The Foundation for the Defense of Democracy released an unprecedented survey yesterday of the Saudi social media sphere—a vast space on Twitter, Facebook, and a host of blogs, message boards, and mobile applications. Their findings offer a striking picture of a country that is, in the lead author Jonathan Schanzer’s words, usually “very much a black box” to the outside world. The portrait that emerges is that of a vastly conservative and controlled country, but one where new voices—ranging from women to liberals to religious extremists—are beginning to find a voice online.
The study, “Facebook Fatwa,” was originally commissioned to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, an event that inspired a radical shift in Saudi Arabia’s official response to extremist rhetoric, including online. The authors were interested in how plentiful and widespread such inciting language is in Saudi social media today, following a decade of state attempts to curtail it with harsh laws governing freedom of expression and extensive programs to reform would-be jihadists.
In addition to this initial impetus, however, it’s hard to imagine how the study could have been better timed. Schanzer and his co-author, Steven Miller, began collecting data at the beginning of 2011 and continued for the next six months—meaning that their time coincided perfectly with the beginning of the Arab Spring. In that short time, regimes in Tunisia and Egypt collapsed, while those in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain, looked wobbly. During this time, Saudi Arabia itself was also not immune to the turmoil. Protests began to pop up sporadically in the country’s Shia-dominated Eastern provinces, where they were met with a firm military response. The country’s leadership also took extraordinary measures to preempt dissent, lavishing $100 billion on services and handouts. As Toby Craig Jones wrote last fall in Raritan Quarterly, “The urgency of Saudi Arabia’s response, the resort to violence and the over $100 billion of new spending should leave little doubt that Riyadh was frightened from the outset by the prospect of political transformation.”
As change swept the region, FDD researchers contracted technology company ConStrat to follow and code 40,000 social media entries from Arabic and English posting relating to Saudi clergy. That window offered them a perspective on not just how Saudi clerical messages resonated within the Kingdom, but also how they spread globally. (As the authors point out, Saudi Arabia has been engaged in proselytizing its strand of Wahhabi Islam for at least the last four decades, when it began funding large-scale projects, institutes, and mosques abroad. That spending amounted to $80 billion in the non-Muslim world alone in the three decades from 1973 to 2002, the authors report.)
Perhaps the most striking finding of all was simply that such as study was possible. Not long ago, many Saudi clergy—both officially sanctioned preachers as well as those not associated with the government—had opposed the use of technology in the Kingdom as an overly Westernizing influence. Now, says Schanzer, “[the clerics] understand that [social media] is an important aspect for Da’wa,” or the preaching of Islam.
In this way, it’s fair to view the clerics’ presence online as a continuation of their usual operation within Saudi society. “Saudi clerics operate within the state’s ‘red-lines,’” the study says, and it’s because of this political compliance—for example staying away from discussions of political reform or dissent in Saudi Arabia—“that [the clerics] have typically been unhindered” online.
The Arab Spring offers a striking example, however, of how this new online constituency of clerics can push those lines. Early on in the protest movements, Saudi clergy issued strong statements condemning protests. “[T]here was consensus [among internet users] that the Saudi clerical establishment was a bulwark for the regime,” the report concludes. The country’s Council of Senior Ulema, a religious body, offered the guidance that self-immolation (of the sort that sparked the Arab Spring in Tunisia) was a deadly sin. Another cleric speaking on Al Majd TV called for “smashing the skulls of those who organize demonstrations or take part in them.” The one cleric, Salman al-Odah, who did call for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down in February 2011 had his popular television show canceled.
Sometime by mid-spring however, more clerics began speaking out in favor of the revolutions. And after helping put down a revolution in nearby Bahrain, the Saudi government’s official position softened toward some protest movements as well. “Originally all protests are haram, then all of a sudden, there seemed to be a shift,” says Schanzer. “At least in the beginning, it seemed like the clerics were pushing [the government]. … Once you start to see a critical mass [of clerical support], either the Saudi state can’t crack down on 10 clerics without feeling the heat or they gave [the clergy] the OK [to speak out.]” Today, Saudi Arabia openly supports the opposition in Syria, and it helped orchestrate the resignation of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Another group that seems to have found a voice online—albeit still a tentative one—are women. Most notably in 2011, a campaign for women’s right to drive provoked broad discussion online, including open questioning regarding the religious justification for the rule. Discussion of sex segregation also got a nod in online forums, where a vibrant conversation about a move to build women-only hospitals broke out.
These minor openings, however, should not be confused for liberal trends in any Western interpretation of the term. When the authors analyzed the online rhetoric throughout the six-month period, they found that 75 percent of the rhetoric was what a Western audience would consider very conservative or even radical. Examples include a reticence toward modernity and the west, harsh statements toward non-Muslims, calls for strict implementation of Quranic law, or statements justifying harsh treatment or punishment of those deemed blasphemous or non-believers.
There are other worrying tendencies as well, including the persistence and even rise in sectarian rhetoric in the religious conversation online—a trend that is also mirrored in wider Arabian Gulf politics. This comprised about 13 percent of the conversations in English and 4 percent of those in Arabic. “Almost all Sunni mentions of the Shia came in the form of insults,” the report writes.
Still, a mere 5 percent of all discussion was overtly militant in calling for violence, a fact that the authors attribute to Saudi state success in clamping down on extremist rhetoric in the public sphere. “Based on our findings, we believe the Saudi religious establishment is less overtly radical than in the past,” they conclude. This positive finding carries a caveat, says Schanzer, with a concern that the tides could easily turn in the coming years, as the social media scene expands. “Given how many people are moving to [social media], it’s going to be harder to crack down. I think we’re looking at a potential problem looming.”
The authors rightly point out that their survey provides a mere snapshot of a space that is continually evolving. That’s a snapshot few outside of Saudi Arabia have had access to before, however, a fact that in and of itself adds value to the study. “This is a window that’s open if you’re willing to take the time to follow it,” argues Schanzer. “And it’s one of the few windows into Saudi that is, at least for the moment, uninhibited.”
This piece was originally posted on the World Affairs Journal blog UnderReported.
For additional reading on this topic please see:
Protest, Revolt and Regime Change in the Arab World
The Role of Social Media in Promoting Democratization and Human Rights
Social Media: Following EU Public Diplomacy and Friending MENA
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