A screenshot of Sheikh Youssef al-Ahmed's Twitter page on July 11, showing his current number of followers, displaying Tweets from others with updates on his post-arrest status, and featuring a link to an open letter to King Abdullah delivered by the Sheikh in a recent sermon and uploaded to Facebook.
The Financial Times recently published a fascinating article by Abeer Allam about how Saudi clerics are embracing social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. While some of the early adopters of social media, not surprisingly, were liberal clerics, it is now the conservatives who are coming on strong.
One well-known conservative, Sheikh Youssef al-Ahmed, has nearly 16,000 followers. Sheikh Ahmed uses his online presence to rail against anything in Saudi society that smacks of reform. He gets particularly agitated by attempts to break down the Kingdom’s strict system of gender segregation. (In an apparently unrelated development, reports came in over the weekend that Sheikh Ahmed was arrested for denouncing the Kingdom’s lengthy detentions without trial of terror suspects. A #freealahmad hashtag soon appeared on Twitter.)
A few years ago, Sheikh Ahmed gained notoriety for harshly denouncing King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) for allowing female students to study alongside men. Despite King Abdullah’s patronage of the university, Sheikh Ahmed deemed it a “source of unbelief” in Saudi Arabia, claimed its president and faculty were nonbelievers, and decried its lack of “religious surveillance.” For this outburst against KAUST, and by extension against King Abdullah, Sheikh Ahmed was fired from his official government position, which might help explain his uptake of social media. With many official outlets for his views now closed, he promotes his conservatism in the free-for-all world of Twitter and Facebook. Last summer, when the government approved the appointment of women as cashiers in several Panda shopping centers, Sheikh Ahmed issued a fatwa against it saying it was “prohibited because it is part of the Western project that is imposing itself upon our society.” He called for a boycott of Panda stores, and the government backed down, removing the women. So much for trying to address the high levels of female unemployment in Saudi Arabia.
Read more »