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Twitter users to lose their souls? Not quite what the Sheikh was saying….

May 19, 2013

Getting the Western take on the utterances of Saudi religious leaders is always an interesting exercise – for me anyway.

A couple of days ago Sheikh Abdul Lateef Al-Ashaikh, the head of the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (also known as the Haia, or the religious police) – raised a few eyebrows among social media aficionados by saying, as reported by Sebastian Usher of the BBC, that:

“anyone using social media sites – and especially Twitter – “has lost this world and his afterlife”.”

Yesterday he was joined by a Huffington Post regular, Betty Isaacson, who piggybacked on Usher’s report and stated under the headline Twitter, Saudi Arabia’s Top Cleric Says, Will Damn Your Soul:

“….with 70 percent of Arab Twitter users classified as “youths”, according one social media report, it’s no wonder Saudi authorities fear a disgruntled — and possibly more progressive — younger population speaking up. The desire to discourage Twitter users in Saudi Arabia is probably exacerbated by the recent history of youth-led “Arab Spring” revolutions in the Middle East.”

Isaacson’s piece was written through the lens of “Arab Spring good, religious conservatives bad, dissidents want Saudi Arabia to be more like the west”.

Usher was more balanced, but he failed to point out one key qualifier in the Sheikh’s statement. According to the Arab News, which first reported the story in English, Alasheikh’s exact words were:

“Those who resort to social networks and microblogs, especially Twitter, as their core life component, have lost their lives and their afterlife,” Abdul Lateef Al-Asheikh was quoted as saying in local newspapers. “Twitter has become a platform for those with no platform,” he said.

The bold type is mine. And I’m sure that many people – not necessarily of a religious disposition – would agree that living in an online bubble is not necessarily a great way of life, even if they might not use the Sheikh’s rather biblical language to describe the consequences.

So contrary to the impression you might get from reading either article, as I read his words, he is not saying that if you tweet “hurray, exams are over!”, you will be instantly condemned to an eternity in hell. If you interpreted him more kindly, you might take his advice as meaning “nothing in excess”.

It’s also worth adding a little more perspective to the story than either Usher or Isaacson managed to reflect in their short pieces.

First, to describe Al-Asheikh as being part of a “Saudi establishment” as Usher did, is to forget that among the elite there are many shades of opinion. Does he represent a monolithic bloc of opinion, even among his fellow clerics? Not necessarily.

He is actually something of a reformer. Appointed last year by King Abdullah, a major item on his agenda has been to curb the abuses of Haia members  by more clearly setting out their rules of engagement. And contrary to Isaacson’s assertion, he is not the most senior cleric in the Kingdom. If such a person exists, that honour belongs to another Al-Asheikh, Abdulaziz, the current Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, who has come out with even fruitier remarks about the social media.

Secondly, the voices of the conservative clergy may be loud and occasionally discordant to western ears, but they do not run the country. They are powerful stakeholders, but what they say does not automatically translate into government action.

Third, contrary to the perception of western observers who like to characterise divisions in the Kingdom in terms of the “clash of civilisations”, the Saudis, in my opinion, are concerned less about the progressive voices that urge reform on a western path. What keeps them awake at night is the extremist wing, whose ideological soulmates unleashed a reign of terror by their attacks on expatriate compounds and government institutions in 2003.

As Jamal Khashoggi comments in Al-Arabiya in an article reflecting on the events of 2003:

“What is more dangerous is that those who were rubbing their hands when the young Saudis blew themselves up and killed innocent people 10 years ago, and even after subsequent attacks took place, these people are still standing rubbing their hands, lying in wait for the state and its reform projects. They express their opposition through raising the “detainees” issue at times, and by classifying the reforms as westernized and a betrayal to the kingdom. They also claim many other allegations, including that the country is under atheist attack.

These are the thoughts and convictions that we fear. We feel that they are roguishly spreading with speeches about religion. There are neither weapons nor explosive belts here, but an ideology that can create them as soon as security is shelved to one side. This is why the kingdom has not removed the high walls and barbed wire yet. Only when we are able to remove them, then we will then be able to say that we won the battle with terror, and that we have become a country where people live without barbed fences.”

And if you read the Arab News story about Abdul Lateef Al-Asheikh carefully, you will notice that he is echoing those sentiments:

“The Kingdom has one of the highest rates of social media use in the Arab world amid reports that social media was reported to be the medium of choice among young girls and women for chatting and keeping themselves updated on the latest social developments, arts and fashion trends. However, online media networks have also been used by religious groups to propagate their ideologies and to enlist support from various countries.

The official said there were “segments” who were misusing social media to “demoralize young people and influence naive minds.”

“There are attacks on the country aiming to cause chaos that can lead to death, destruction and the separation of families,” he said.

“Security and stability can only be achieved through the solidarity of Saudis and through united efforts to deter attempts to mislead naive and simpleminded people,” Al-Asheikh said.”

So yes, “progressive bloggers” are being stamped on and occasionally arrested, but I don’t believe that they are seen as the primary enemy within. Recent protests have not been by those calling for democracy and freedom of speech. They have been by relatives of prisoners whom the west would describe as extremists, and also by activists from the Shia minority in the Kingdom’s sensitive Eastern Province, where most of the oil and gas industry is based.

Another observation is about the talk – some of it from official sources – about an impending clampdown in the social media, to which both Usher and Isaacson referred.

If you take the talk literally, you will believe that there is a Royal Decree just around the corner banning Skype and requiring anyone who wants a Twitter account to provide their national ID number – thus putting them within reach of the authorities if they step out of line.

But my experience is that these proposals are examples of a common practice in Saudi Arabia, which is to float an idea to gauge reaction before implementing it. In other words – to use western parlance – hoisting a flag and seeing who salutes it.

Perhaps there will be action, but perhaps also the words of the Haia chief and the announcements of impending action are shots across the bows – a warning that toleration has its limits.

Either way, perhaps if we apply some context to Abdul Lateef Al-Asheikh’s remarks, we would not be so hasty to condemn them as yet another example of the conservative religious faction fulminating against the ungodly habits of the Saudi youth.

Finally, the Sheikh would doubtless be interested to hear this interview with Jake Davis, the young Briton who has just been convicted for his involvement the Lulszec  hacking group. In the interview by Susan Watts for the BBC, there is a telling comment:

Jake Davis, who went by the online alias Topiary, says he now regrets “95% of the things I’ve ever typed on the internet”.

“It was my world, but it was a very limited world. You can see and hear it, but you can’t touch the internet. It’s a world devoid of empathy – and that shows on Twitter, and the mob mentality against politicians and public figures. There is no empathy.

“So it was my world, and it was a very cynical world and I became a very cynical person.”

If we focus on the Sheikh’s core message rather than the headline-catching references to the afterlife, is Jake Davis not the kind of person he is talking about?

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