Modern Saudi Arabia is the result of an 18th century alliance between the Saudi family of Najd in Central Arabia and Sheikh Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab belonging to the Hanbali school. The Saudi ruling clan’s legitimacy is based on rule in the name of religion as interpreted by the Salafi clerics. Interestingly, these clerics allow no dialogue and their view about differing or opposing opinions is based on the fear of the possibility of losing the flock and the inherent loss of political might. Consequently, the clerics who provide the regime legitimacy measure the commitment of the Saudi family to this doctrine by how they treat the Shias and people of other faiths and doctrines residing in the land. As a result, the Shias have paid the price of the Saudi family’s quest for legitimacy throughout their history.
When the Sauds conquered the territories that now are part of the eastern province of modern Saudi Arabia, the conquest was led by warriors called the ‘Ikhwan’. That tension should break out between the invaders and the natives who were mostly Shia was natural. These tensions subsided temporarily when the Saudi governors intervened, albeit only after the Ikhwan had killed many whom they considered ‘apostates’. When the Saudi Kingdom was formally established in 1932, the Saudi kings did not directly oppose the Shias but encouraged Sunni citizens to settle in the eastern province to counteract the demographic superiority of the Shias. Some Shia festivities were banned — at least in public — and Shia employment in high positions of administration and security was prevented. Their local schools were made dysfunctional, which led the local Shias to depend upon Shia clerics from other countries for guidance. This forced disconnect from participation in local affairs within the Saudi system made them abandon their aloofness from politics in favour of a more direct political involvement. As active politicking eats up any absolute monarchy, this has pitted them against the monarchy in a struggle for their political rights. The reason for their protest against Saudi involvement in quelling the pro-democracy protests in Bahrain led by the Bahraini Shias lies in this political awakening.
The Shias’ misery in the areas now comprising Saudi Arabia predates the present as they had to pay the price of the animosity between the Safavid Dynasty, which converted Iran (Persia) to Shiaism during the 16th century, and the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman Turks desired to expand in the east and bring Persia (Iran) under their control but failed in their effort. Resultantly, the Shias in the regions of Hejaz, Najd and areas that now form the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, which remained under Ottoman rule in varying degrees until 1915, never enjoyed great comfort. However, the Ottomans were not too harsh on them and the Shias had their own religious schools operational and enjoyed relative freedom. It was only when the Saudi family took over that their religious schools were banned and their persecution started.
In this backdrop, it is not very surprising that a court in Saudi Arabia has sentenced a Shia Muslim poet and journalist, Habib al-Ma’atiq to one year in prison for being involved in anti-regime demonstrations in the eastern province. Habib al-Ma’atiq worked for a website that gave reports on anti-regime protests in the country. Ma’atiq was arrested in February 2012 at the office of the Al-Fajr Cultural Network in Jubail city. The court ruling against Ma’atiq comes days before the media reported that a Shia citizen was sentenced to 30 years in prison for taking part in protests in the Qatif region of the Kingdom’s eastern province. These protests were against Riyadh’s sending troops to Bahrain to help crack down on pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain.
While the treatment of Shias fighting for their religious and political rights is deplorable on all counts, the treatment of Saudi Ahmedis with no political aspirations is even more shocking. On Dec 27, 2013, the Asian Human Rights Commission brought to the world’s notice the plight of two Ahmedi Saudi citizens by releasing a statement highlighting the treatment they received from the Saudi authorities when they chose to join the Ahmedi community. These Saudi citizens, having committed no offence, were arrested on May 14, 2012 just because they had chosen to join the Ahmedi community for what they considered a better understanding and practice of faith. More than a year and a half on, the two are being shuttled from one prison to another without any charge and without any access to their families. As per the statement, no one is even aware of their whereabouts or the state of their condition since May 2012. The victims, Sultan Hamid Maarzouk al-Anzi and Saudh Faleh Awad al-Anzi, are residents of a small settlement of Ahrar near Al Azizya close to the northern border of Saudi Arabia. The commission reports that both were handed over to two clerics who persistently persuaded them to give up their faith and return to what the clerics purported to be Islam and were told that they would be charged for apostasy and punished with death. Since then it is understood that the clerics keep on visiting them and pressurise them to leave the Ahmedi community. Both the victims have families and have been denied access to any legal advice. Adding salt to injury is the report that their families have no one to provide for them now that they are detained.
These events are indeed appalling for the world community. The sacrifices of these individuals require that human rights activists raise their voices so that Saudi laws become humane. A resolute effort is required to win the release of these Shia and Ahmedi victims and also to convince the Saudi authorities to refrain from actions that contravene human values. Those being put behind bars for expressing their faith and aspiring for their universally acclaimed birthright need to be recognised the world over as torchbearers of human liberty and ‘prisoners of conscience’.
By fate, the Sauds now run the affairs of their country, which is blessed with the most sacred places on earth. This brings on them a great responsibility to rise above sectarian lines and narrow interpretations and to show the world an image that is based on the teachings of tolerance and compassion that the faith they proclaim advocates. By not doing so they will be harming the interests of humanity, which lie in a true understanding of their faith. History will only remember them in kind words if they take up this responsibility and make politics and numbers subservient to the cause of goodness and not its master. The sooner they realise this, the better.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org