In the summer of 2016, an unlikely friendship arose between people from half a world away. Abu Sin is a nineteen-year-old from Saudi Arabia whose nickname aptly translates to mean “toothless one.” Christina Crockett is a twenty-one-year-old all-American girl who is well suited in the realm of social media. The young woman from California broadcasts herself on YouNow, a platform that allows her to livestream herself to her over 700,000 followers and allows her to invite others onto her broadcast. It was with this technology that brought Abu and Christina together and later became the reason why they split apart.
Their first videos were endearing attempts at cross-cultural exchange. Christina’s knowledge of Arabic was nonexistent, and Abu Sin spoke only a few words of English. In their first video, they still communicated a clear message to each other; this is who I am, and I accept you as who you are. The only words that they both understood were “I love you,” which was used in the context of gratitude towards each other. Their subsequent videos showed Abu showing his modest English improvements, Christina attempting to understand him and at one point bringing a translator to help her. One video even records both of them dancing to Arabic music together, which became a huge hit, especially across the Arab world. As a result of their friendship, both of their accounts gained thousands of followers.
Misfortune struck when Saudi officials arrested Abu for unethical behavior. When inquired about Abu Sin’s arrest, Riyadh Police spokesman Col. Fawaz Al-Mayman said that “His videos received many comments and many of the commenters of the general public demanded for him to be punished for his actions….The two of them composed enticing videos which received thousands of followers and viewers from all over the world within a short period of time. Most of the viewers were from the Arab world. Abu Sin, nicknamed for his projecting, view them as completely absurd. Three years in prison for making flirtatious conversation with another peer of the opposite gender? In Saudi Arabia, the punishment is relatively mundane for a country that follows an ideology that regularly inflicts harsh punishments on those who go against their strict interpretation of the Quran.
To truly understand why arresting Abu Sin was a necessity for the Saudi regime, one must learn about the moral underpinning of the regime itself, Wahhabism. The ideology is the extremely traditional view of Islam that believes that everyone should live as they did in the early days of Islam and Muhammad and takes its namesake from its founder Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Born and raised in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula, al-Wahhab went on to study Islam in Mecca, Medina, and Basra. He developed the idea that over time, Islam had become corrupted by polytheistic practices that insulted the prophet, Muhammad. Throughout his life, al-Wahhab preached a doctrine of fundamentalism that aimed to “purify” Islam. When he returned home with his newfound ideology, his teachings were condemned by Islamic scholars close and beyond. They agreed that al-Wahhab interpretations were too strict of an interpretation of the Quran. Eventually, under threat by powerful leaders in the area, al-Wahhab was sent into exile.
Making his way south, he encountered the Bin Saud family who ruled over Diriyah, and together they formed a pact in 1744 that would alter the fate of Islam forever. They agreed that together they would bring the Arabs back to the true principles of Islam and the teachings of Muhammad as they see fit. In this power arrangement, Bin Saud would act as the political and military authority, and al Wahhab would be the religious and moral foundation of their rule. Together they would wage war against rival tribes and conquer the Arabian Peninsula, spreading Wahhabism where it went.
The House of Saud went through periods of fortune and despair for the succeeding centuries and in 1915 made a pact with the British to become a protectorate under their authority in exchange for doing the British’s bidding in the region. In 1932, the modern state of Saudi Arabia was established, but it was in until 1938 when vast oil fields were discovered under Saudi territory which led to the accumulation of wealth unprecedented in world history. To give a picture of how immense their wealth is, by 2016 the Saudi state oil company, Saudi Aramco, is estimated to be worth between $1.25 trillion and $10 trillion, making it the most valuable company in the world.
