see also pope/vatican and social media\
July 6, 2011 7:47 pm
Saudi clerics tap into social networks
By Abeer Allam in Riyadh
Within weeks of joining Twitter, Sheikh Abdullah bin Jebreen, a prominent Saudi scholar, had amassed nearly 6,000 followers.
“Retweet, God bless you!” he tweeted, after posting his recommended morning prayers.
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Followers ask about underage driving (answer: dangerous because of youths’ propensity for drag racing and therefore un-Islamic), the qualities of a good Muslim (they should neither drink nor watch pornography), and whether bathing on Fridays is a religious obligation (it is).
Sheikh bin Jebreen himself is not known for tweeting, having died two years ago at the age of 76. But his students have revived his fatwas to reach a new generation.
Saudi clerics are embracing social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, attracting thousands of fans. Liberals, activists, and youths seeking to meet members of the opposite sex may have been the early adopters, but the clerics now compete for influence. Profile pictures of sexy western stars have given way to portraits of bearded men wearing the traditional white or red and white check head dresses, or ghutra, posing with a thoughtful gaze.
“It is a very smart move,” said Saud Kateb, a media professor. “We see a variety of opinions on Twitter now which reflect our conservative society. They are catching up and countering the views of the liberals, who were the pioneers.’’
The trend may also be because the sheikhs have been frozen out of state media outlets after openly opposing King Abdullah’s social and economic reforms. In an effort to rein in fatwas by unofficial clerics the king last August decreed that only state-appointed scholars in the Supreme Council of Ulemas would be allowed to issue them.
A number of religious websites and call-in shows on satellite television have since been warned or closed. Some clerics, such as Sheikh Youssef al-Ahmed and Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barak, professors at Imam University but with no official religious position, are the most outspoken against new rules.
On YouTube and Twitter, Sheikh Ahmed directs his ire towards the head of the royal court and confidante of the king, Khalid al-Tuwaijri, as well as the king’s son-in-law and education minister, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, accusing them of implementing a western agenda. He deemed a plan to employ women as cashiers at supermarkets as un-Islamic, condemned the co-educational King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and was even critical of a financial centre under construction in
Last week, Sheikh
Ahmed held a “town hall meeting” on Twitter, discussing the “evils of the liberal agenda’’ using the hashtag #libraliah. The discussion continued late into the night, with a follower noting that the sheikh was “tweeting the night away, instead of praying the night away’.’
Sheikh Ahmed’s 13,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook pale in comparison to those of Sheikh Salman Alodah, once regarded as a stalwart conservative, but now a reformist.
Sheikh Alodah tweeted his early support of the Arab spring, seeing protests as legitimate to “advise the ruler”. After signing a petition in support of a constitutional monarchy in February, his television show on the Saudi-owned MBC network was cancelled. He has a prominent base among the increasingly politicised youth in Saudi Arabia, which accounts for a hefty portion of his 113,000 Twitter followers and almost half a million Facebook fans. When he is not tweeting about political reform, he shares insights on the importance of family, friendship, and travel.
A close second in popularity is Sheikh Mohamed al-Arefee, a relatively young cleric who, with his piercing dark eyes and jet black hair and beard, has become a heart throb among his women followers. He live- streams his weekly sermons and asks his followers to suggest topics for his Friday sermons and television shows via Twitter.
“Like politicians, the clerics have discovered the wonders of directly reaching constituencies that used to be difficult to reach, like youth and women,’’ said Mr Kateb.
The sheikhs’ online followers easily outnumber those following prominent Saudi political bloggers, illustrating the clout they wield in Saudi society.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011