20 million Shiites live in Saudi Arabia 

In 1926, the Al-Baqi’ mausoleum—which included the tombs of the Prophet Muhammad’s family and his companions, second, forth, fifth, and six Shiite Imams—was destroyed by Ibn Saud. In 1975, the tomb of a Shiite imam (Ismail ibn Ja’far al-Sadiq) was reportedly destroyed, and a year later an ancient palm tree that legend had it had been planted under the direction of the Prophet Muhammad, and visited by Shiite and Sunni pilgrims for generations, was cut down on orders of a high ranking Wahhabi shiekh. According to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, Shiite citizens in Saudi Arabia “face systematic discrimination in religion, education, justice, and employment”.

Pakistani columnist Mohammad Taqi has written that “the Saudi regime is also acutely aware that, in the final analysis, Shiite grievances […] stem from socioeconomic deprivation, as a result of religious repression and political marginalization bordering on apartheid.”

Testifying before the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Ali al-Ahmed, Director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, stated

“Saudi Arabia is a glaring example of religious apartheid. The religious institutions from government clerics to judges, to religious curriculums, and all religious instructions in media are restricted to the Wahhabi understanding of Islam, adhered to by less than 40% of the population. The Saudi government communized Islam, through its monopoly of both religious thoughts and practice. Wahhabi Islam is imposed and enforced on all Saudis regardless of their religious orientations. The Wahhabi sect does not tolerate other religious or ideological beliefs, Muslim or not. Religious symbols by Muslims, Christians, Jewish and other believers are all banned. The Saudi embassy in Washington is a living example of religious apartheid. In its 50 years, there has not been a single non-Sunni Muslim diplomat in the embassy. The branch of Imam Mohamed Bin Saud University in Fairfax, Virginia instructs its students that Shia Islam is a Jewish conspiracy.”

In January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed the prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr, who had called for pro-democracy demonstrations, along with forty-seven other Saudi Shia citizens sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court on terrorism charges.

Since May 2017 in response to protests against the government, the predominantly Shia town of Al-Awamiyah has been put under full siege by the Saudi military. Residents are not allowed to enter or leave, and military indiscriminately shells the neighborhoods with airstrikes, mortar and artillery fire along with snipers shooting residents. The President of the Quran Council and two cousins of executed Nimr al-Nimr were also killed by Saudi security forces in Qatif in 2017.

The government does not conduct census on religion and ethnicity but some sources estimated the percentage of Shiites in Saudi Arabia to 10% and others to 15% of approximately 20 million natives of Saudi Arabia. The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932 by the House of Saud, who are followers of a retroperspective movement within Sunni Islam known as Wahhabismor “the Wahhabite mission”. Followers of the Wahhabite mission—who dominate religious institutions, courts and education of the kingdom—believe that “Muslims should return to the interpretation of Islam found in the classical texts, the Quran and the Sunnah.” They also believe that “Muslims who seek intercession from holy men, such as the imams revered by Shiites, are not ‘true’ Muslims.” While attempts to force conversion of Shiites have been infrequent, they face severe discrimination in Saudi Arabia and even executions (both legal and extrajudicial).

While Saudi Arabia has only existed since 1932, an earlier Al Saud state (Emirate of Diriyah) clashed with Shiites. Ibn Abdul-Wahhab believed that Shiites “imported into Islam” the practice of building mosques on graves, a practice he considered un-Islamic. He referred to the Shiites as ‘Rafida (rejecters), a sectarian name his followers have continued to use.

In 1802, the Saud-Wahhabi alliance waged jihad (or at least qital, i.e. war) on the Shiite holy city of Karbala. There, according to a Wahhabi chronicler `Uthman b. `Abdullah b. Bishr:

Muslims [Wahhabis referred to themselves as Muslims, not believing Shiites to be Muslims] scaled the walls, entered the city […] and killed the majority of its people in the markets and in their homes. [They] destroyed the dome placed over the grave of al-Husayn [and took] whatever they found inside the dome and its surroundings […] the grille surrounding the tomb which was encrusted with emeralds, rubies, and other jewels […] different types of property, weapons, clothing, carpets, gold, silver, precious copies of the Qur’an.”

