Twitter in Saudi Arabia: More than a social media site |
Saudi Gazette - 01 July, 2012
The popular social media website Twitter has created a parallel world by engaging an entire generation that was once isolated from debate and expressing opinion.
Twitter, however, is not only a public sphere for different ideologies and schools of thought to interact, it has also become a place for destructive debate, that often ends with the block button.
Saud Kabli, a columnist at Al-Watan newspaper, said Twitter has created a sphere for different groups in society to interact; something he says that enriches the culture of dialogue. “Twitter has a place for everyone. Those who belong to different intellectual, ideological or regional schools of thought are now within one active public sphere while in the past each group was isolated away from any dialogue with other societal groups,” he said.
According to Kabli, perhaps the most remarkable feature of the social media website is the arena it has created in which ordinary people of different schools of thought can interact, something only the intellectual elite enjoyed in the past.
“Twitter expanded this dialogue arena by allowing ordinary people other than the elites to interact and express their views and it will become clearer with time whether this is negative or positive,” he said.
Dialogue is vital for the success of any social reform through tolerance and acceptance of different opinions. Despite Twitter providing such a platform, the culture of accepting different opinions is yet to be rooted in Saudi society.
“Our society is used to one opinion and thought. The influx of new opinions and thoughts has created a sort of social shock. However, it is natural for our society to take time to adjust and find a balance to accept these new changes,” Kabli explained.
Saudi Twitter users are often classified as seculars, Islamists, liberals, moderates and even atheists based solely on their opinions. Many have asked whether such classifications are evidence for the lack of acceptance and respect for others’ opinions and a general inability to cope with or accept differences. Kabli believes that such classifications are normal in all societies and there is no country in the world that doesn’t classify its different groups.
“Classification is not the problem but how we deal with the classification is. Social networking sites have given a voice to those who couldn’t find a way to express their ideas. It’s a new phenomenon in the making,” he added.
Ahmed Al-Omran, a blogger at http://saudijeans.org and journalist, also believes that Twitter has provided a new public sphere that Saudis never had before. “Twitter has given a space where people from different backgrounds and from all political and ideological inclinations can express themselves and interact with each other,” he said.
Al-Omran believes it is a positive development because “more debate is always a good thing for any society.”
“The beauty of the Internet is that it offered this new free space where a diverse set of opinions can find a place. This new freedom can be shocking to some people in our conservative society, but the answer is not by putting restrictions,” Al-Omran said while adding, “the answer to freedom is more freedom.”
According to Al-Omran, social media sites helped in highlighting certain issues that did not get enough coverage in the mainstream media. He cited the example of Women2Drive, an online grassroots campaign that demanded women’s right to drive in the Kingdom. “Considering the many restrictions put on women in public life in Saudi Arabia, social media helped many women to participate in public discourse and contribute positively to society while at the same time they were able to maintain a certain level of privacy,” he explained.
Although Twitter is considered a virtual sphere, the case of 23-year-old Hamza Kashgari who was detained for alleged blasphemy on Twitter, is one of the few, if not the only case in the Kingdom where something said in the virtual world has real repercussions.
Kashgari was arrested nearly six months ago after tweeting a detailed imaginary conversation with Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) on his Twitter account, in which he addressed him as an equal. After generating over 30,000 fevered responses and a number of death threats, Kashgari deleted the post and issued a formal apology. Kashgari remains in prison.
“In Hamza Kashgari’s case, he expressed a personal opinion on his Twitter account which wasn’t acceptable to the public. Twitter started as a personal platform but it expanded to become a public one, which is a problem our society is facing now. What can be said privately, might not be accepted publicly,” Kabli said.
Khaled Yeslam, a writer and blogger at http://kyeslam.wordpress.com, thinks that the arrest of Kashghari was the first incident of an ideological debate from Twitter to be addressed by authorities. During Kashgari’s arrest, Yeslam defended him on Twitter, which made him the subject of criticism and accusations of heresy and atheism. He appeared on the television program “Etejehat” (“Directions”) amid the high-profile case to defend himself.
“I’m still being criticized and many times it’s from fake accounts. The problem of extremists in any school of thought is that they believe in the theory of ‘If you are not with me you are against me,’” he said.
Yeslam believes that intellectual conflicts exist in every society and in a society that is going through travail, such conflicts will continue until it understands the concept of a civil society, which is still new to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
“Our conservative society’s inherited dread has made us avoid getting into intellectual debates. What Twitter did is that it removed the fig leaf for social hypocrisy,” he said.
Yeslam believes that the current conflict is beneficial to all as long as different viewpoints are respected. “We are a society that remained a prisoner of its idealistic illusions and was hit hard by reality. Of course, being against a certain party or school of thought will put you under attack by the ignorant before the intellectual,” he added.
A recent infographic detailing Twitter’s Active Users in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was published by Khaled Al-Ahmad, a social media manager. The data was collected by the Dubai School of Government for its Arab Social Media Report. Active Users were generally defined as those who post at least once every two weeks, and on average, just under once a day. The infographic looked at Twitter use in the MENA region between September 2011 and March 2012 and according to the data, more Twitter users came online during this time period in Saudi Arabia than in any other country in the Middle East. With 393, 000 active users in the past year and almost 50 million tweets in the month of March, Saudi Arabia ranked second place behind Kuwait.
With more users joining Twitter in the country, more voices are tweeting and it seems to be only a matter of time before they will be heard.