From my archive: Saudi Shiites Fear Backlash If War Breaks Out With Iran
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.”
Repercussions of Paris attacks
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The terrorist attacks in Paris are having a backlash on Muslims around the world and a lot of questions have been raised about ways to fight this perversion of a religion that does not endorse attack on defenseless civilians.
The attackers, all of Arab and Muslim descent, were very young, ranging from 20 to 26 years old. All were born in Europe, either France or Belgium. And all were well known to indulge in things like drinking alcohol, going to bars and clubs, selling drugs and involvement in petty crimes. Photos of the terrorist showed them looking like any other young European, wearing jeans, T-shirts, and none of the women covered their hair. A photo released of one of the terrorists, the cousin of the mentor of the attacks Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Hasna Ait Boulahcen, showed her bathing. She was killed when police raided her apartment where she was hiding Abaaoud, who was also killed in the operation.
The question that keeps repeating itself in my mind, is how did all of these young people make the transition from being non-religious to becoming extremists who want to blow up everything in the name of their religion and as revenge for what they see as attacks on Islam and the Arab world, especially the daily bombardment of Syria by France and Russia. Daesh in whose name the attackers in Paris said to have undertaken the attacks, has a very long and powerful reach, recruiting young Muslims in Europe through the Internet. After attracting them, Daesh brings these young people to Syria to be trained and turns them into killing machines.
The question is how to detect and stop this recruitment? Several of those involved in the attacks in Paris had criminal records and were on the radar of the French authorities. Even though they had been questioned returning from training in Syria, the French authorities did not have enough evidence to stop them.
But back to the attacks in Paris, the impact in terms of Islamophobia worldwide has been terrible. US Republicans in Congress managed to pass a new law restricting the number of Syrian refugees that the country could accept. President Barack Obama already said he would veto the law. In Brazil, a new survey has shown that attacks on Muslims in Rio de Janeiro’s streets grew 1,016 percent in one year. Most were verbal attacks on Muslim women wearing the veil. There were 67 cases reported by these women just from January to August this year, with most being called “suicide bomber.” Of course, this aggression against Muslims has been happening for many years, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
It is unfortunate that a group of extremists, like those of Daesh, can cause so much damage against innocent civilians and against Muslims around the world. We need to stop this madness of Daesh, which is not in the least representative of moderate Muslims. The Muslim world should use its vast reserves of moderation to preach the peace in Islam. Western countries in turn cannot fall into the trap of wanting to be suspicious of every Muslim to the point of putting them in detention camps like the Americans did with their citizens of Japanese descent during WWII. I think we have evolved enough to distinguish the good from the bad in any population and religion. Terrorists want the West to mistreat and kill Muslims in acts of revenge for the attacks in Paris. We cannot succumb to it, and we should not give this pleasure to irrational terrorists.
Criminalizing hate speech
This article was published in Arab News on June 21, 2015:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
In these uncertain and turbulent times, we in the Kingdom need to promote unity now more than ever. With the bloody Daesh group wreaking havoc on Iraq and Syria, and the civil war next door in Yemen, we are surrounded by chaos, violence and death. And at home we have had to deal with our own terrorists, who after being brainwashed by an extremist ideology launched two separate attacks recently on Shiite mosques in the Kingdom’s eastern region in an attempt to sow sectarian strife.
It seems hard to believe, but so many of these young Saudis who are lured by the siren call of the extremists must really believe in the falsehoods that are fed to them by the terrorists, blissfully unaware that the peace and stability of Saudi Arabia has not come at an easy price for our forefathers who grew up 70 years ago, before the oil boom, in times of great financial hardships.
What we thought were going to be the liberating winds of the Arab Spring in 2011 turned mostly to violence against innocent civilians and instability that has left the whole Middle East in the utter shambles that it is in today. We should thank God a thousand times over that we can still go to bed without hearing bombs falling nearby; that we have electricity all of the time; that we have a strong government running the affairs of the nation, and an economy that gives Saudis a GDP per capita matching that of industrialized nations.
This is why I was surprised to read recently in this paper that the Shoura Council decided not to discuss proposals to set up a national unity project. Shoura members in favor of such an initiative had proposed that the government punish those convicted of promoting hate speech to jail terms ranging from six months to five years and a fine of SR500,000. The arguments against such an initiative were the ones we are used to hearing in other countries too: Why should we have new laws regulating public behavior when we already have so many laws on the books; and just writing down regulations in a new law will not necessarily produce change.
In the United States, these are usually the arguments of social conservatives who do not want hate laws enacted meant to protect people that are discriminated against, such as blacks, women and the handicapped. The point of this new law would be to stop those Saudis who make sectarian and racist comments under the guise of free speech, and who expect to get away with it. This should no longer be tolerated and our government and society should take swift action against those who insist on dividing Saudis according to their national, racial or sectarian origins.
After all, our founder King Abdul Aziz did not unify our country to just have our national fabric be ripped apart today by sectarian and racist violence.
For too long we have looked the other way as extremist preachers have spouted their words of hate and discrimination, poisoning the minds of young Saudis and thus producing new generations that hate others of their own countrymen because they are too dark, don’t look Arab enough or are of a different sect. I applaud Shoura member Abdullah Al-Fifi for supporting the national unity project and for pointing out that the Islamic Affairs Ministry has not done enough, or indeed done anything visible, to implement anti-extremist programs in schools and mosques.
The government has rightly clamped down on the hate speech of imams across the country, ordering them not to talk about sectarian issues, and instructing them to have sermons (khutbas) that encourage unity and social cohesion.
With the Arab world in flames we cannot afford disunity or discord in our midst. The stakes are just too high and as the repository of Islam’s two holiest mosques we indeed have a duty not just to ourselves, but to the whole Muslim world, to keep the Kingdom a safe, clean and prosperous place where all Muslims are welcome, be they from Africa or Asia.