Commentary Magazine


Topic: Wahhabi Islam

Wahhabi Intolerance in the 21st Century

In early 2011, along with a handful of other American journalists, I interviewed Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in Jerusalem. Ayalon pressed the need for recognition of Israel on the part of the Palestinian leadership–but not in English or Hebrew. “Say it in Arabic, to your own children and to your own people,” Ayalon had said. The habit of Arab leaders to say one thing in English and another in Arabic has been a hallmark of Palestinian politics perfected by Yasir Arafat, and it’s long been a sticking point in Israel’s objection to Palestinian media manipulation.

“Say it in Arabic” encompasses more than just the Palestinian Authority. American intelligence agencies have been unusually public about their need for Arabic speakers. The language barrier gives Arab leaders unrestrained leeway to say whatever they want, and tracking what these leaders say in Arabic to their home audiences has been an essential part of attempting to hold these leaders accountable. So it’s encouraging to see a new report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies spearheaded by FDD’s vice president for research (and COMMENTARY contributor) Jonathan Schanzer.

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In early 2011, along with a handful of other American journalists, I interviewed Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in Jerusalem. Ayalon pressed the need for recognition of Israel on the part of the Palestinian leadership–but not in English or Hebrew. “Say it in Arabic, to your own children and to your own people,” Ayalon had said. The habit of Arab leaders to say one thing in English and another in Arabic has been a hallmark of Palestinian politics perfected by Yasir Arafat, and it’s long been a sticking point in Israel’s objection to Palestinian media manipulation.

“Say it in Arabic” encompasses more than just the Palestinian Authority. American intelligence agencies have been unusually public about their need for Arabic speakers. The language barrier gives Arab leaders unrestrained leeway to say whatever they want, and tracking what these leaders say in Arabic to their home audiences has been an essential part of attempting to hold these leaders accountable. So it’s encouraging to see a new report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies spearheaded by FDD’s vice president for research (and COMMENTARY contributor) Jonathan Schanzer.

With the understanding that in the age of social media it’s no longer sufficient just to analyze Arab leaders’ public speeches and sermons in mind, FDD contracted with the Washington-based technology firm ConStrat to analyze six months worth of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media messages from Saudi clerics in English and Arabic. The result is contained in the in-depth report, written by Schanzer and FDD research associate Steven Miller, “Facebook Fatwa: Saudi Clerics, Wahhabi Islam and Social Media.” The whole report is worth reading, as is this interview the Jerusalem Post conducted with Schanzer, but the report makes clear there have been both promising and troubling trends:

The tone and tenor of the conversations ConStrat coded was mixed, but was generally marked by an absence of overt militancy. This does not, however, indicate an absence of intolerant or xenophobic positions. According to the data scored with ConStrat’s proprietary VX software, views that were hostile to America, the West, and non-Muslim or secular cultures represented nearly 52 percent of the English data, while in Arabic they represented 75 percent….

Saudi Arabia’s success in reducing militant online content is a positive sign that the Saudi government can, when sufficiently motivated, temper the radicalism that percolates in the kingdom. This is also a sign that when the U.S. properly applies pressure, it can have a noticeable impact.

However, the kingdom’s recent attempts to convince the West that it is promoting “religious tolerance” and embracing change do not resonate with the content mined during this study.

As Schanzer told the Post, that’s not a lot of violence, but it’s an overwhelming amount of intolerance and misogyny. And it explains why Ayalon’s appeal to “say it in Arabic” remains good advice for proponents of true peace and reform in the Arab world.

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