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From my archive: Saudi Shiites Fear Backlash If War Breaks Out With Iran

From my archive: Saudi Shiites Fear Backlash If War Breaks Out With Iran

Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr

Read my story from 2007 when I interviewed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Awamiyya:

I just returned from a three-day trip to Qatif in the Eastern Province to interview Saudi Shiites and witness their Ashoura festival. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were warm, friendly and intelligent, all too happy to talk with journalists and share their hospitality with me and my colleagues.
Here’s my report:

By Rasheed Abou Alsamh

QATIF, Saudi Arabia – “Hussein, I am so proud to say your name,” chanted the long line of Shiite men dressed in black as they moved slowly up the narrow street of a working-class district of Tarout Island on Monday, the sound of the beating of their chests with their hands and the chants praising Imam Hussein echoing through the air.

Just a few years ago such a scene would have been impossible to see in Saudi Arabia, the Shiites here having long been under the unforgiving thumb of the majority Wahhabi Sunnis. Accounting for around 15 percent of the Saudi population, the Shiites have long been the target of religious edicts, or fatwas, declaring them to be kaffirs, or non-believers. This has led to long simmering tensions between the Shiites and Sunnis here, which came to a head when a similar Shiite procession was violently dispersed by Saudi security forces in Qatif during in the Islamic month of Muharram in 1980 which resulted in the death of 27 Shiites.

The ensuing sectarian strife led many Shiite notables in Saudi Arabia to go into exile after the Saudi government threatened to imprison them.

But following a breakthrough meeting with King Fahd in Jeddah in September 1993, the Shiites were promised that action would be taken on a long list of demands.

“Many Shiites were released from prisons, given back their passports and allowed to travel again following the 1993 agreement,” said Tawfiq Alsaif, considered the right hand man of prominent Shiite religious leader Sheikh Hassan Al-Saffar. Both fled the country in the early 1980s and were core members of the Islamic Revolution Organization in the Arabian Peninsula, of which Saffar was the spiritual head.

Alseif says that he is mildly optimistic that things are changing in this ultra-conservative kingdom, bringing improvements in the lives of all Saudis, and not just for the Shiites.

“The religious establishment is still strong and they pressure the media and government to stick to the old ways,” said Alseif. “But they cannot hold back the wave of change that modernity is bringing to Saudi Arabia in the form of the Internet, travel abroad and a huge range of satellite television channels.”

Indeed in 2005 the first municipal elections held in this country in over 40 years, Shiites won most of the seats in areas where they are a majority and are now not stopped from openly marking Ashoura in some areas. But the fact that most of the freedoms they have now can be easily taken away from them by the Saudi government has many Shiites worried about the future and demanding that their rights be enshrined in law.

Jafar Al-Shayeb won the elections in Qatif and is now the president of the Qatif Municipal Council. He too lived in exile for many years and returned to the country in 1993. He stressed that the demands of Saudi Shiites were local ones calling for more civil and religious rights, and not linked to the regional tensions caused by the civil war in Iraq and America’s tense standoff with the Shiite powerhouse that is Iran.

“We want to be able to serve as a minister of state, to join the military, represent the kingdom abroad as diplomats, get jobs in local companies, build our own mosques and print our own religious books,” said Al-Shayeb.

He said the fact that Shiites had not reacted adversely to the fatwas attacking them was a sign of political maturity that did not exist in the past.

“We are now separating ourselves from problems like the sectarian strife in Iraq. There is a better understanding between the Shiites and the government,” he said.

But not all Shiites in Saudi Arabia agree with this line, with many of them accusing Al-Shayeb and others like him of having been co-opted by the government into lessening Shiite demands and stopping any sharp criticisms of the government.

Sheikh Nimr al Nimr is one of the critics of the dialogue that Al-Shayeb and Sheikh Saffar have been having with the government, insisting that Shiites in Saudi Arabia will only get their rights by fighting for them as the government has only begrudgingly given them the few freedoms that they now have because of outside pressure.

“The government is not going to give us our rights; the people are going to have fight for them. If people fight for their rights, they have to expect to pay the price for it such as being imprisoned and losing their jobs,” explained Sheikh Nimr, who himself had only just been recently released from a brief spell in jail for his outspoken views.

The division between the Saudi Shiites is due in part to economic differences that have left a large portion of the Shiite community in a state of financial desperation. Sheikh Nimer is one of those living in a poorer area, so poor in fact that he was not able to hold nightly Husseiniyas, or religious lectures that are held during Ashoura, because he did not have access to a building in which to hold it.

In contrast, Sheikh Saffar held daily Husseiniyas in a brand new, three-storey building in Tarout that is owned by a local family.

“If Sheikh Saffar and his followers think things are improving for Shiites that is their opinion, but I don’t agree with them,” said Nimr.

Some Saudis believe that the Shiites here are being used as pawns by the United States in its ongoing occupation of Iraq and growing confrontation with Iran.

“Don’t tell me that things are getting better. They are going backwards for the Shias,” said Ibrahim Al Mugaiteeb, the president of an independent human rights group.

“There are 250,000 Shiites in Dammam but there is only one mosque for us. There are thousands of unemployed and poor Saudis committing suicide over their debts,” said Al Mugaiteeb.

The human rights activist, who has been jailed several times for his work, says that he wants transparent trials for the 9 Shiites in prison for the 1996 Alkhobar Tower bombing in which 19 US Marines were killed and 372 people wounded. According to Al-Shayeb they are still in jail and have not been tried or convicted yet.

“The Americans were quiet all of this time about the 9 Shiites in jail here, but now that they are escalating their confrontation with Iran they have revived the issue of the Alkhobar bombers by linking them to Iran,” said Al Mugaiteeb.

And if war breaks out between the US and Iran, where will the loyalties of the Saudi Shiites lie? That is a question that few Shiites here were willing to discuss frankly. Most insisted that their loyalties would be to Saudi Arabia, with only Sheikh Nimr admitting that if war broke out with Iran most Shiites here would support Iran.

Despite the many differences in the Shiite community, the bottom line is that all of them want to be able to practice their religion freely, openly and with dignity.

“In school I remember having to answer questions on exams that asked if Shiites were nonbelievers,” recounts Mohammed Al Khabbaz, a young Shiite in Tarout. “I always answered ‘no’ because I knew I had to in order to pass the test. I just wish that one day soon we won’t have to do that anymore.”