Saudi religious police to monitor social media?

Saudi columnist urges religious police to track down Twitter and Facebook accounts that ‘promote pornography’

Eman El-Shenawi
Eman El-Shenawi - Al Arabiya News
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A Saudi columnist has encouraged the country’s religious police to monitor social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, targeting “evil” accounts that “promote pornography, magic and sorcery.”

In a column published in the Saudi-based al-Madina newspaper on Friday, Lulu al-Hubaishi noted that efforts by the religious police, officially known as the Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, to target such “vices” should be bolstered.

“The decision of the Haia (religious police) to activate its awareness and to monitor social media violations, which are difficult to control and purify in terms of contents, is extremely important in order to protect society and the youth, especially those who frequently visit social networking websites with good intentions,” wrote Hubaishi.

The writer went on to say that the police force should look beyond popular platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.

“They [the religious police] are shocked by those exploiting these websites to spread moral decay without any deterrent. What remains to be done is to expand the hunt so that other authorities will join the Haia in this campaign. They should cover all websites exploited by evil and immoral people and not only on Twitter alone. They should include Keek, FaceBook, Gamezer and others,” Hubaishi added.

President of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia), Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Asheikh, admitted the presence of extremists in its ranks. (Saudi Gazette)
President of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia), Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Asheikh, admitted the presence of extremists in its ranks. (Saudi Gazette)

The most popular social media site in the kingdom is Twitter.

Around 41% of Internet users in Saudi Arabia are on the micro-blogging site, according to a BI Intelligence survey conducted at the end of 2013. The survey also found that Saudi Arabia has the largest number of Twitter users relative to internet users in the world.

But the move to monitor social media has drawn scorn.

Erasing ‘immorality’

“The Saudi religious police need to educate the people, you don’t just erase immoral actions by blocking the users or monitoring the application itself,” Saudi-based technology and social media expert Khaldoon Said told Al Arabiya News on Saturday.

“They need to educate the public on the disadvantages of being ‘immoral’ and the advantages of being moral as they are not fixing the root cause here, they are just delaying things by not allowing people to communicate freely on the most well-known social media tool used here.

“These people will still be immoral in nature, but they just won’t be allowed to use the channels they are used to and they will find other channels to do this,” Khaldoon added.

The religious police force is tasked with enforcing Sharia (Islamic law) as defined in Saudi Arabia.

Recently however, some of its practices have landed the religious authority in hot water.
Last October, the death of two brothers who were involved in a car chase with members of the religious police sparked anger across the country.

Their deaths forced Sheikh Abdullatif Al Sheikh, the head of the religious police, to admit that members of his authority were involved in the deadly car chase and that an investigation was underway into the incident.

In what was deemed a “charm offensive” by media observers, Sheikh was also pictured consoling the father of the men who died in the pursuit.

Enforcing a moral code

“The Saudi religious police has enforced on society rules and regulations for what Saudis are allowed to see, what they are not, when they have to pray, what they should wear,” explains Saudi media analyst Omar Al-Mudwahi.

On the topic of monitoring social media, Mudwahi believes the balls are no longer in the religious police’s court.

“Twitter, Facebook and other similar social media sites have been the first real platforms that the Saudi society has used to voice their thoughts freely, without censorship.”

“When the internet was first introduced to Saudi Arabia in 1979, it had been monitored by several government and security bodies to fight cybercrime.

Search for cybercrimes

“The religious police will not search for cybercrimes. Instead, the authority will focus on social media accounts that incite moral and social controversies,” Mudwahi added.

But how can the Islamic authority go about doing this, defeating obstacles such as user anonymity online?

“On Twitter, it’s easy to be anonymous, anybody can pretend to be whoever he or she wants to be and so the technicalities of monitoring such activities are hard,” explained Said.

“The religious police as an entity will not be able to do this alone, and so will most probably be assisted by the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission to monitor the 26 million users,” the analyst added.

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