Al-Hasa, the main Shiite area of what is now Saudi Arabia, was conquered by Saudi forces in 1913. The initial treatment of Shiites was harsh, with religious leaders compelled to vow to “cease observance of their religious holidays, to shut down their special places of worship and to stop pilgrimages to holy sites in Iraq.” Wahhabi ulema also “ordered the demolition of several Shiite mosques” and took “over teaching and preaching duties at the remaining mosques in order to convert the population.” However, within a year Al-Saud emir Ibn Saud permitted the Shiite to expel the Wahhabi preachers and to hold private religious ceremonies led by the Shiite religious establishment “without interference.”

Saudi authorities have however acted on Wahhabi desires to eliminate “vestiges of Shia religiosity” in and around Medina. In 1926, the Al-Baqi’ mausoleum—which included the tombs of the Prophet Muhammad’s family and his companions, second, forth, fifth, and six Shiite Imams—was destroyed by Ibn Saud. In 1975, the tomb of a Shiite imam (Ismail ibn Ja’far al-Sadiq) was reportedly destroyed, and a year later an ancient palm tree that legend had it had been planted under the direction of the Prophet Muhammad, and visited by Shiite and Sunni pilgrims for generations, was cut down on orders of a high ranking Wahhabi shiekh.

In 1979, the Iranian Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran, replacing a pro-Western monarchy with a an anti-Western theocratic Islamic republic. Iran is more populous than Saudi Arabia and its borders are relatively close to the latter’s oil fields—which is also where most Saudi Shiites traditionally lived. The Iranian scholars were eager to export their “revolution,” and ideologically opposed to both monarchical systems of government and any state allied with the West. Leaflets, radio broadcasts and tape cassettes from Iran targeted Saudi Shiites and attacked the Saudi government for corruption and hypocrisy. That November, Shiites commemorated Ashura (illegally) for the first time in many years. In February demonstrations were held on the one year anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran. Saudi officials responded with both “sticks and carrots”, arresting activists but also promising more schools, hospitals and infrastructure for the Shia region.

In 1987, following the deaths of over 300 during a demonstration by Iranian pilgrims in Mecca during the Hajj pilgrimage, Khomeini “denounced the House of Saud as “murderers” and called on all loyal Shiites in the Kingdom to rise up and overthrow them”, further alarming Saudi officials. After oil pipelines were bombed in 1988, the Saudi government accused Shiites of sabotage, executing several. Collective punishment restrictions were placed on their freedoms and they were further marginalized economically. Wahabi ulama were given the green light to sanction violence against Shia. Fatwas were passed by the country’s leading cleric, Abdul-Aziz ibn Baz denouncing Shia as apostates from Islam.

After the 1991 Gulf war ended, weakening Iran’s mortal foe Saddam Hussien and exhibiting the strength of Saudi ally the United States, “there was a noticeable thaw in relations between the two countries.” In 1993, the Saudi government announced a general amnesty resulting in various Shiite leaders being released from jail or returning from exile. “Hundreds of young [Shiites]” were provided with jobs in the governmental and private sectors. The anti-Shiite Imam of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina was even sacked after he attacked Shiism in a Friday sermon in the presence of Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In 2003, the political direction turned again, and a series of “National Dialogues” were initiated that included Shiites (as well as Sufis, liberal reformers, and professional women), to the strong disapproval of Wahhabi purists. In late 2003, “450 Shia academics, businessmen, writers, and women” presented a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah demanding a greater rights including the right for Shia to be referred to “their own religious courts as Sunni courts do not recognize testimonies by Shia.”

As of 2006, more militant Saudi Wahhabi clerics were circulating a petition calling for an intensification of sectarian violence against Shiites, while the official religious establishment was calling for them to renounce their “fallacious” beliefs voluntarily and embrace “the right path” of Islam, rather than be killed, expelled, or converted by violence.

