Religion. It is not the paradigm through which people ought to explain everything about the Arab world. Yet, the reality is, religion is an important influence upon the cultures of this region. Whether one is a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew, their religious identity impacts greatly upon them. In today’s world of varying types of communication at work, how does religion and new forms of social media interact – and what is the impact of each of them on the other?
Increasingly, young Arab Muslims are asking questions from people they identify as religious authorities through Facebook, Twitter and other internet social media apparatuses.Dr. H.A. Hellyer
Frankly, it is a cop-out to explain everything in the Arab world according to religion – it reduces people to automatons that are defined solely by a text, without any effect from the time and place they live in. Yet, the reality is, religion is an important influence upon the cultures of this region. The idea of existing in this region in some sort of protected space where religion does not enter at all is virtually unthinkable – at least at this point in Arab history.
When one considers that in the midst of the 21st century, one wonders how, and who, impacts the most at the intersection of Arab society and new forms of communication. It used to be that the religious leader or preacher’s most significant mode of communication was the pulpit – in the mosque, the church or the synagogue. The Muslim religious establishment is not a hierarchical ecclesiastical one, unlike other religious communities – but it did have fairly recognizable sources and modes of establishing interpretative authority. The ‘ulama (religious scholars) were known – and there were social mechanisms for recognising new members.
In the 20th century, this all begins to change. The advent of greater literacy; the deterioration of religious establishments; new forms of communication such as radio and television; all of this breaks down the pre-modern modes of religious authority. The 21st century brings forth a new phenomenon: the creation of ‘Sheikh Google’. It’s a quip on how common it is now for individual members of the faithful to search out their own answers on religious questions by accessing the internet – the ‘Google Search Engine’ is the equivalent, for many, of gong to the Sheikh or the imam and asking for guidance on religious questions.
Social media has now become yet another frontier in that regard. Increasingly, young Arab Muslims are asking questions from people they identify as religious authorities through Facebook, Twitter and other internet social media apparatuses. As a result of that, traditional religious establishments are calling on religious preachers to become more and more involved in those arenas – partly to reach the faithful, but also to ensure that their religious authority is not diluted by preachers that they see as unqualified or ill-equipped to guiding the faithful. After all, when anyone can get a Twitter account or Facebook page, without having to go through some sort of accreditation process, the possibilities are endless. Sometimes, the results may be very liberal and progressive individuals pontificating about religion – other times, the messages promoted can be dangerous and radical.
That has led to a number of religious authorities warning about the media and the spread of religious ideas. Saudi Arabia’s own grand mufti, Abdul Aziz aal-Sheikh, in an interview with Al Arabiya, recently said, “Their (preachers who issue controversial religious opinions) love to appear in the media led them to issuing fatwas.” He then went on to say, “Issuing Shariah rulings is controlled by the laws of the Shariah, which is against heresy and lechery without proof or evidence.”
Against that back-drop, who are those individuals that are most influential on social media? The ‘Top 100 Arabs’ website recently released a report to that effect, detailing the most influential individuals on Twitter. Monitoring some 1500 famous Twitter accounts, they found that the most influential accounts belonged to Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri, Salman Alodah, Aaidh Alqarnee, Mohamad Alarefe, and Nabil Alawadhy. Intriguingly, while Habib Ali al-Jifri has by far the lowest number of Twitter followers out of those five accounts, his account was more influential on social media than all of them. The others have millions of followers – al-Jifri has less than 400,000.
The distinguishing factors of al-Jifri’s account may give some indications as to why his account is so influential – and hopefully some cause for optimism. Al-Jifri is a traditionally trained scholar, associated with the Sufi trend, and whose tweets often comment on socially relevant issues such as sexual harassment, as well as more obviously spiritual concerns. He may not have as many followers as the rest – but it seems that he is touching a chord with far more people, and his religious message is making more of an impact. When asked about this, the New Media Specialist at al-Jifri’s Tabah Foundation, Muhammad al-Saqqaf, suggested that social media provided a way for young people to express themselves, rather than have other people define them, as well as give them direct access to a figure like al-Jifri in a way they might not already have – something important particularly in an age where ‘hatred, resentment and obscenity’ were being justified in the name of religion. The same motivations probably energise religious leaders and personalities such as Amr Khaled (Egypt) and others to dedicate time and effort to reaching that demographic of the youth - which is the majority of the Arab world.
What does all of this mean for the future of religious leadership and social media in the 21st century Arab world? In short, that the impact of social media cannot be underestimated – that those who take the plunge and do engage on social media are going to become more and more influential. In contrast, as young Arabs become more and more inclined to seek out information through these mediums of communication, those that do not utilise them are increasingly going to become irrelevant. One hopes, then, that those that do win out in the social media arena are positive influences – and not simply the loudest ones.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs who previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.