Riyadh: Two Saudi boys, one Sunni, another Shia, push their desks together and sit side-by-side smiling in a classroom.
Then teachers tell the boys their opposing sects are “evil” and they pull their desks apart, before their parents insist it is okay to be friends, and they walk off hand-in-hand.
These scenes were featured in a YouTube video posted online in November for a Saudi centre, funded under an endowment from the late king Abdullah, that is making a push on social media to counter Islamic extremism.
Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most conservative nations, has long been accused of fuelling extremism by promoting the teachings of 18th century Sunni preacher Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab.
Wahhab’s ideas have been decried as a driving force behind sectarian divisions in Islam and an inspiration to al Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
But Saudi authorities say they are working to counter extremist messages, and the Riyadh-based King Abdul Aziz Centre for National Dialogue (KACND) has intensified efforts to promote tolerance.
“The biggest challenge is how to compete with the ideas of ISIS,” said Habeeb al-Shammari, a media specialist with the centre, using an alternative acronym for IS.
Since seizing control of large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, the militants of IS have developed a sophisticated online presence, releasing slick and often gruesome videos to promote their hardline views.
The centre is trying “to stop this kind of propaganda” with its own online campaigns, said the head of its New Media department Ali al-Shehri.
“We work very hard in social media, to spread our message, to convince people,” Shehri said, noting that Saudi Arabia is the world’s highest per capita consumer of YouTube videos.
Its latest effort saw 128 entries in a contest that offered 150,000 riyals ($40,000) divided among the five best producers of short films promoting national unity and tolerance, and opposing extremism.
All the films had to be uploaded to YouTube as a condition of entry.
“The Missing Meanings”, a slick three-minute production, took first place at an awards ceremony last month.
It featured images of division transformed into scenes of joy. A gunman about to shoot his victim became the two men laughing together. Office workers divided by an invisible wall instead shared coffee.
As well as its social media strategy, the centre brings Saudi Sunnis and Shiites together in meetings and workshops, promoting mutual understanding through contact.
Shias make up roughly 10 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s population and have long complained of marginalisation. Tensions have escalated since the January 2 execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was convicted of sedition.
The kingdom’s Shia-dominated regional rival Iran denounced the execution, accusing Riyadh of “sectarian hate-mongering”.
On the contrary, said Shehri, the centre is trying “to protect our country” through efforts to forestall the type of sectarian hatred which has devastated neighbouring nations like Iraq.
Many in the kingdom were sceptical after the centre’s founding 13 years ago, he said.
Sunni clerics often refused to attend its sessions, saying they would not sit next to Shias or “liberals”.
One imam even branded the centre “evil” for bringing the sects together, but later ended up joining its meetings, Shehri said with a laugh.
Grassroots organisations welcomed the KACND’s efforts but said the government needs to do more to counter hate speech.
Jafar al-Shayeb, chairman of the 16-year-old Thulatha Cultural Forum based in the Shiite-dominated city of Qatif, said Saudi Arabia needs a “clear government strategy” for social cohesion, along with a law against hate speech “that’s growing in society”.
The government has issued clearer guidelines against sectarian speech by imams but not all are obeying the directives, he said.
“People are still talking about the tribe, about their region, about their sect instead of talking about the… nation,” Shayeb said.
Ibrahim AlMugaiteeb, president of the Qatif-based Human Rights First Society, said the government has failed to heed repeated calls for legislation against hatred, which he said is particularly necessary for online platforms including Twitter.
“You need a law that tells people we are all equal,” he said.