Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar photographed in his majlis in Qatif, Saudi Arabia.
by HASSAN M. FATTAH and RASHEED ABOU AL-SAMH
QATIF, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 30 — As young men beat their chests in street processions marking the Shiite Muslim holiday of Ashura in this Shiite stronghold in eastern Saudi Arabia, Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb looked on nervously, bracing for the region’s political conflicts to close in on this downtrodden community.
With sectarian tensions rising between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Middle East, and pressure growing on the Saudi government by the country’s Sunni leadership, Saudi Shiites, who have made great strides in recent years, are worried that those gains will be rolled back.
“Things are dim and dark, and the worst is still to come,” said Mr. Mugaiteeb, a human rights campaigner who runs an unlicensed Saudi human rights monitor here in the Eastern Province. “As always the minorities will be most affected when this is done. But it will affect everyone else too.”
There are still no Shiites in positions of authority, and Shiites are rarely promoted to managerial positions in government and private companies, Shiite leaders here say. There are also virtually no Shiite headmasters in public schools.
More important, the government has stopped short of actually recognizing the minority, they say. Their hard-won rights have yet to be enshrined into law, meaning they could be rescinded at short notice.
Last week, the Sunni governor of Al Hasa, a mixed Sunni-Shiite town in the Eastern Province, banned all blood drives organized by Shiites. Sunni clerics have stepped up their preaching against Shiites recently, declaring them again to be infidels. And earlier this week King Abdullah, speaking of rumors that Shiites are seeking to convert Sunnis, said that such attempts would fail, and that Sunnis would always make up a majority of the world’s Muslims.
In recent times, life had been growing better for Saudi Arabia’s two million Shiites, who have long suffered religious and economic discrimination. Yet things are growing tenuous again.
After Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979 energized Shiites throughout the region, the allegiance of Saudi Shiites to the state became suspect as the country’s Sunni religious leaders began viewing them as a potential fifth column that could bring down the government. When violent riots erupted during Ashura in the early 1980s, the government killed dozens of protesters and arrested thousands, sending many into exile and setting off a decade of repression.
In 1993, King Fahd tried to settle the differences and in 2003 met with a group of Shiite elders who presented him with a petition calling for equal rights. Suddenly, Shiite fortunes turned.
“There were problems before, but with the passing of time and with the insistence of the people for their rights, things have changed,” said Sheik Hassan al-Saffar, a longtime opposition leader who has become a primary advocate for engaging with the government. “Saudi politics is much more focused now on delivering rights than ever before.”
Sheik Saffar proudly read off a list of some of the important gains the Shiites have made since then: political prisoners have been released and exiles have returned; rituals have been allowed relatively unfettered; Shiites have been allowed to establish meeting halls and build mosques, and they have begun publishing their own religious books and importing some.
Ashura, the holiest period for Shiites, has become something of a litmus test for the change. Just a few years ago the 10-day commemoration of the seventh-century martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, the most defining event for Shiite Muslims, was largely hidden from public view, held in illegal community centers. This week Saudi Shiites burst into the open in the streets of the oil-rich Eastern Province, holding carnivals and re-enactments of the killing.
In Saudi Arabia, the commemorations have grown larger and more colorful. This year, about 500,000 people attended nightly lectures espousing Imam Hussein’s virtues and applying the lessons of his life to modern times. Worshipers marched under large posters of Shiite figures as well as posters of the Lebanese Shiite Muslim leader Hassan Nasrallah, and they shared food and gifts, all emphasizing the human battle between good and evil.
Shiites have begun calling for the Saudi government to enshrine their rights, while encouraging residents here to focus their sights on local Saudi issues, not regional or international ones. They say all that they have achieved has been fought for.
“Things have changed here not because the government wanted the change, but because the world itself has changed,” said Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, who advocates a more confrontational stance with the government. “We see better conditions not because of government support but because of our demands for change. The government will not give us anything unless we demand it.”
Some Shiite leaders read much in the lack of coverage of Ashura in the Saudi news media. “This is one of the most important cultural events for us,” said Sheik Fawzi al-Seif, a local Shiite cleric, who notes that the Saudi news media normally cover religious events in faraway places but rarely ever here. “But no one outside of here knows about it.”
Sheik Seif said the government had passed up an opportunity to encourage unity and send a signal to the conservative Sunni leaders. But more significantly, he said, the government lends tacit acceptance to those who attack the Shiites by not responding to their actions.
“The big danger we face now is the growing sectarian division in the region and its slow move into the Persian Gulf, which can have explosive conditions,” he said. “The fire could reach us very quickly here.”
Shiite clerics here insist they are unwilling to have the Shiites used as a political card, either by the United States or Iran. They warn that any confrontation with Iran would put significant strains on the Shiite population, and fear that ultimately it could be split between those supporting Iran and those supporting the government.
“Things were just like this in the 1970s,” said Jaffar al-Shayeb, a longtime Shiite campaigner who in 2005 was elected to Qatif’s municipal council. He argues that the Shiites have become more politically astute and focused on their internal interests. But still, he worries that could change someday, too.
“Everything seems normal, then an event can come along and turn everything upside down,” he said.
Many fear that the dormant militant groups that once existed here could make a comeback as a result. Mr. Mugaiteeb noted, for instance, that cells of Hezbollah in the Hijaz, the Saudi version of the group, could still be put into action.
“If the U.S. attacks Iran, a lot of people will be violent against the Americans, including Sunnis,” he said. “What I want to tell the Americans is that this will not be a picnic.”
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