Viral Pulpits: Clerics and the Sectarianization of the Gulf Online Sphere

By Alexandra Siegel, New York University

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Islam, Islamists, and the Media in a Changing Middle East workshop held at George Washington University on October 28, 2016.

Dubbed “Twitter Sheikhs” and “YouTube Preachers,” a diverse group of Sunni clerics have emerged as the superstars of the Gulf online sphere.[1] The four most popular Twitter accounts in both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are Sunni religious leaders.[2] Prominent cleric Mohammed al-Arefe tops the list in Saudi Arabia, with 15.8 million followers, while televangelist Mishary Rashid’s 11.4 million followers have made him the most popular Twitter user in Kuwait. Although news outlets, royal family members, pop stars, and soccer players hold these top spots in other Gulf monarchies, clerics aren’t far behind.

While their social media platforms have earned them titles including the “Brad Pitt of Muslim clerics” (Mohamed al-Arefe), or the “Dear Abby sheikh” (Ayed al-Qarni), their online celebrity status has far more substantive consequences then these nicknames suggest.[3] A wide variety of Sunni clerics—including ultra-conservative Salafis like Nabil al Awadhy, Adnan al-Arour, and Salem al-Rafei, Saudi Arabia’s sahwa (Islamic Awakening) Salafi clerics who draw influence from the Muslim Brotherhood such as Mohammad al-Arefe, Ayad al-Qarni, Nasir al-Omar, Abdul Aziz al-Tarifi, and Saad al-Buraik, and more mainstream Islamists like Qatar-based Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi—have increasingly used their social media platforms to incite anti-Shia hostility and deepen sectarian divisions across the region. From spreading hate speech to fundraising for armed groups, these clerics are playing an important role in entrenching sectarian divisions both on and offline.

Although their followings are smaller, Shia clerics and movements are also contributing to the sectarianization of the Gulf online sphere. Rather than using social media as a means of disseminating religious advice or jurisprudence, a variety of Shia clerics in the Gulf are using digital platforms to advance their own brands of Shia identity politics. Furthermore, while usually less overt than the derogatory rhetoric advanced by Sunni religious leaders, Shia clerics have also disseminated divisive anti-Sunni messages in the online sphere.

In this new media environment in which elites, extremist groups, media outlets, and everyday citizens interact on the same platforms, Sunni and Shia clerics are playing a key role in popularizing a more visible, mainstream form of sectarianism. While on the one hand, clerics have a long history of adapting to changing media technologies, the immediate, uncensored, and transnational nature of social media has changed the rules of the game. Clerics are promoting sectarian narratives in real-time that reach larger audiences than ever before, and have tangible consequences offline.

Social Media as Clerics’ Latest Pulpit

Sunni and Shia clerics alike have long relied on the prevailing media tools of the day to reach their followers. Centuries ago, Muslims would frequently travel long distances to consult clerics for advice and to receive authoritative legal opinions. This process was first transformed by books, and later by question and answer columns in magazines and newspapers, giving Muslims more direct access to religious guidance.[4] The advent of radio and television brought interactive talk shows in which clerics—particularly government-approved clerics—could be broadcast into their constituents’ living rooms and answer questions by phone.[5] In the 1970s, Ayatollah Khomeini’s sermons were dispersed covertly on magnetic tapes in souks and bazaars in Iran. Beginning in the 1990s, the development of satellite television also enabled clerics to take advantage of quasi-independent media platforms, building larger networks and gaining more freedom to produce content.

More recently, clerics have used the rise of Internet access and the growing popularity of social media to broaden their reach. Shia and Sunni religious leaders alike have developed websites, Twitter and Facebook accounts, and YouTube channels to reach their followers.[6] These platforms contain links to religious Q & A, video sermons, fatwa libraries, and accounts where followers can donate money.[7] Analysis of clerics’ online activity suggests that they behave quite strategically. For example, more political clerics are more likely to use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook and are more likely to direct their messages toward a domestic constituency. By contrast, clerics that have more religious, apolitical, doctrines tend to make greater use of their websites and produce content in a variety of languages designed to reach a global following.[8] Given that Gulf countries have some of the highest rates of Facebook and Twitter penetration and the youngest populations in the world, social media gives clerics access to larger and more diverse constituencies than ever before.[9]

