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By James Gibney

You need some cognitive dissonance to harness modern media to spread the word that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it. Yet that's one of many incongruous uses of the Internet surfaced in "Facebook Fatwa: Saudi Clerics, Wahhabi Islam and Social Media," a report just issued by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. It's a bracing rejoinder to the pop notion that the Internet is fundamentally a force for good and an inherently liberating medium.

One of the most popular Saudi clerics on Facebook and Twitter, for example, is Muhammad al-Arefe, who explains in one YouTube video why, if a husband finds it necessary to beat his wife, "the beatings must be light and not make her face ugly." Another is Saleh al-Fawzan, who once issued a fatwa urging the killing, as apostates, of co-workers who did not pray.

Focusing on the English and Arabic Web sites of Saudi clerics as well as forum threads and social media posts, the study analyzed more than 40,000 entries to gauge how Saudi clerics and Web users talk about their ideas. The good news is that overtly violent messages are marginal and declining. And the use of social media is on the rise: In 2010, the number of Twitter users in Saudi Arabia jumped by 240 percent. But that cuts both ways. The state has less control over the bad as well as the good. And with Wahhabism as with fundamentalist Christianity, there's plenty of bad to go around.

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)


-0- May/08/2012 13:19 GMT

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