'Saudi clerics use social media to spread hate'

Report: A decade after 9/11, calls for jihad are down but xenophobic rhetoric is alive and well.

AL-WALEED BIN TALAL (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 of Democracies.
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.”
English-language entries 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 society.”
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 earnest.
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 study.”
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.
Abdul Rahman 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 pigs.”
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 still available.
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 report.
“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 society.”
Schanzer told the Post the problem of incitement remains serious in Saudi Arabia, even if outward calls for violence are increasingly rare.
“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.”