Argument

The 140-Character Fatwa

Enormously popular, extremist Saudi clerics are promoting hatred, violence, and intolerance on Facebook and Twitter. Can they be stopped?

Despite assurances from the Saudi government that it is cracking down on religious radicalism, the kingdom's top clerics continue calling for attacks on Christians across the Arab world. And in the Internet age, these voices of hate have been handed a larger megaphone than ever before.

You don't have to look hard to find examples of religious intolerance emanating from the very top of the Saudi religious hierarchy. On a visit to Kuwait in March, Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, told the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society -- which has been designated as a "specially designated global terrorist" entity by the United States and the United Nations for arming and financing al Qaeda -- that it is "necessary to destroy all the churches in the Arabian Peninsula." And there's more where that came from. The mufti also believes that proponents of women's rights are "advocates of evil and misguidance."

These sentiments are particularly troubling as Saudi clerics flock to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and mobile apps to amplify their messages. Despite Saudi religious figures' historical opposition to modern technologies, they now see online social media as a crucial means of communicating with the Saudi public and the Muslim world. The top three Saudi clerics on Twitter -- Salman al-Odah, Mohamad al-Arefe, and Aidh al-Qarnee -- all have well over 1 million followers.

To put this in perspective, Arefe's 1.5 million Twitter followers rival the number who follow football phenom Tim Tebow. Tebow's religious messaging may be controversial, but Arefe has him beat. In a July 2010 sermon, Arefe declared, "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."

Qarnee spews similar invective. Shortly after Israel and Hamas completed the prisoner swap for Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit in October 2011, Qarnee rushed to the defense of a fellow Saudi cleric who offered $100,000 to any Palestinian who could capture another Israeli soldier. Qarnee lauded "all who struggle with their tongue, their money, their blood, or their knowledge [against] the Zionist entity."

This is just a taste of the messaging we sampled in our six-month study, conducted from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2011, to learn what these clerics are saying online and how they spread their messages.

With the help of ConStrat, a Washington-based technology company, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies collected and analyzed more than 40,000 social media entries in both English and Arabic. ConStrat's researchers combed through the online data, which included content Saudi clerics posted personally, as well as content referencing the Saudi clerical establishment. ConStrat then assigned a sentiment to each post and flagged them by topic to help us better digest the large amount of data.

Alarmingly, of the thousands of messages ConStrat scored, 75 percent could be described as xenophobic, bigoted, or openly hateful. Some Saudi clerics like Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, head imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, still describe Jews as "sons of monkeys and pigs." Saleh al-Fawzan of the Council of Senior Ulema (CSU) ruled that fathers may arrange marriages for their daughters "even if they are in the cradle." And the Permanent Committee for Research and Ifta, one of the kingdom's highest religious bodies, suggested in December 2011 that repealing the Saudi ban on female driving could "provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, and divorce," predicting that in 10 years, there would be "no more virgins."

Calls for violence accounted for only a small percentage of our total content -- less than 5 percent -- though such messages are still getting out. This appears to be the direct result of the Saudi crackdown on "deviant" ideologies after the 9/11 attacks. Since then, clerics have adapted and found ways to promote intolerance without running afoul of Riyadh. But not every cleric understands the state's red lines, and some have paid the price for crossing them. In September 2008, Saleh al-Luhaidan, another CSU cleric, declared it "morally permissible" to kill the owners of satellite television channels that promoted "moral depravity." To the monarchy, the statement was beyond the pale, and King Abdullah fired Luhaidan from his position as chief judge of the Saudi Supreme Judicial Council.

To put it mildly, Saudi Arabia has never been known for freedom of speech and assembly. But now the kingdom faces an even tougher challenge -- balancing greater freedom of expression with the need to counter extremist and hateful language. As social networks have enabled clerics to disseminate their radical Wahhabi sentiments more widely, the monarchy is now trying to temper the views it once promoted.

The Saudis endured three major confrontations with religious figures in the 20th century alone. In the 1920s, Islamist marauders rebelled against the state, leading to a 10-month battle for control of the Saudi state. In 1979, a violent group of Salafi separatists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. And in the early 1990s, the Sahwa (Awakening) clerics denounced the U.S. military presence in the Gulf and demanded a more Islamic government. Indeed, this was a message that Osama bin Laden leveraged to build support for his nascent al Qaeda network.

In all those situations, Riyadh successfully quelled dissent by co-opting its challengers or crushing them through harsher measures. In co-opting the radicals, the regime embraced their dangerous worldview, but carefully channeled it elsewhere, "exporting" radicalism abroad. This approach worked, but only to a point. Indeed, extremists re-emerged within the kingdom in each instance to challenge the regime again.

