So apparently Mohammed Bin Salman has his own pet rabid Wahhabi cleric. Just in case you thought anything was going to be different after his putsch.
How Mohammed al-Arefe became the favorite preacher of ISIS recruits—and an ally of the Saudi government.
It was another of those online religious videos, the kind the world has come to expect with weary repugnance. It told Muslims they were forbidden to offer holiday greetings to their non-Muslim neighbors and community. But it didn’t stop there. The video advocated that Shia Muslim charity groups should be closed down because they are “enemies.” This was not simply a run-of-the-mill display of wanton prejudice captured on a shaky, low-definition cellphone. It was a high-end production, shot in super-HD on state-of-the-art cameras. The footage featured an articulate gentleman dressed in a white religious robe, delivering his message with easy, everyday stories. The camera panned around the room to reveal an intimate setting, like his living room—a Middle Eastern version of FDR’s fireside chats.
Although few in the West would recognize the man in the video, he is perhaps the Middle East’s most popular social media personality, a dominant presence on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat.
Who is he? A celebrity? An actor? Is he the head of some Arab state? A folk singer like Amr Diab? A sports icon like Dina Al-Sabah?
Actually, the man in the video was none other than Mohammed al-Arefe, an extremist religious leader based in Saudi Arabia, a revered cleric with more than 19 million social media followers, and a likely reach of millions more. But raw numbers probably understate his influence. Arefe’s videos are famous, his influence legendary. He is prolific on multiple platforms, averaging four to five “Snap fatwas” a day, along with 12 tweets and seven Facebook posts, to millions of young people who adhere to his every word. Arefe’s messages are distributed so as to attract and mobilize niche, targeted audiences. (Spoiler alert: Arefe wasn’t arrested in the latest version of Saudi Sopranos last week.)
If Arefe’s videos were merely intolerant, they wouldn’t be so noteworthy—the Middle East is full of retrograde clerics who promote abhorrent views. New data from my book Digital World War, which builds a database of ISIS defectors and identifies views from potential recruits, demonstrates that his videos are likely one of the biggest reasons young people from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East are traveling to Syria to join ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Using a technique called “exfluence” (which measures influence and exposure using mixed methods) I found that youth cited Arefe more than any other key influencer. Yet he’s largely gone virtually unnoticed in the Western media. How did a little-known religious leader, in a country full of religious leaders, a country that can censors its media and can arrest dozens of powerful political and business elites for “corruption” without filing any charges, quietly become one of the most influential clerics in the Middle East?
Indeed, just who is Mohammed al-Arefe?
He was born in a small suburb outside of Riyadh in 1970. He wanted to study medicine but was dissuaded by his parents and extended family members. Like many with his lower-class background, he turned to religious studies, which is usually the second or even third choice among those that go into the field. Arefe studied at Muhammad Ben Saud Islamic University, which grew out of the Riyadh Sharia Institute in the 1950s, getting his bachelor degree in theology and later a master’s in contemporary doctrines. But more importantly than his degrees was where he studied—Ben Saud was not considered a top place to study these subjects. The better-known scholars attended more-established schools in Medina and Mecca or went abroad to Al-Azhar, in Egypt. Arefe developed a chip on his shoulder; he wanted to be considered a top religious scholar, but his pedigree and background effectively blocked him from rising higher than a neighborhood leader. He was destined to be a small-town religious preacher, buried at the bottom of a religious hierarchy in the most orthodox country in the world.
But in the late 1980s, when he was in his 20s, Arefe started noticing a trend among his peers. They would pass around audio tapes of lectures and recitations, even smuggle audio tapes from other countries. These bombastic religious recordings, frowned upon by the Saudi religious establishment, were like baseball cards for many young students, to be traded, coveted and kept under lock and key. The viral nature of this extremist samizdat left an impression on Arefe, as he realized how new media and technology could generate an audience—and with it, power and authority.
Years before the advent of YouTube and other video websites, Arefe, started recording lectures on audiotape and with crude, point-and-shoot video cameras. Since his low status prevented him from growing larger congregations at the mosques, he saw the internet as a way to circumvent the religious hierarchies. Slowly, the videos started to make Arefe a recognizable name. He understood that what worked in an online video was quite different than what worked in a 50-minute live lecture. Body language mattered much more, as did interesting stories. Much of preaching was performance. And performance meant gaining and holding attention.
Arefe likes a good controversy. Though his firestorms sometimes cost him would-be supporters, his ratings and followers have only increased. Before embarking on a trip to Europe in 2012, he proclaimed that Danish women slept around so much that the majority did not know who fathered their children. The backlash from Middle Eastern and Western media was intense, but he did not apologize. Arefe has repeatedly sounded off against the West in homophobic and anti-Semitic diatribes. He has labeled the Iraq-based Shia cleric Ayatollah Sistani an “infidel” and has constantly preached that most Shias are “evil.” And he’s said that Muslims have been distracted from “conquering” the lands of the infidels by the U.S.’s war aims. True believers, Arefe expounds, should cut off the arms and legs of the enemy, break their skulls and ‘cause “bloodshed.” His ideology can be hard to distinguish from that of al Qaeda and ISIS.
Arefe works openly in Saudi Arabia—a country that whips bloggers for criticizing the government—but in 2014, he was banned from Britain by the Home Office after a series of incendiary sermons in Cardiff, Birmingham and London. A Home Office spokesperson called him “a threat to our society.”
He is also a danger to Saudi society who is inspiring a whole new group of preacher acolytes to spread his extreme views—exactly the sort of rabble-rouser the Saudi royal family should view as a threat to the kingdom’s stability and future success. Yet his soaring popularity insulates him from government pressure. Arefe has strategically positioned himself to speak against “the establishment”—as in, mainstream Saudi religious scholars, who tend to toe the government line—and the West, using rhetoric his followers eat up like hard candy. But he’s also proven useful to the government at times—most recently when he lashed out at Qatar for the ongoing Gulf crisis, which is feuding with Saudi Arabia over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and friendly relations with Iran. Arefe’s comments won acclaim from Saudi political leaders, who appreciated his remark that protecting the kingdom from geopolitical adversaries like Qatar is a “ religious obligation.”
So, while many princes were swept up in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s corruption crackdown this past week, Arefe has not been targeted, indicating the power he wields within the kingdom and beyond. The crown prince says he wants to promote moderate Islam and modernize the Saudi economy. But the Bill Gates of Saudi Arabia—entrepreneurial billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal—was arrested, while the Tony Robbins of extremism—Mohammed al-Arefe—remains free to spread his bile across the Middle East.
As Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s, “among the peoples of the world strange new vortices of power will appear unexpectedly.” Arefe’s path to fame and influence through the vortex of social media has made him powerful indeed. In a recent tweet, he referenced Robert Frost’s “Road Less Taken” poem with an image showing the “path to success.” Unfortunately, for many of his millions of followers, that path is becoming the norm