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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

The death of Abdulhussein Abdulredha and Saudi Arabia's rebuke of toxic hate tweets

How Twitter users reacted to posts by known religious activists tells you a lot about the mindset of young Saudis

The late Kuwaiti comedian Abdulhussein Abdulredha. Courtesy of MBC
The late Kuwaiti comedian Abdulhussein Abdulredha. Courtesy of MBC

The renowned Kuwaiti comedian and actor Abdulhussein Abdulredha passed away this week. The reaction to the death of such a beloved figure in the Gulf region was overwhelming and tinged with great sadness.

At least such was the case until a few Twitter users claimed that it was forbidden in Islam to ask for mercy for any Shia because they are Rawafid, meaning that they have rejected the faith of the majority Sunni, echoing the sentiments of many religious figures who feed off sectarian hatred to achieve fame and notoriety.

There were a few posts from known religious activists that said the same thing in one form or another, pushing the idea that asking for prayers for a Shia is forbidden.

Overnight, Twitter users within Saudi Arabia became outraged. The tweets caused major public backlash, triggering writers and intellectuals to share articles condemning sectarian hatred and calling for the punishment of the people who promoted it, and asking that people debate the effectiveness of introducing hate speech laws. The next day, the recently formed Saudi public prosecutor’s office summoned the users, demanding that they retract their statements and pledge to refrain from spreading sectarianism.

What is significant in this case is the fact that the demands to punish these people came from the bottom up. It was the Saudi people, 70 per cent of whom are under the age of 30, who wanted to see an end to this type of hateful religious sentiment. They expressed this desire through their favorite medium and the government effectively responded.

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There was a time when some religious figures in Saudi Arabia enjoyed celebrity status. Extremely popular sheikhs and clerics amassed millions of followers on social media. They had TV shows, radio shows and contracts worth millions in advertisements. They earned speaking fees and had book deals. These “celebrity clerics” lived their golden age, in terms of influence, just before the Arab Spring, a time when sectarian and revolutionary sentiment was high. There were hardly any views opposing theirs on social media, and they managed to take over the public debate and exercise great influence over the Saudi people. This was done easily, because the Kingdom had no real entertainment avenues such as cinemas, public events or significant cultural outlets, so people turned to the clerics for entertainment, with dreadful consequences.

One by one, these celebrity clerics started to fall. They were revealed for what they were, not in terms of who they followed outside the borders or what regional agenda they were advocating for, but in terms of the bankruptcy of their ideas and what they called for.

With the rise of ISIL and other terror groups in the region, the Saudi people watched in horror when what these clerics had been calling for, for over a decade, came true. Those who had made a living out of making calls for deep religious hatred and division were now faced with the consequences of their words playing out live across the Middle East. A few years ago, a popular Saudi TV show on MBC, called Al Thamina Ma’a Dawood (Eight O’Clock with Dawood), hosted families whose sons had traveled to Iraq or Syria to join ISIL. One episode revealed what the families thought was the main reason their sons had joined a terrorist group. The consensus was clear: because they had been influenced by some of these hate preachers. In a memorable TV moment, the host of the show, Dawood Al Shirian, known for his bluntness, looked into the camera, pointed his finger, and called out some very famous clerics by name, saying, “It was you who sent our youth to their deaths. It is you who have toyed with the lives of young Saudis by issuing fatwas and telling them to join these groups. You have been doing it for 30 years. It is time someone stopped you. You are responsible for the pain of these families sitting here with me.”

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It was a moment when the Saudi public was faced with some uncomfortable truths. Even the late King Abdullah himself scolded his own religious council live on air, saying they were lazy and that they must do more to counter extremist ideology. Since then, many methods were pursued by Saudi officials to counter radical ideology, something that is well-documented and widely talked about.

But more important, and what is hard to document, is the Saudi people’s unmistakable response to the rebuke of widespread extremist ideology, and their embrace of a more inclusive and tolerant nationalist outlook. The speed with which so many Saudis denounced sectarianism in this particular instance is cause for optimism. It seems that the void that had left young Saudis vulnerable to extremism and terrorist groups has now been filled with a robust national vision for social and economic transformation and by empowering moderate voices. If Abdulhussein Abdulredha had died a few years ago, those who invoked sectarian sentiments probably would have gone unchallenged.

Although this might sound silly to readers who are accustomed to institutions that guarantee or protect public debate, this is a new and refreshing type of discourse in Saudi Arabia. Whether the topic is a woman walking around in a miniskirt or a serial cat killer, viral videos, tweets and overall social media posts are triggering debate on both sides of the intellectual spectrum. Now, we can see that it leads to real-life consequences. For a young Saudi, this new trend is significant to see, and to be a part of.

Yousef Al Naimi is a Saudi national and a research analyst at the Arabia Foundation, a Washington DC think-tank.