Salafists, Sectarianism, Social Media
The Stimson Center held an event last week, entitled, Salafists And Sectarianism: Twitter And Communal Conflict In The Middle East. Speakers included Geneive Abdo, a Fellow at the Stimson Middle East Program, and Khalil al Anani, Adjunct Professor Johns Hopkins/SAIS, moderated by Mokhtar Awad, a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress.
The Shi’a-Sunni divide has become one of the most destabilizing factors in the Middle East—with no end in sight. The rise of the Salafist anti-Shi’a discourse is of great interest, as the movement has cleverly exploited the current sectarian conflict in Syria, with spillover effects into parts of Iraq and Lebanon that have succeeded in furthering their rhetorical and theological positions.
Abdo presented an overview of the findings of her recent paper, including suggestions on the future of extremism and social media. She opened with the question of why now? The disruption of the longstanding political order in the Middle East, as well a shift in power dynamics from a Sunni ruled Arab world to increased Shi’a control, has led many Sunnis to believe that the survival of their sect is at stake. Beyond the search for land and power, Salafis truly believe that the Shi’a are not real Muslims, and are out to destroy Sunni believers.
This evolution of sectarian tension post-Arab Spring was not anticipated. She points to the example of Bahrain, where the revolts started as a peaceful reform movement with both Sunnis and Shi’as were protesting together. This has sadly not remained the case. The Salafis are interesting not only for the window they offer into the world of anti-Shia discourse, but also for their recent entrance into the political sphere. They are less violent than their jihadi counterparts and have a broad constituency. “Celebrity sheiks” have amassed giant followings on twitter, examples of whom include Adnan Al-Arour and Mohammad Al Arefe, who has 11.5 million followers on Twitter.
Khalil Al Anani underlined that violent Salafists are dominating the discourse. Non-violent ones are often overlooked, yet they are operating more and more in the public sphere, and have obvious mass appeal. The traditional Salafist traditional discourse is widely disseminated using modern technology. The anti-Shi’a discourse is not limited to the Salafists, and has been picked up by some others. The rise of Salafists goes hand in hand with the rise of sectarian tensions. It has also helped to empower non-state actors, by increasing their following. An example is Yemen, where the fight against the Houthis has been framed as the fight against Iran’s goals to recreate the Safavid empire and to butcher all the Ah’l-Sunnah.
Mokhtar Awad discussed social media use in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia has the highest Twitter penetration rates in the Middle East, accounting for over 40% of active twitter users in the region. However, there is an inherent problem with Twitter, as 140 characters does not lend itself to the expression of nuanced views. Islamist embrace of Twitter has fueled the sectarian divide, as their ideas are retweeted thousands of times, reaching hundreds of thousands of people. The online discourse is dominated by Salafists, as proved by the Islamic State’s embrace of Twitter and other social media tools as a means of gaining followers and disseminating their message. How does the Western world counter this messaging? Alternative narratives are needed to balance the discourse of extremism, yet who will provide this?