By Garrett Nada

           Three years after Facebook launched an Arabic interface, charismatic Muslim sheikhs are gaining a new generation of followers by tapping into interactive media. The new Facebook sheikhs mark the third phase of Islamist outreach beyond televangelist programs of the 1970s and 1980s or Internet sites and satellite channels since the mid-1990s. Since 2009, hundreds of 21st century preachers have created digital forums that allow distant audiences to communicate with them—and with each other. Tweets and Facebook updates keep the faithful engaged with Islamic content even if they miss their favorite sheikh’s television program.

           The Arab uprisings triggered an explosive growth of social media. Arab Facebook users tripled to 45 million between mid-2010 and mid-2012. Youth between the ages of 15 and 29 now account for roughly 70 percent of users, according to the Dubai School of Government’s Arab Social Media Report (ASMR). Issued in July 2012, the report revealed that Egypt accounted for one-quarter of Arabic Facebook users, while Iraq had one of the smallest, with only 4 percent of users.

           Facebook’s growth across the Middle East prompted the company to open its first regional office in May 2012. The Dubai-based team hopes to attract both more users and advertising revenue.

           Twitter use in Arabic also soared between 2010 and 2012, with Facebook sheikhs among the most prolific users. In January 2012, Khaled el Ahmad compiled a list of the top 100 Arab Twitter users ranked by number of followers and online influence. Three of the top five users were religious personalities.

           The top Tweeter was outspoken Saudi televangelist Sheikh Salman al Oudah, who had over 1.5 million followers as of August 2012.

           Oudah was once a leading critic of the Saudi monarchy for allowing U.S. and other Western troops into the birthplace of Islam during the 1990-91 war to force Iraq out of Kuwait. His fatwas made him popular among militants, including Osama bin Laden who cited Oudah as a role model. Saudi Arabia imprisoned the popular sheikh for five years. After his release in 1999, the Saudi preacher gradually became a leading critic of extremism. He denounced bin Laden in an open letter—on television and his website on September 11, 2007. Oudah now uses social media to preach against fanatics.

           Facebook, YouTube and Twitter initially penetrated the Arab world in English. But the new Arabic interface has allowed Islamic preachers to attract virtual flocks through both computers and mobile phones. They send out videos of sermons, past television shows, audio courses, fatwas (religious edicts) and essays on everything from political events to social issues and theological questions. Users can discuss content with each other as well as interact with the sheikhs by questions on forums or even text messages.

           Amr Khaled, an Egyptian accountant-turned-televangelist, has been particularly adept on social media platforms. He launched his career as a moderate and modern Islamic preacher in 1998. Between 2007 and 2012, his YouTube channel has attracted 31.5 million views.

           Since Khaled launched his Facebook page in 2009, he has attracted more than 4.7 million users, mostly youth between the ages of 18 and 24, who follow his posts about life and faith. On August 25, 2012 he posted, “Love your God with all your hearts.” Nearly 25,000 users shared, commented or “liked” the posting within a day.

           On the other end of the Islamist spectrum, ultraconservative Salafi sheikhs are also increasingly polishing an online presence. Their websites and profiles tend to focus largely on serious Islamic teaching, whereas reformers like Amr Khaled frequently post recommended music videos, photographs and other entertainment along with lighter educational materials.

           In Egypt, Sheikh Abu Ishaq al Heweny’s website features lecture videos and transcripts, fatwas, Quran lessons and an encyclopedia of hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. Since launching his Facebook page in 2009, Heweny has attracted more than 9,000 subscribers. He has posted 400 videos on YouTube since 2010, which have garnered more than 770,000 views. In September 2012, Heweny uses his Twitter account to direct more than 21,000 followers to new content on his Facebook page, website and YouTube channel.  

           Between March and May 2012, ASMR conducted a survey in eight Arab countries on social media’s impact on culture and society. Social media strengthened respondents’ national, global, regional and religious identities. Over 70 percent of respondents in Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia felt that social media enforced their religious identity and links to coreligionists.

           Use of social media had been focused on politics during the 2011 Arab uprisings. But it has changed where the political situation has stabilized. In July 2012, ASMR’s report outlined a “wider scope of uses for social media in the region, ranging from civic engagement and political participation to business entrepreneurial efforts and social change.” The Facebook sheikhs, who seek social change through their various versions of Islam, are some of the region’s most enterprising social media users.    

Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace in the Center for Conflict Management.                                                                            

Click here for the July 2012 Arab Social Media Report.

The following infographic by Khaled El Ahmad charts Facebook use in the Arab world.

Facebook Arab Users May 2012