Saudi youth fight IS propaganda

Young Saudis disseminate popular songs across social media to counter Islamic State propaganda.

al-monitor Youths rest in the Saudi city of Duba, Aug. 31, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Al Hwaity.

Topics covered

youth, twitter, social media, saudi arabia, islamic state, headscarves, facebook

Aug 19, 2014

A song was recently released by fighters from the Islamic State (IS) under the name, “Oh headscarf, where are you?” Saudi youths responded angrily to this song, know locally as “al-Sheilah” (the headscarf). The song is popular poetry which is meant to excite those participating in combat. Yet it evolved into a competition between the IS singers and youth groups who reject the Islamic State's strand of thought.

Al-Sheilah talks about the preparation of fighters who wrap their heads with a piece of fabric, which is usually black and in the shape of a small turban inspired by Afghan clothing. This style was popularized by fighters who participated in the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and it evolved into these groups' military uniform. It became a sign of manliness and strength, according to the poems that describe the uniform.

But Sheilah was met with many responses from youths who made and shared video clips expressing their rejection of IS thought, which attempts to attract many youth fighters to its ranks through social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Many youths who belong to Saudi tribes recorded rebuttals to this poem and published clips on YouTube. These youths included members of the Harb tribe, the Aqaliyyah from Matir and Shamr, and others. They have turned al-Sheilah into a battlefield, circulating their responses via mobile phones and even ringtones.

Youths who participated in anti-IS Sheilahs emphasized that they are confronting the terrorist groups with their own technological weapons. Sheilah incited many responses from Saudi youths, many of whom expressed their rejection of “the lying temptations of these [terrorist] groups” through comments on YouTube clips. They emphasized that, “The responses are much stronger than ‘the IS Sheilah,’ which failed to prove its staying power in the face of the strong storm that it unleashed.”

These responses also kept the same meter, rhyme and tune as the original. Each response begins with the one singer in the middle of a group of youths, who repeat a “chorus” with only a single line of poetry repeated throughout. The remainder of the poem is improvised and expresses the rejection of IS ideas. The resulting video clips are circulated by phone.

Samir Mansour called these poems “a response to those who accuse Saudi youths of sympathizing with terrorist groups.” He continued: “It is not possible to deny that there is are some youth who are sympathetic with the organization, but they have been deceived and brainwashed. They do not represent the wide swath of Saudi youth.”

These responses are not limited to “lazy youth,” as some call them. They include well-known poets and mosque imams including Sheikh Sarraj al-Zahrani, the imam and preacher of the al-Amira al-Jawhara Bint Saud al-Kabir mosque in Riyadh. In his poetry, he criticized IS juridical rulings, which impact the lives of Muslims in Syria and Iraq who violate Islam. Yet this line of thought was too close to that which the youths rejected, leading some of the imam’s followers and some al-Sheilah singers to demand that the poem be changed “so that it does not conform with IS’ Sheilah.”

Eventually, requests emerged for these responses to be re-recorded and distributed. They were circulated via social media because their “contents affect the souls of the youths,” and so that “these poems do not become quickly fade from memory,” in the words of Fahd al-Yami. As Yami clarified: “This phenomenon, like any other, may burn out. This direct youth response to these terrorist organizations using accessible modern media needs support from the Ministry of Information.” He continued: “The youth still wait for religious authorities to tell them whether or not to do this, but the initiative has fallen into their hands. I felt great happiness when I saw these youth rejecting [the Islamic State's] false jihad.”

The attraction by a shorter route to heaven

IS was intent on targeting Saudi youth and attracting them to the bloody areas under their control. According to IS followers, this is because the group believes “Saudi youth will be easily convinced by youth from other Arab states, who will play the tune of apostatizing, taking the quickest route to heaven, and the 72 virgins. Jihad alone shows the shortest routes of penitence and the attainment of all of heaven’s attractions.”

IS calls for the establishment of an Islamic state that will return life to the era of the rightly guided caliphs. This includes their clothing, behavior, and lifestyle, but the Internet and media are exempt, and are treated as an effective and easy means of reaching youths. The Islamic State's Twitter, Facebook and other social media forays have had a noticeable effect.

Yet, IS was helpless before the online campaign of rejection by Saudi youths, who began an indirect electronic war with the terrorist group. IS circulation of pictures and clips of execution and mass killing, which it recorded and published to spread fear and terror, actually became a means of inciting public opinion against the group. It seems that IS has found itself in a quagmire in the face of the continuing youth campaigns against it.

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