Those familiar with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible know that the play is inspired by the events of the Salem witch trials that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. Miller wrote the play in the 1950s during the era of McCarthyism in the United States. Communist influence was considered a threat and accusations of treason and being communist sympathizers were a common occurrence.
But what if we reset Miller’s play in today’s modern context? For example, the “treason” hysteria that has been sweeping the social media scene in Saudi Arabia is a phenomenon similar to the witch hunt in Miller’s play. In fact, accusations of treason and “traitor” name-calling (takhwin) is made easier with the use of social media platforms. In The Crucible, trials are carried out for those accused of witchcraft. In today’s takhwin, everyone can go through someone’s previous tweets (even their likes and retweets), screen capture them and take them in or out of context to circulate them with treason related hashtags. This phenomenon has become significantly on the rise in the past few weeks.
Abdallah Al-Fawzan, member of the Shura Council, said in a television interview last week that everyone has the right to call someone a “traitor” if they fail to defend their nation or decide to remain quiet. Al-Fawzan’s remarks divided the Saudi public opinion into two groups. A smaller group criticized such behavior arguing that this attitude is worse than the international media campaigns targeting Saudi Arabia, The majority, however, received his remarks positively and saw it as an open invitation and a legitimization to go after others on social media.
— في الصورة (@Fealsora) October 29, 2018
The literary themes of The Crucible contain striking similarities to our present day situation. The takhwin phenomenon follows a similar pattern to the hysteria experienced by the residents of Salem. In Miller’s play, women accuse each other of witchcraft in an attempt to distance themselves from suspicion and to save themselves by naming others. Similarly, the collective pressure witnessed on social media platforms has resulted in name-calling users with different views or even those who decide to be quiet. Accusing others of treason is an attempt to save oneself since not taking a stance, according to Al-Fawzan, is enough to raise suspicions.
The hysteria and accusation of takhwin has replace that of takfir (accusing a Muslim of apostasy) which, for decades, was usually directed at those who challenged the cultural or religious status quo. Saudi actors, singers and writers were usual victims of takfir. After stripping the religious police of their powers and arresting a number of religious figures, the takfir accusation was no longer relevant. However, the void was soon replaced by takhwin as it became an effective way to exclude and accuse those who express contrary or different views.
Social media is the only space for many in the Arab world to voice their opinions and get familiar with the news away from the traditional media’s rules and restrictions. However, this space is becoming increasingly restrictive and has lost so much of its credibility and appeal. As a result, those who express different views find it safer to remain quiet or to quit social media platforms altogether. The developers of social media platforms, especially Twitter, have an ethical responsibility to protect their users and to live up to their obligation of providing a breathing space for peaceful exchange that is highly needed by many around the world.