Meet Saudi Arabia's Biggest (and Most Controversial) Twitter Star

Saudi Arabia continues to coddle extremist preachers like Saleh bin Awad al-Moghamsy while preaching brotherhood and tolerance.

Saudi Arabia is changing, some say. The authoritarian desert kingdom is becoming more responsive to the will of its people and the demands of the global information economy, say others. This idea is rooted in the notion that technology is forcing the austere monarchy to join the Internet age. Indeed, even Saudi Arabia’s oppressive religious police recently joined Twitter.

But, as it turns out, that same police force reportedly shut down 10,117 Twitter accounts in 2014 for “religious and ethical violations” online. Many Saudi citizens have been subjected to harsh sentences for online activism, including by terror courts; blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to an astonishing 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail for a conviction just reaffirmed by the kingdom’s top court.

Perhaps the most telling cautionary tale is the case of a Saudi cleric named Saleh bin Awad al-Moghamsy, appointed as preacher at one of the most historic and venerated mosques in the Islamic world: the Quba Mosque in Medina. According to a recent study of influence on social media that looked not just accounts’ number of followers but also the intensity of user actions such as “retweets” and “favorites,” Moghamsy is the single most influential Saudi non-royal on social media.

Perhaps Moghamsy’s most shocking comment was delivered on a Qatari state TV program in 2012, when the cleric ruled that Osama Bin Laden died with more sanctity and honor in the eyes of Allah than any “Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, apostates and atheists,” whom he described as “infidels.” Indeed, Moghamsy implied that any Muslim dies with more honor than a non-Muslim, irrespective of the individual’s character or worldly deeds.

Moghamsy has a particular penchant for demonizing Jews and Judaism, even claiming last year that “it is well known that the hatred of the Jews for the Muslims is eternal.” Speaking on Dubai TV later that year, Moghamsy further explained that “Allah has told us that the Jews only have jealousy, loathing, and hatred towards the Prophet [Muhammad] and his people.” During last summer’s Gaza war, Moghamsy’s Twitter account stated that “Allah only gathered Jews in the land of Palestine to destroy them.” He has also misleadingly told audiences that, following the June 1967 Six Day War, Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion remarked that “tomorrow we will take control of Khaybar and Yathrib [Medina].”

And though the Jews are among his favorite topics, Moghamsy also has plenty to say about others. He has called Shiites a “misguided sect” and similarly claimed that the Christians have “squandered their religion.” The Christian religion in his view is “falsified and null and void,” and thus he forbids faithful Muslims from felicitating Christians on any of their holidays, for instance wishing them a Merry Christmas.

As for the ideal role of women in society, he has ruled that “Allah created woman as an ornament in the eyes of men.”

None of Saleh Moghamsy’s offensive remarks, not even his controversial Bin Laden comments, seem to have affected his cozy ties with the Saudi royal family, including with Saudi Arabia’s current king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

A mere three months after the preacher outlined his Islamic supremacist views with reference to Bin Laden, Saudi Arabia’s then-Crown Prince Salman chaired a board meeting for a cultural-religious research center in Medina that was run by Moghamsy. Not only did Moghamsy get to participate in the meeting, it was covered by the regime’s state news wire, which mentioned that the cleric presented the country’s heir with a commemorative gift.

Also at the table with Moghamsy for a meeting at the center were two of Salman’s most influential sons: Faisal and Mohammed, the latter of whom is now Saudi Arabia’s defense minister and in line for the throne as deputy crown prince. In 2012 when Moghamsy was hospitalized for abdominal surgery, the cleric thanked Salman for personally calling to “be reassured” on his health.