In modern-day Saudi Arabia, the Sunni rulers limit Shiite political participation to “notables”, according to scholar Vali Nasr. These notables benefit from their ties to power, and in return are expected to control their community. Much political activity takes place outside these parameters. Since 1979, hundreds of Saudi Shiites have been jailed, executed, and exiled.

According to Ondrej Beranek of Brandeis University, Shiite opposition in Saudi Arabia has “undergone various stages of development.” Saudi Shiites found Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution a “political inspiration”, but an “important ideological source” was the organization Harakat al-risaliyin al-tala‘i‘ (literally “the Movement of Vanguards’ Missionaries”), established in 1968 not in Iran but in the Iraqi city of Karbala under the auspices of marja‘ al- taqlid (religious authority) Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi al- Shirazi. Other organizations include Munazzamat al-thawra ‘l-islamiyya (Organization of Islamic Revolution) — established after the Intifada of 1979. Focusing on peaceful change it changed its name to al-Haraka ‘l-islahiyya (Reform Movement).

In response to this change, King Fahd, met several of al-Saffar’s followers and in October 1993 a pact was signed. Fahd promised to work towards improving conditions for Shia in Saudi Arabia, ordering the elimination of derogatory terms for them from textbooks, removing certain other forms of explicit discrimination, allowing many Shiite exiles to return to Saudi Arabia, and other acts. In return, al-Haraka ‘l-islahiyya was dissolved and its members formally agreed to dissociate themselves from foreign groups and movements.

As of 2009, the main spokesman and representative of the Saudi Shiite movement in its more moderate incarnation has been Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar (b. 1958). Al-Saffar represents one of the few voices publicly calling for moderate, pragmatic action, tolerance and reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis, and a political system based on civil society, free elections and freedom of speech.

At the other end of the Shiite political spectrum is the Saudi Hizballah or Hezbollah Al-Hejaz. Established in 1987, it supports the overthrow of the absolute monarchy. In 1988 and 1989, Saudi Hizballah led a couple of attacks on oil infrastructure and also murdered Saudi diplomats in Ankara, Bangkok, and Karachi. They were also allegedly involved in 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. Some of its members went through training in Iran. The group also is thought to use Iranian training camps in the Biqa‘ valley in Lebanon.

In addition to these two factions, there are also smaller groups of traditionalists who look at the Saudi regime with suspicion and do not intend to become part of any reconciliation talks.

The American embassy in Saudi Arabia, refers to these two political groupings of Shiites in the Eastern Province as Islahiyyah (the Shirazis) and Hezbollah Al-Hejaz (Saudi Hezbollah).

Following the 9/11 attacks and 2003 Riyadh compound bombings, Saudi Arabia seemed determined to stop the brutal campaign against its Shiite community, which in previous decades had resulted in hundreds of Shiites being jailed, executed, and exiled. Such a liberal move, however, could easily be understood as merely part of a new campaign aimed at improving the image of Saudi Arabia in the West.

The Saudi government has often been viewed as an active oppressor of Shiites because of the funding of the Wahabbi ideology which denounces the Shiite faith.

In 1988 fatwas passed by the country’s leading cleric, Abdul-Aziz ibn Baz denounced the Shiites as apostates. Abdul-Rahman al-Jibrin, a member of the Higher Council of Ulama sanctioned the killing on Shiites in 1994. According to Vali Nasr, this was still be reiterated in Wahhabi religious literature as late as 2002. By 2007 al-Jibrin wrote that [Shiites] “are the most vicious enemy of Muslims, who should be wary of their plots.”

According to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, Shiite citizens in Saudi Arabia “face systematic discrimination in religion, education, justice, and employment”.

Saudi Arabia has no Shiite cabinet ministers, mayors or police chiefs, according to another source, Vali Nasr, unlike other countries with sizable Shiite populations (such as Iraq and Lebanon) . Shiites are kept out of “critical jobs” in the armed forces and the security services, and not one of the three hundred Shiite girls schools in the Eastern Province has a Shiite principal.

