hindus and in a 2002 sermon referred to Jews as “monkeys and
Even Salman al-Odah, a state-sanctioned cleric often described in
Western media as a moderate, wrote in a 2010 online fatwa, or religious ruling,
that jihad is a duty incumbent on all Muslims.
“Jihad means fighting the
infidels and the like – this is the duty of the people of the country that has
been dominated or occupied by the infidels.
The rest of the Muslims must
assist and support them,” he wrote on the forum Islam Today, where the post is
In a well-publicized ruling last year, the unsanctioned
cleric Awad al-Qarni went as far as to offer a $100,000 reward on his Facebook
page to anyone who could kidnap an Israeli soldier as a bargaining chip for
future prisoner exchanges with the Palestinians.
Prince Khaled bin Talal,
a royal family member and brother of the billionaire tycoon Al-Waleed bin Talal,
soon raised the prize to $1 million.
“While the Saudi clerics almost
universally condemn al-Qaida and what they define as ‘terrorism,’ they still
support ‘legitimate’ jihad,” Schanzer and Miller wrote in the
“They still view Western culture with disdain, exhibit a lack of
respect for women’s rights, and speak with open hostility about minorities,
other religions and non-Wahhabi Muslims,” the report continued. “Though the
government repeatedly pledges to remove ‘intolerant’ content from the country’s
textbooks, passages remain that speak about fighting the Jews to bring about the
hour of judgment, describe women as weak and irresponsible, and call for
homosexuals to be put to death because they pose a danger to
Schanzer told the Post
the problem of incitement remains
serious in Saudi Arabia, even if outward calls for violence are increasingly
“They’re now stopping short of that, but still promoting
intolerance,” Schanzer said. “And this doesn’t even touch on what they’re
teaching in schools and preaching in mosques – this is just an online snapshot,
and it’s disconcerting as it is.”