Washington, May 23 - Saudi Arabian clerics are receding from public statements and instead taking to social media to broadcast hateful rhetoric to millions of followers, a new study has found.
“These trends are worrying as these clerics are flocking to social media, they have this new medium to reach thousands and millions of followers,” Jonathan Schanzer, Vice-President for Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a co-author of the new study, said during a conference call sponsored by The Israel Project.
Schanzer and FDD research associate Steven Miller used the Washington-based research firm Constrat to analyze more than 40,000 social media entries from January 1, 2011 through June 30, 2011 that related to religious commentary and directives by Saudi clerics.
Social media has opened up Saudi society to popular forms of expression, Schanzer said, but has also “amplified” the audience for major Muslim clerics there. He noted in a Foreign Policy article introducing the study that the top three Saudi clerics on Twitter – Salman al-Odah, Mohamad al-Arefe and Aidh al-Qarnee – all have well over one million followers.
Schanzer said that while only five percent of the entries called for outright Jihad, or holy war, against the West, 75 percent were classified as “xenophobic, bigoted, or openly hateful” by Constrat.
“This kind of material ultimately radicalizes; it certainly gets them in the mindset of jihadi ideology,” Schanzer said.
The authors found that even though Saudi officials have cracked down on non-authorized sermons since the 9/11 attacks, the fatwas, or religious directives, of many clerics “are still providing ammunition to extremists” Miller said.
Shanzer said that Israel was also a main target of such fatwas. In one case after Israeli Defense Forces Gilad Shalit was freed from four years in captivity in Gaza, leading Saudi cleric Aidh al-Qarnee reaffirmed his support for the practice of capturing Israeli soldiers and praised “all who struggle with their tongue, their money, their blood, or their knowledge [against] the Zionist entity."
“We found that there’s an enduring radicalism towards Israel,” Schanzer said.
The authors said that ultimately the U.S. would have to weigh the need to open up Saudi Arabian society to new freedoms – which social media services like Facebook and Twitter have aided in recent years – with the fight against extremist rhetoric.
Referring to Twitter’s character limit for posts, Schanzer said Western leaders “need to just remember the Saudi clerics we have here, if they want to get out there and cause violence, they now have the ability to do it in an 140 characters or less and they have a huge audience.”