Pakistani columnist Mohammad Taqi has written that “the Saudi regime is also acutely aware that, in the final analysis, Shiite grievances […] stem from socioeconomic deprivation, as a result of religious repression and political marginalization bordering on apartheid.”

Testifying before the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Ali al-Ahmed, Director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, stated

“Saudi Arabia is a glaring example of religious apartheid. The religious institutions from government clerics to judges, to religious curriculums, and all religious instructions in media are restricted to the Wahhabi understanding of Islam, adhered to by less than 40% of the population. The Saudi government communized Islam, through its monopoly of both religious thoughts and practice. Wahhabi Islam is imposed and enforced on all Saudis regardless of their religious orientations. The Wahhabi sect does not tolerate other religious or ideological beliefs, Muslim or not. Religious symbols by Muslims, Christians, Jewish and other believers are all banned. The Saudi embassy in Washington is a living example of religious apartheid. In its 50 years, there has not been a single non-Sunni Muslim diplomat in the embassy. The branch of Imam Mohamed Bin Saud University in Fairfax, Virginia instructs its students that Shia Islam is a Jewish conspiracy.”

In November 2014 at al-Dalwah village in the eastern province of al-Ahsa, three unknown masked gunmen opened fire at a Husseiniya, or Shi’ite religious center, killing eight and injuring dozens.

While Saudi citizen circles blamed the Khawarij for the attack, claiming they wanted to start a civil war, a handful of articles in the Saudi press argued that the attack “had not come out of nowhere”, that there was anti-Shi’ite incitement in the kingdom on the part of “the religious establishment, preachers, and even university lecturers – and that it was on the rise”. The Saudi government/religious establishment, as well as the National media did not comment on the attack.

In January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed the prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr, who had called for pro-democracy demonstrations, along with forty-seven other Saudi Shia citizens sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court on terrorism charges.

Since May 2017 in response to protests against the government, the predominantly Shia town of Al-Awamiyah has been put under full siege by the Saudi military. Residents are not allowed to enter or leave, and military indiscriminately shells the neighborhoods with airstrikes, mortar and artillery fire along with snipers shooting residents. Dozens of Shia civilians were killed, including a three year old and a two year-old child. The Saudi government claims it is fighting terrorists in al-Awamiyah.

Residents also reported soldiers shooting at homes, cars and everyone in streets.

During the crackdown the Saudi government demolished several historical sites and many other buildings and houses in Qatif.

20,000 residents were forced to flee from their homes to survive.

The President of Quran Council and two cousins of executed Nimr al-Nimr were also killed by Saudi security forces in Qatif in 2017.

The Saudi government has refused to allow Shiite teachers and students exemption from school to partake in activities for the Day of Ashura, one of the most important religious days for Shiites which commemorates the martyrdom of Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn bin Ali, at the hands of the second Sunni Umayyad Caliph, Yazid. In 2009, during Ashura commencements, Shia religious and community leaders were arrested protesting against the government and chanting slogans against Wahhabis.

In 2009 a group of Shiites on their way to perform hajj pilgrimage (one of the five pillars of Islam that all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform once in their lives) in Mecca were arrested by Saudi religious police due to the involvement in a protest against the Saudi government. A fifteen-year-old pilgrim was shot in the chest and an unknown assailant stabbed a Shiite sheikh in the back, shouting “Kill the rejectionist [Shia]”.

Shiite pilgrims go to Jannat al Baqi mainly to visit the grave of Fatima and Ahl al-Bayt who are buried in the cemetery of Jannat al-Baqi’ but no visit of other Sahabas in Islam. Many incidences of not following the rules of the place happened by Shiite in this region specifically resulting in the arrest which most of the times were released later. Shiites and Sunni Hanafi, Shafi’is, Barelvis, and Dawoodi Bohra Ismailis usually pray near graves of Ahl al-Bayt but in Wahhabism this act is considered as shirk. In Saudi Arabia, most of the people follow an interpretation of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, which does not allow practices like praying near graves of Ahl al-Bayt in Jannat al Baqi.

