Our cleric and their Lady Gaga

As published in Alarabiya.net In the Arab World, we have our own weird and sometimes laughable way of boasting about achievements that we consider great.

When I was younger, this caused me a lot of embarrassment when I tried to tell my foreign friends about some of our achievements in Saudi Arabia or in the Arab World. Most of these achievements were either recalling the past or citing examples that did not prove we are special, unless the comparison was solely among Arabs.

Arab media and Twitter users have recently circulated the news of cleric Mohammed al-Arefi crossing one million followers on that controversial social website, which has become the most addictive platform among politicized individuals and activists. That large number– by Gulf and Arab standards– was compared to other peers of the cleric in the region like preachers, writers and athletes. Articles were written to analyze the achievement; some articles defended the cleric, and others attempted to question his influence.

Queen Rania of Jordan ranks at the top of the list, surpassing al-Arefi with more than 10,000 followers, while respected clerics and new preachers occupied other top spots on the list with numbers far below 2 million. All the while, eyes, pens and brains are analyzing and connecting the numbers with their ability to influence the street, and sing praises of that digital achievement that many thought to be special.

During the 1980s, some foreign friends used to ask me what did the Arab soccer teams achieve. I used to boast about how Saudi Arabia won the Asian Cup of Nations, while at the same time shy away from their follow-up question: so why did Saudi Arabia never qualify for the World Cup? There was confusion in my mind between simple imagined pride and the true value of an achievement that gets worldwide recognition. Would we ever achieve something real that we can be proud of boasting about without fake courtesy from other footballing nations?

I don’t like comparisons, but they remain the best tool to expose paradoxes. We do not necessarily mean to prefer one over the other, but simply to but to clarify the picture so we, as individuals with brains, can judge the real value of what to boast about. American singer Lady Gaga topped the list of Twitter users with 27.4 million followers, followed by teen pop star Justin Bieber with 25.5 million followers. U.S. President Barack Obama ranked sixth with 17.7 million followers. The Dalai Lama has 4.7 million followers, and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has 3.2 million followers.

I’m not trying to belittle the number of two million followers that al-Arefi has, but let us not look at things the way I used to during the 1980s. We are no longer living on isolated, separate islands from this world. Let our ambition on the internet be to compete with world records, and stop boasting to each other as if this world has nobody but us.

(Yasser al-Ghaslan has worked as a reporter and editor in several Saudi newspapers and is the founder of themedianote.com, a website focusing on Arab media issues. He currently works at the Gulf Organization for Industrial Consulting in Doha. He can be followed on Twitter at: @alghaslan. This article first appeared in Saudi Arabia’s al-Watan on July 29, 2012)

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