What has Saudi Arabia done with their immense wealth? Fulfilling their pact with al-Wahhab, the Saudis not only established a religious theocracy at home but also began to fund madrassas around the world. Since the 1960s, the Saudis have spent an estimated $100 billion setting up madrassas worldwide. Other moderate strains of Islam do not stand a chance against a barrage of Saudi money that is funding Islamic education. To put that into perspective, the Soviet Union only spent $7 billion funding communist ideology worldwide during their entire existence. In developing countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan where the choice is often to attend a madrassa or receive no education at all, many young men are being indoctrinated into extremism. In Pakistan alone, 24,000 madrassas are funded by Saudi Arabian money. The Saudi Ministry of Education publishes textbooks that are lamented with intolerance; preaching hatred of infidels and violent jihad toward unbelievers.
Living in a region where Wahhabism is the sole accepted ideology will seem very foreign to anyone who has lived their lives in Western Society. Several contrasts between the cultures include a woman’s testimony is worth half that as a man, the penalty for theft is getting a hand chopped off, Adultery results in death by stoning, and both homosexuality and going against the faith means death. The values of Wahhabism is dependent on the strict interpretation of the Quran that promotes division and war against infidels. One must look no further than the Islamic State to see Wahhabism come to fruition in its most dangerous and mutant form. The Islamic State claims that their interpretation of Wahhabism is the only way to practice Islam and believe that their actions are carrying out the will of Allah. Many of its soldiers were taught in Saudi-funded madrassas. But as coalition forces move forward with their offensive on Mosul, it’s safe to say that the Islamic State’s days are numbered.
At the moment, Saudi Arabia holds the crown of the Wahhabist mantle due to their vast influence on Islam worldwide. Their entire regime is built on extremism, and any inclination toward moderation is a threat to the power of the House of Saud. That is why it was necessary to present Abu Sin with such a severe punishment because his seemingly trivial actions of free expression on the internet were a huge risk to the Saudi regime. The 21st century is poised to interrupt the standard doctrines of Saudi Arabian Wahhabist ethos due to the emergence of internet access. What makes the internet such a disruptive force is that it provides the capabilities for people to educate themselves about cultures other than their own.
It has already been seen what the power of cyber-connectivity has done at a large scale. Social media platforms were the primary outlet that activists used to organize the Arab Spring in the early 2010s. But at a small scale, even glimpses of other cultures would be enough to make people question the tenets of their society. Take, for example, a Muslim refugee from Kuwait named Sarah who moved to the United States three years ago to escape her Muslim marriage. This woman grew up in a society that holds women to be second class citizens and that education was not necessary for her. The catalyst that pushed Sarah over the line to flee her situation by watching livestreams of people on the internet and seeing how “people can just be people and not objects.”
It was livestreams that educated and motivated Sarah to seek refuge in America. By seeing the world through a different lens, she concluded that Western liberal values were the ones she wanted to live under. It was livestreams that opened Abu Sin’s window, and thousands of viewers across the Arab world that watched him, to The West through his interactions with a young American woman. It is no wonder why the Saudis want to put him in prison for three years.
As a result of his actions, Abu Sin ended up spending ten days in jail. Upon his released, he appeared on an evening television program on one of Saudi Arabia’s most popular television networks, MBC. On the program, he denounced his behavior and promised never to use YouNow again. Abu Sin may be a free man in Saudi society, but is he really free? Faced with the consequences of his actions, Abu Sin made a decision to retreat from his playful past and evolve into a new self that respects the law of his land. But the irony is that the law he respects has no respect for the individual. The ability to share ideas, even if just innocent flirtation in cyberspace, is a threat to the Saudi state. It will be interesting to see how Saudi Arabia will evolve its cyber police capabilities in the future and how harsh it will police the speech of its citizens. There are a number of Saudi citizens who are not only interacting with others on YouNow but live streaming Western life to their conservative households. As more people are exposed to new ideas of western society, the more it will make them question their own. Will Saudi Arabia bend to the desires of its populace or will it fight back by restricting internet access? It is a question that many regimes face, but looking at Saudi Arabia’s past, the answer seems clear.