Sunni Clerics’ Incitement of Sectarianism in the Online Sphere

Recent research that I have conducted at NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab suggests that Saudi Sunni clerics—particularly ultra-conservative and sahwa Salafi clerics—are playing a key role in spreading anti-Shia narratives in the Saudi Twittersphere. Using a large dataset of Saudi tweets collected between February and November 2015 containing anti-Shia slurs[10], I measure the degree to which clerics are responsible for spreading sectarian hate speech through Saudi Twitter networks in the aftermath of diverse violent events. My results show that Saudi clerics were highly influential in spreading anti-Shia rhetoric and increasing the number of Saudi Twitter users tweeting such language in the aftermath of Houthi military advances in Yemen in February and March 2015, as well as following the Russian intervention in Syria in late September 2015. Particularly influential clerics in the dataset included Saudi sahwa clerics Mohammed al-Arefe, and Abdul Azziz al-Tarifi and Saudi-based Syrian Salafi cleric Muhammad Al-Munajjid. Their tweets containing sectarian slurs—as well as those sent by other clerics—were retweeted frequently by other popular Twitter users who then spread their messages through the network. Clerics also tweeted early on in the aftermath of violent events, directly instigating upticks in the overall volume of sectarian rhetoric.

The following tweets illustrate the types of derogatory anti-Shia language that appears in my dataset. For example, in April 2015, Saudi Sheikh Nasser al-Omar told his 1.65 million Twitter followers, “it is the responsibility of every Muslim to take part in the Islamic world’s battle to defeat the Safawis [derogatory term linking the Arab Shia to Iran] and their sins, and to prevent their corruption on earth.” In a video posted on his Twitter account, he tells dozens of Saudi men seated in a mosque that their “brothers” in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan are fighting a jihad, or holy war, against the Safawi.[11] Giving another example of how this language appears in my dataset, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Tarifi tweeted in February 2015, “Jews and Christians did not used to collude with the rafidha [Shia rejectionists] as they do today in this country and every country.”

Plotting the daily volume of clerics’ tweets containing sectarian rhetoric relative to the overall volume of anti-Shia tweets in the Saudi Twittersphere offers an illustration of this phenomenon. The spikes in the plot of clerics’ anti-Shia tweets (shown below in green) occur at the same time as spikes in the overall volume of sectarian tweets in the Saudi Twittersphere (shown below in black). By contrast, as a point of comparison, tweets containing sectarian slurs sent by pro-ISIS accounts (shown below in red), which tweeted anti-Shia rhetoric frequently but were not influential in spreading such rhetoric throughout the Saudi Twittersphere, follow a very different pattern. This finding is also backed up by more rigorous statistical analysis of the timing of clerics’ tweets as well as their positions within retweet networks.


Data: NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) Lab. Figures: Alexandra Siegel

This proliferation of anti-Shia hate speech on social media has had substantive consequences on the ground. For example, Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia population has been alarmed by the vehemence of online rhetoric condemning them as false Muslims and suggesting that they are not loyal citizens. In this climate, the Saudi Shia population has increasingly feared for its safety.[12]

More tangibly, Sunni clerics across the Gulf have used social media to encourage their followers to donate money to militia groups or even take up arms themselves in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria. For example, in May 2012, a group of prominent sahwa clerics calling themselves the “Ulema Committee to Support Syria” created a group on Facebook, organizing a fundraising drive for Sunni civilians in Syria, and calling for greater Gulf intervention in the conflict. For the Saudi government, this action crossed a red line, and the government summoned the clerics to Riyadh to ban them from soliciting donations.[13] Additionally, in 2013, the Kuwaiti government banned the television show of Shafi al-Ajmi, a prominent haraki (activist) Salafi cleric who had called on his supporters to torture and kill fighters in Syria linked to Hezbollah both on TV and through his Twitter account and YouTube channel.

Despite these governmental attempts to ban clerics from involvement in the Syria conflict, popular Saudi Salafi cleric Abdullah bin Mohammad bin Suleiman Muhaisini, who is currently living in Syria, has developed an online media empire aimed at funding and supporting various Sunni armed groups fighting the Assad regime. He has reportedly raised millions of dollars in support of militias on the ground.[14] Along these lines, following the Russian intervention in Syria late September 2015, dozens of Saudi clerics called on Arab and Muslim countries to “give all moral, material, political and military” support to jihad against Syria’s government and its Iranian and Russian backers. The clerics signed an online statement saying, “The holy warriors of Syria are defending the whole Islamic nation. Trust them and support them … because if they are defeated, God forbid, it will be the turn of one Sunni country after another.”[15] In this way, by using their social media presence to spread hostile anti-Shia messages and encouraging their domestic constituents in the Gulf to take sectarian stances or actions in ongoing regional conflicts, Sunni clerics are elevating sectarian tensions both on and offline. 

