Citizens can’t distinguish between religious and political tweets
Everybody is tweeting these days. The new technology seems to have brought together two groups that we would have never expected to find together: politicians and people of religion. Separated by years of special fatwas and political upheavals, we find them united through tweeting. Together, they keep public opinion occupied and confused.
Tweeting has made the politician give up fiery speeches and long articles and take up the concise digital format. He must learn to tell his story in 20-30 words. For example, he can simply write: “I announce that I’m pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal,” end with a hashtag sign and go home. It’s that easy. With new technology, the politician no longer needs to go through the burdensome tasks of consulting advisers and writing an elaborate speech.
Twitter was not around when former US President George W. Bush declared his war on Iraq. He did it the old-fashioned way. He was sitting in the White House with pictures of his wife and daughters behind him as he, with a serious and measured tone, unleashed a war that refuses to die. Had Twitter been around then, he and his father, George H.W. Bush, would have probably tweeted their wars into existence. Not to worry. America today has a Twitter aficionado for president. Donald Trump is so fond of tweeting that his political rivals never miss an opportunity to poke fun at his nasty habit. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, joked about Trump’s Twitter wars.
Not to be outdone, people of religion too quickly adopted tweeting to spread fatwas left and right. Before Twitter started shutting down unwelcome accounts, the social media platform was overflowing with religious messages, doctrinal interpretations and messages of incitement. At the beginning of the Syrian crisis, politicians and media people found it useful to use extremist discourse borrowed from religious stars on the internet and vice versa. Political Islam was at its peak and religion and politics had become so intertwined that it was difficult to tell who was who in Twitterland. Politicians had turned into religious scholars or charlatans and religious scholars had turned into political stars. Each was tweeting in the domain of the other.
In the Arab world, the confusion between these two roles continues. Religious scholars have left their ivory towers and are mingling with politicians. Politics is based on pragmatism and not necessarily interested in the truth. That did not seem to bother religious scholars who, for the sake of fortune and power, were willing to overlook that aspect. Taking intellectual and doctrinal shortcuts for the purpose of mixing politics and religion has become so banal on social media platforms it seems we are living in a surrealist world.
Things are no better on the receiving end. Public opinion in the Arab world is divided. The fact remains, however, that the general public has given up on both politicians and political Islamists. People no longer trust that magical recipe of blessing governments composed of corrupt politicians just because those politicians crawled out from under the cover of political Islam.
Unfortunately, citizens in the Arab world are lost in an ocean of political tweets or, let us say, tweets that sound more like religious fatwas than political views. There is nothing in such tweets that can reassure citizens about their future and that of their country.
Digital technologies and social media platforms have facilitated instant communication with the public. The virtual political realities they have created, however, are far removed from reality. It is ironic that this phenomenon has made it possible for politics and religion to mingle and create what was once known as political Islam.