Saudi Arabia, like the rest of the Arab world, confronts a new, rapidly changing political environment. For decades, the Saudi state has attempted to cater to radical elements of the religious establishment while also placating Washington's demands for moderation and reform. This balancing act is now more difficult than ever, however, due to the clerics' use of social media and growing demands for change.

For Washington, the challenge is to ensure that the Saudis keep social media free from draconian censorship while simultaneously ensuring that the radicals who employ it cannot threaten international security. But with radical clerics gaining Twitter and Facebook followers at eye-popping rates, it won't be easy.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Vox Pop: Egyptians Prepare to Choose a President

Everyone's talking about Egypt's presidential election. But what do the voters think?

The presidential election campaign in Egypt is under way. Thirteen candidates are competing for the job held for 30 years by Hosni Mubarak. The first round of the elections takes place on May 23 and 24. But so far no clear leaders have emerged.

Polling suggests that the main divide runs between Islamist candidates and those associated with the Mubarak regime. Among the former, the most likely contenders are Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member in the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Mohamed Morsi, the current candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Those associated with the old regime include Amr Moussa, the ex-foreign minister and former secretary-general of the Arab League, and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister. But the recent decision by the High Electoral Commission to exclude the previous front-runners on a variety of technical grounds has thrown the race into confusion.

We hear a lot about Egypt in the news these days, but we rarely have an opportunity to hear what Egyptians themselves think about what's happening in their country. So we at Democracy Lab decided to ask Egyptians from all walks of life about their presidential preferences. On the eve of Egypt's first-ever presidential debate, we present some of their responses -- with a minimum of editorial intervention:

"The people are confused. If they elect a candidate from the former regime, does that mean that the country will go back to the way it was? But if they elect a candidate from the Islamists, they don't know what course the country's going to take, since the Islamists have no experience of actually being in power, and they have a tendency towards violence."

Saeed Abdul Aal, mid-40s, teacher from Izzbet El-Nakhel, north Cairo.

Vote: undecided.

"Mubarak didn't allow any other politicians to share the stage. He systematically eliminated anyone who was capable of competing with him. If you ban people from playing football in the neighborhood for a while, and then you allow them to play it again, their skills will be weak at first. Over time, the level of candidates will improve."

Mohammed Hassan Ali, 38, welder from Izzbet El-Nakhel.

Vote: Aboul Fotouh.

"Drivers spend nearly half a day waiting for a turn at the gas station. You work for a day and then you have to spend another day to get gas. If this country isn't reformed, it will explode."

"Look at this vast desert we've got here. All that land is controlled by a small number of people who don't use it. If one of the candidates announces that he will redistribute the unused land to the people, so that it can be used, I'll vote for him."

"The Muslim Brotherhood is very influential in the countryside. People here expect their problems to be solved by God and the Brotherhood. For example, in religious festivals, Brotherhood Member of Parliament Abdul Aziz Khalaf buys clothes for the poor. He doesn't charge people who can't afford to pay for medicine from his pharmacy. No matter what else you hear about the Brotherhood, they're people who aren't going to change their minds."

Mahmoud Abu-Dahab, taxi driver from Assuit, 370 kilometers south of Cairo.

Vote: undecided.

"In Upper Egypt, every group forms an opinion and the members of that group will follow it. The Copts will have a preferred candidate, and the Muslims will have another."

"Most Copts support Amr Moussa because he's a secularist and won't violate their freedom of religion. But I, like a lot of the other young Copts, support Hisham Al-Bastawisi, the candidate of [the secular leftist party] Al-Tagammu."

"Electing a new president, whatever his political orientation, does not mean that the regime will end. The regime, whose head was Mubarak, has lots of arms, such as the army, the police, and local municipalities. The demands of the revolution will continue."

Ehab Amir, 36, lawyer from the Coptic village of Izziyah, Assuit.

Vote: Al-Bastawisi.

"I believe that the presidential election is part of a game between the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood got the parliament and the SCAF will get the presidency through one of the former regime candidates."

"I don't trust Aboul Fotouh because he's a former Muslim Brotherhood member. He says that he's an independent, but I don't believe him."

"I won't vote for anyone who was associated with the former regime, or for anyone who's associated with the current military regime that doesn't respect human rights."

"I'll vote for someone who can fight corruption so that we can build our country, so I'll go with Abu Al-Izz Al-Hariri.

Marwa Rashed, 25, female graphic designer, Alexandria.

Vote: Al-Hariri.

"The people are waiting for the election to end the unstable transitional period and bring a return to normal life. Even though the election is taking place under abnormal conditions, I still believe that electing a new president will be a step forward for stability, which we need."

"Coptic people are worried about an Islamic candidate winning because they think that will increase discrimination against them. I won't be afraid as long the Islamists guarantee us equal rights."

Marian Nader, 19, female student at Ain Shmas University, from Mataryia, Cairo.