Early 2009, several people grabbed stones, sand from the grave of Fatima (who is daughter of Muhammad and the wife of Ali) in order to make turbahs out of them which is not permissible according certain interpretations of Sunni Islam, like Wahhabism.

Late 2011, a Shiite citizen was charged for not following the law and involved with blasphemy and sentenced to 500 lashes and 2 years in jail; the latter sentence was later reduced. Also late 2011, a prominent Shiite Canadian cleric, Usama al-Attar, was arrested for unknown reasons but possibly because of his criticism of the kingdoms response to uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain. He was released on the same day, declaring the arrest entirely unprovoked.

Much of education in Saudi Arabia is based on Wahhabi religious material. The government has restricted the names that Shiites can use for their children in an attempt to discourage them from showing their identity. Saudi textbooks are hostile to Shiism, often characterizing the faith as a form of heresy worse than Christianity and Judaism.

Much discrimination occurs in the Saudi workforce as well. Shiites are prohibited from becoming teachers of religious subjects, which constitute about half of the courses in secondary education. Shia cannot become principals of schools. Some Shia have become university professors but often face harassment from students and faculty alike. Shiites are disqualified as witnesses in court, as Saudi Sunni sources cite the Shi’a practise of Taqiyya wherein it is permissible to lie while one is in fear or at risk of significant persecution. Shiites cannot serve as judges in ordinary court, and are banned from gaining admission to military academies, and from high-ranking government or security posts, including becoming pilots in Saudi Airlines.

Amir Taheri quotes a Shi’ite businessman from Dhahran as saying “It is not normal that there are no Shi’ite army officers, ministers, governors, mayors and ambassadors in this kingdom. This form of religious apartheid is as intolerable as was apartheid based on race.”

Human Rights Watch reports that Shiites want to be treated as equals and desire to be free from discrimination (Human Rights Watch). However, the Shiites minority is still marginalized on a large scale.

The much smaller Sulaymani Ismāʿīlī minority, also known as the Seveners, differ from the Twelver Shiites in their acceptance of Isma’il ibn Jafar as the appointed spiritual successor (Imam), rather than Musa al-Kazim. There are an estimated 100,000 of them living in the southern region of Najran bordering Yemen. They also have been subject to what Human Rights Watch calls “official discrimination,” encompassing “government employment, religious practices, and the justice system”.

Following the clashes in April 2000, Saudi authorities imprisoned, tortured, and summarily sentenced hundreds of Ismailis, and transferred hundreds of Ismaili government employees outside the region. Underlying discriminatory practices have continued unabated.

In 1997 the director of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs opened an office in Najran for the purpose of propagating Wahhabi doctrine to the local Isma’ilis. Saudi official Sheik Ali Khursan declared Ismaelis to be infidels because according to him “they did not follow the Sunna and do not believe that the Qur’an is complete”, stating “We don’t eat their food, we don’t intermarry with them, we should not pray for their dead or allow them to be buried in our cemeteries.” In 1997 the Governor Prince Mish’al ordered police to prevent Ismaelis from performing prayers during the post-Ramadan Islamic festival of Eid al-Fitr. “Anti-Ismaeli campaigns resulted in many arrests and flogging.”

In April 2000, responding to an Amnesty International campaign publicizing lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, Ismaelis in Najran openly commemorated Ashura for the first time in many years. Shortly thereafter Saudi religious police “stormed a major Ismaeli mosque, seized many of its religious texts and arrested three clerics”. Local Ismaelis, who are often armed, retaliated, firing on security forces and burning some of their vehicles. Approximately 40 people were killed and many more injured. Saudi Army reinforcements swept the area and made many arrests.

Hundreds of Ismaeli government employees were transferred away from Najran. Sometime after August 2000, four Ismaeli high school students were “sentenced to two to four years in prison and 500 to 800 lashes for fighting with a Wahhabi teacher, who openly insulted their religious beliefs in front of other students in the classroom.”

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