Clerics and Online Politicization of Shia Identity

Although their online presence is less pervasive, Shia clerics and religious movements are also contributing to the sectarianization of the online sphere. Motivated by ongoing social and political unrest among Shia populations in the Gulf, many Shia religious leaders have advanced their own forms of identity politics in the online sphere. Qualitative research suggests that the Shia online presence in the Gulf context is particularly politicized. Recent analysis of Twitter accounts suggests that nearly half of the social media messages transmitted by Shia clerics and organizations in the Gulf are political and tend to be primarily focused on domestic—rather than transnational—Shia politics.[16]

While the origins of Shia identity politics in the Gulf are complex and have deep historical roots, the politicization of Shia identities has been accelerated by the advent of social media. As online tools have diminished state monopoly on media outlets, citizens in the Gulf are now able to access real-time information about events occurring across the globe. Given that the public expression of Shia identity has often been tightly restricted, social media has emerged as an important outlet for marginalized Shia populations to express political disaffection. Shia clerics including Hadi Al Modarresi, Muhammad al Hussaini, Sadiq Al Shirazi, Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, Faisal al Awami, Abdulrahman al Hobail, and Abdullah Al Ghuraifi, as well as Shia organizations like Al-Wefaq Society, Amal Society, and Da’wa Islamic Society have played a prominent role in disseminating content.[17] Gulf regimes view this online Shia activism as particularly threatening, and have worked to arrest and intimidate its leaders.[18]

While on the one hand Shia clerics and religious movements’ online activity has bolstered political opposition movements in the Gulf, their mixing of religious and political messages has also made it difficult for Shia citizens to engage and bridge the divide with Sunni reformers. For example, although in the early days of the Arab Spring, Sunni and Shia opposition groups in Saudi Arabia collaborated to organize a country-wide “Day of Rage” against the monarchy, relations soon soured and Shia political opposition has often been portrayed as a sectarian demand, rather than a more universal call for representation and political freedom.[19]

Social media has also facilitated the spread of hostile anti-Sunni rhetoric advocated by Shia religious leaders. For example, Sheikh Yasser al-Habib, a Kuwaiti televangelist who was jailed in Kuwait and now resides in the UK uses his social media accounts to disseminate a constant barrage of anti-Sunni content. From cheering the deaths of prominent Sunnis to referring to Muhammad’s wife Aisha as an “enemy of God,” al-Habib’s social media messages and YouTube videos have spread virally.[20] Additionally, numerous Shia religious media outlets with strong online presences have emerged in the Gulf, advocating hyper-sectarian jingoistic discourse.[21] However, unlike the overt expression of anti-Shia hostility by Sunni clerics, Shia religious leaders and organizations have mostly employed somewhat less incendiary language. For example, Shia clerics and media outlets will emphasize the need to fight “terrorists,” and sometimes “Wahhabis,” but generally refrain from from directly encouraging a war against Sunnis.

Taken together, while Shia clerics and organizations in the Gulf have been instrumental in using online tools to organize opposition movements and cultivate a new sense of political awareness among Gulf Shia populations, their role in the sectarianization of the online sphere has inhibited cross-sectarian cooperation and the development of non-sectarian opposition movements. Furthermore, the use of antagonistic, thinly veiled anti-Sunni narratives contributes to the general climate of sectarian hostility in the Gulf online sphere.


While Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were touted at the beginning of the Arab Spring as revolutionary tools for throwing off the shackles of state repression and achieving political freedoms, they have also bred darker political forces. Sunni and Shia clerics and sectarian media outlets have cultivated large online networks, which they use to spread divisive and hostile rhetoric to large audiences on a daily basis. Gory imagery from ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria are frequently used to drum up sectarian animosity. In this new media climate, dehumanizing and derogatory rhetoric that was once the purview of extremist groups has become more mainstream, and sectarian tensions continue to mount.

