Technology is a phenomenon separate from the media, and does not play a fixed role in political and ideological conflicts. The Internet is the premier example of technology’s neutrality. It is a flexible tool that can be wielded by scientists and specialists while religious bodies can also use it to voice their criticism.
This simple argument about the Internet’s neutrality, applicable to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, is provoking controversy in Saudi Arabia. During a time when these sites have greatly contributed to the wave of change that has swept through other Arab countries, the Sharia-controlled government seeks to limit means of political and religious expression.
In Saudi Arabia, Twitter enables people to share various opinions. Some believe that users on this social-media site "insult the Prophet," as was the case in the charges brought against Hamza Kashghari, the young Saudi blogger who had a heart-to-heart with the Prophet online, only to find himself facing the death penalty.
Twitter is also seen as a "revolutionary" tool. One example of this is how @mujtahid (“studious” in Arabic) — a tweeting star — exposed the corruption of the royal family. For two months, @mujtahid has been tweeting about royal family members, and particularly about the extravagant cost of Abdul Aziz Bin Fahd's Palaces. @mujtahid tweeted, "Is it true that your palace in Riyadh, along with Yamamah's Palace, is larger than the King's? It has been said that it cost the state nearly 12 billion riyals because it is made up of several palaces, is this true? It has also been said that the real cost was 3 billion riyals and that the remaining nine billion were divided up between you Hariri?”
Other Saudis consider Twitter haram (forbidden by Islamic law). Recently, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, called upon Muslims to avoid it, as it is used to "spread lies" promoted by Hamza Kashghari, @mujtahid and other advocates of free media in the Kingdom.
For her part, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed wrote in the United Arab Emirates newspaper The National that this all seemed "ridiculous.” She wrote that, given the circumstances, it was ludicrous that there was a Facebook group calling for Kashgari’s execution "and for dozens to join them later on.”
"What is ironic is that you have Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal (the nephew of the Saudi King) who has recently invested $300 million (1.1 billion dirhams) in Twitter,” she added. The greatest irony is that social networking sites “have allowed the Muslim youth to promote their religious faith and culture in a way no one could have ever imagined, lifting geographical barriers and allowing them to discuss Islam in the modern era.”
The Saudi Grand Mufti was not the only one who called on "true Muslims" to boycott social media. In Pakistan, the manager of the "Mellat Facebook" website called on Muslims to deactivate their accounts on "the blasphemous Facebook." He took advantage of a seminar entitled Blasphemy Through Facebook and the Role of Muslim Youth in Social Networking to warn against the site, which offended millions of Muslims in 2010 due to a competition to draw the Prophet.
Paul Mutter from Foreign Policy In Focus (a project by the Institute of Policy Studies in the US) joined commentator Janmohamed in condemning the fatwa forbidding Twitter. He criticized Kashgari’s arrest, saying “Saudis can cite Kashghari as an example to others, i.e., to anyone who dares to write similar messages on the site. Amusingly enough, the Mufti missed the fact that it is Salafists who use Twitter the most and participate in the formulation of its policies.”