Foreign Affairs

Salman al-Odah and Social Media in Saudi Arabia: A Balancing Act

Article written by a Texas Orator staff writer.

Looking at the social media landscape of the Arab World, it may surprise many to find the country with the largest active Twitter population is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has experienced an unprecedented degree of social media proliferation in recent years. According to the Dubai School of Government in 2014, a full 40 percent of Twitter users in the Arab World were Saudis, a figure likely to have grown since then. Additionally, the Kingdom has the highest number of YouTube users per capita of any country in the world. This growth of social media is a compelling sign of social and economic development, but has proven itself a double-edged sword for the nation’s governing monarchy. The push toward modernity is often at odds with the conservative principles of the Kingdom. While members of the royal family use Twitter effectively, so too do many influential clerics who challenge mainline positions.

There are few Saudi Twitter users more emblematic of this struggle than the controversial cleric Salman al-Odah. Widely known as a staunchly conservative thought leader of the Sahwa Intellectual movements throughout the early 1990s, Salman was imprisoned from 1995 to 1999 for expressing his anti-regime sentiments. More recently, al-Odah ran the influential website, Islam Today, and reached a whopping 14.2 million followers on his Arabic language Twitter account and 43,500 followers on his English language account. On top of that, he also manages very popular Snapchat and YouTube accounts. Despite his early years as a well-known Islamist, al-Odah’s time in prison and experience of the Arab Spring led to an ideological shift.

While maintaining a conservative reputation through the years, al-Odah has nonetheless used his Twitter feed and other social media outlets to call for extensive government reform through open letters, support for anti-government movements, and advocacy of cooperation among all Muslims — including Shiites and other non-Sunnis. Scrolling through his Twitter feed today, you will be treated to a slew of inspirational messages instead of flat-out dissent or sedition. However, tweets like “Let us work on showing people the Islamic way rather than saying that we are Muslim. #TrueIslam” from al-Odah’s English feed on January 11th, 2017, are often seen by the regime as veiled criticisms of the government.

Part of the reason why al-Odah is so controversial is because his views are difficult to pin down beneath layers of abstraction. One way to view the liberalization of al-Odah is as a reflection of society within the Kingdom. Just as efforts toward incremental liberalization of Saudi society by the ruling family have been criticized as being superficial and opportunistic, so too has al-Odah’s shifting ideology. Despite this criticism, the cleric seems to be consistent in justifying his leftward shift in Islamic terms in the same fashion to which the Saudi government aspires. For example, on the issue of homosexuality, the cleric maintains that it is a great sin — al-Odah is far from being a liberal darling by American standards — but also contends that the punishment for homosexuality ought to be in the hands of God and not governments.

In this way, he maintains his Islamist ideological legitimacy while at the same time advocating for legal liberalization. This practice of pushing the political envelope while maintaining Islamic legitimacy is a careful balancing act. Governments and individuals are open to accusations of insincerity from both sides of any issue, which makes an exact ideology difficult to pin down. Of course, whether al-Odah is sincere in his liberalization or simply taking advantage of the fickle push and pull of politics is open to debate and interpretation, but it is clear that his shift has earned him the suspicion of the Saudi government.

As of September 7th, 2017, al-Odah has been arrested once again along with dozens of other prominent social media personalities, according to Human Rights Watch. This is consistent with a long-standing pattern of crackdown on dissent that has only intensified since Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman was named successor to the throne in June of 2017. This contrasts with measures taken shortly thereafter by the Kingdom to grant women the right to drive, as well as rumors that the oppressive system of male guardianship may also be on its way out in the years to come. One might expect that the regime may want to leverage the more liberal-leaning clerics to support this push, but just as al-Odah needs to maintain Islamic legitimacy in his tweets and open letters, the government needs to maintain its grip on power. Clerics who rock the boat too much for the comfort of the government may be perceived as a danger to the stability of the regime and threaten the good will that was bought by reforms.

After being held for over a year without access to a lawyer, The regime is now seeking the death penalty for al-Odah. Of the 37 charges he faces the vast majority center around alleged links with the government of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Absent from these charges is any allegation of incitement of violence. Despite this, al-Odah’s trial will be conducted in a Saudi tribunal that is reserved for terrorists. By imposing such harsh punishments on al-Odah, the Saudi regime is seeking to send a message to those who act for reform without the royal blessing. Try to make change and you will pay with your life.

Unfortunately, with the recent extrajudicial killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it is clear that the pattern of brutal repression will only continue. Of course, this kind of killing is hardly rare and even casual Internet activists routinely face brutal reprisals, but in this case the international community seems to have taken some notice. The Kingdom is no stranger to these kinds of controversies and, unless the outrage translates to action, the suppression of critical voices will continue indefinitely.

The U.S. government has for too long tolerated and aided this regime despite some of the most abhorrent civil rights abuses anywhere in the world today. If we want to act in the world in a way that is consistent with the American values of freedom of speech, association, and the press, it is time for us to withdraw our military and economic support and urge our allies to do the same. This may not always be the most convenient course of action, but it is the right thing to do and will help to buy more American goodwill on the world stage. If we continue to subsidize and bolster this regime, we need to reckon with the fact that we are complicit in its crimes and abuse of its citizens and understand that we forfeit our own claim to moral and ethical superiority. In the meantime brave individuals will continue to try and effect change in the Kingdom through smartphones and computer screens, until their voice cannot be ignored.

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