Vote: Moussa.

"Rich people want a candidate from the old regime, someone like Moussa or Shafiq, to return the country to the way it was. They want us to go on being their slaves and they want to go on being the masters. They want a president to maintain their interests and save them. But normal people are waiting for real programs that will get something done. People want the country to go in the right direction. The Egyptian people are too poor and too tired. They've spent their entire history being robbed. We want the new president to work for the people, not for special interests."

"I will decide when I see the programs, but I won't vote for anyone who's connected with the Mubarak regime."

Yasser Gamal, 38, government employee, Assuit.

Vote: undecided.

"When people still respected the police, minibus drivers didn't dare to do that [pointing at minibus drivers parking illegally in a public square]. I'll nominate myself for president, and when I win, I'll put all those drivers in prison. The only problem is that the prisons won't have enough capacity, so I'll have to build new ones."

Mahmoud Abdel Razek, 60s, taxi driver, Cairo.

Vote: undecided.

"I think I'll vote for Hisham Al-Bastawisi. He's a fair judge who has a clean hand, but the Islamists will say that he's secular and an infidel."

"The Islamists fooled us in the referendum and the parliamentary elections by using religion against the secular candidates, and they'll fool the people again in the presidential election."

Hamada Abdullah, 29, taxi driver, Cairo.

Vote: Al-Bastawisi.

"I'll vote for Mohamed Morsi because we want a real Islamic state. Right now Egypt is an Islamic state in name but not in practice. ‘Islam is the solution' was a slogan. Now we want to put it into practice."

Tanseem Al-Said, early 20s, female student in the Department of Islamic Studies at Mansoura University (and member of the Muslim Brotherhood).

Vote: Morsi.

"People still think that the next president will stay in power forever, but actually he'll only be in power for four years, and then he'll leave and someone else will replace him. We need a transition between the old regime and the new one. The new political parties can use this period to organize themselves."

Sami al-Abdullah, in his 50s, doctor, Cairo.

Vote: Shafiq.

"I voted for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party [in the last parliamentary elections], but I'm not going to vote for them again because of their [initial] decision not to run a candidate for the presidency. I was a supporter of the Brotherhood, but after they backed down I lost confidence in them -- not only me but also most of my friends."

Ahmed Saeed, 23, student at Assuit University.

Vote: Aboul Fotouh.

"I supported [Salafi candidate] Hazem Salah Abu Ismail before he was disqualified [by the High Election Commission]. Now I'm going to boycott the election. I don't want the Muslim Brotherhood to win the presidential election. We don't want a single party to control everything. We don't want a new National Democratic Party."

Mahmoud Ghareeb, 30, computer company owner in Assuit.

Vote: boycott.

"We need someone to apply God's holy law, not someone who is greedy for power. People in my neighborhood prefer the Islamic candidate. The candidates of the old regime, like Moussa and Shafiq, had the opportunity to do something in the past but they didn't manage to get anything done. So I don't believe that they'll do anything now."

Amer Abu Alail, 48, sales director, Cairo.

Vote: undecided.

"Omar Suleiman was my favorite candidate because he knows the ins and outs of the country. He can keep the current situation stable. Even if the situation is bad, the alternative is collapse. We'd rather live with a little water rather than brave the drought."

"Since Suleiman was disqualified, I support Shafiq. He's better than the Islamists, the best of the worst."

Dahi Azer, 34, Copt, teacher from Assuit.

Vote: Shafiq.

"I will not elect any secular candidate because he will be against Islam. We are afraid of the secularists, even if they've said that they will keep Article 2 [the constitutional clause that stipulates that sharia should be the basis of all legislation]. They may work against the religion from under the table. I don't have any leanings toward a specific candidate. I lean towards an Islamic candidate who will apply sharia. That's my first priority, and then I will look into who is better."

Waleed Wagdy, 30s, doctor, Assuit.

Vote: undecided.

"We were deceived by the army. They realized that they can't stand in front of the people's protests, so they claimed that they were for the revolution even while they were working to control it."

"The election will be the last stage of the control process they've been putting in place in the last year and a half. Nothing has changed."

Sarah Mahmoud, 33, female doctor, Cairo.

Vote: undecided.

"I wanted to vote for Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.. But when he was disqualified, Salafi leaders recommended that we vote for Aboul Fotouh. They know better than we do. I'll vote as they say."

Mohammed Mosbah, early 20s, student at Mansoura University.

Vote: Aboul Fotouh.

"I won't vote for a Brotherhood candidate. I don't see any freedom or justice in what they do, only hearing and obeying the same policy of the blind majority. They obey the word of their own supreme guide more than the word of God."

Mahmoud Al-Mougi, 20, law student at Mansoura University.

Vote: Aboul Fotouh.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages