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."