Despite these distressing developments, online tools nonetheless present a useful opportunity for religious leaders to develop compelling counter-sectarian narratives. For example, following an anti-Shia terror attack in Al-Ahsa in 2014, Sunni and Shia clerics issued a joint statement saying, “Those who carried out this attack do not represent a specific [Islamic] sect or school of thought, rather these are adherents of a malicious satanic ideology.” A prominent Shia cleric added, “Those who carried out this terrorist attack wanted to explode the national social fabric and incite sectarian fitna [civil strife].”[22] As these statements suggest, clerics have the potential to use social media to spread cooperative, counter-sectarian messages to their followers.

Unfortunately, as long as Gulf governments continue to pursue domestic and foreign policies that breed sectarian divisions to suppress opposition and bolster their power, and as long as clerics can use sectarian animosity to rally their constituencies, it seems unlikely that religious elites will spontaneously begin to use their large online followings for more positive purposes. Given that the most influential online actors have strategic incentives to use new media to incite tensions, it seems the very tools that were once considered harbingers of progressive ideologies and democratization will continue to perpetuate and exacerbate Gulf sectarianism and impede political reform.

[1] Al Monitor. 2013. “Twitter Sheikhs of Saudi Arabia.”; Cockburn, Patrick. 2013. The Independent.

[2] Social Backers Statistics (KSA) October 2016. Social Backers Statistics (Kuwait) October 2016.

[3] Al Monitor. 2013. “Twitter Sheikhs of Saudi Arabia.”

[4] As’ad, Muhammed. 2013.“Twitter: When Clerics Go Online.” Jakarta Post.

[5] Eickelman, Dale F., and Jon W. Anderson. 2003. New media in the Muslim world: The emerging public sphere. Indiana University Press.

[6] Although many clerics have a significant online presence, others like Saudi Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh have railed against social media as “a source of all evil and devastation” and a “council for jokesters.”

[7] Mugbar, Safa. 2014. “Religious Use of Social Media in the Gulf and Iraq.” Gulf Research Center Cambridge.

[8] Mugbar, Safa. 2014. “Religious Use of Social Media in the Gulf and Iraq.” Gulf Research Center Cambridge.

[9] Al-Balawi, Y. and J. Sixsmith. 2015. “Identifying Twitter influencer profiles for health promotion in Saudi Arabia.” Health Promotion International; Al-Arabiya. 2015. “41 percent of Saudis have Twitter accounts: study.” Al-Arabiya.

[10] These slurs include rafidah, safawi, majous, as well as variations of these terms—each of which are dehumanizing epithets, which imply that the Shia are not true Muslims. Each tweet in my dataset contained at least one anti-Shia slur, identified using dictionary-based text analysis methods. Qualitative analysis suggests that these tweets did in fact express anti-Shia sentiments. The entire dataset contained over 9 million tweets, about 500,000 of which contained location meta-data indicating they were sent from Saudi Arabia.

[11] Batrawy, A. 2015. Saudi-Iran rivalry over Yemen deepens Mideast sectarianism. The Washington Post.

[12] Murphy, Brian. 2015. “Saudi Shiites Worry About Backlash from Yemen War.” Washington Post.

[13] Wehrey, Frederic. 2012. “Saudi Arabia Reigns in its Clerics on Syria.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[14] Bulos, Nabih. 2016. “Meet the Saudi cleric who’s rallying Syrian rebels.” Los Angeles Times.

[15] McDowell, Angus. 2015. “Saudi opposition clerics make sectarian call to jihad in Syria.”

[16] Hardman, Maria. 2015. “Ayatollah Online: Shia identity politics and social media in the Gulf.” Gulf Research Institute.

[17] Hardman, Maria. 2015. “Ayatollah Online: Shia identity politics and social media in the Gulf.” Gulf Research Institute.

[18] Al-Bawaba. 2015. “Bahrain questions imprisoned Shia cleric over social media posts.”

[19] Wehrey, Frederic M. 2013. Sectarian politics in the Gulf: from the Iraq war to the Arab uprisings. Columbia University Press.

[20] Gye, Hugo. 2014. ”Preacher Stirs Race Tensions.”

[21] Feldner, Y. 2015. “Fitna TV: The Shi’ite-Bashing Campaign On Salafi TV Channels And Social Media.”

[22]Al-Sharq al-Awsat. 2014. “Saudi clerics warn against sectarian conflict as anti-terror efforts continue.” Al-Sharq al-Awsat.