Saudi Stokes Sectarianism... Again

January 7, 2016

What was remarkable about the American Muslim reaction to the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia last week was the sectarian fault lines that opinions fell on, even by those who had little or no information as to who Sheikh al-Nimr was or why he was executed. For background, the Shi’ite minority population of Saudi Arabia (comprising 10-15% of the population and living mainly in the country’s east) has faced hostility and marginalization for the last 100 years. Sheikh al-Nimr was a Saudi Shi’ite activist known for advocating non-violent approaches to ending the systematic discrimination in education, employment, religion, and the judiciary suffered by the Shi’ite in Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Nimr was executed with 46 others, including Sunnis convicted of involvement in al-Qaeda-linked terror attacks in 2003 and 2004.

The execution of Sheikh Nimr led to riots and demonstrations in several Middle Eastern countries and the storming of the Saudi embassy in Iran, which also deserves blame for not protecting diplomatic missions in its country. This led to Iranian diplomats being expelled from Saudi Arabia and a diplomatic standoff between multiple Arab nations and Iran.

Human rights abuses are too prevalent today. Iran itself is guilty of many abuses and should be condemned for these. But we cannot conclude that because Iran commits human rights violations, all Shi’ite clerics, Iranian or not, are guilty of supporting abuses. In fact, Sheikh al-Nimr disagreed with Iran in its support for Assad and vocally denounced the oppression of the Syrian people. Furthermore, there seems to be no evidence that Sheikh al-Nimr espoused violence or that he was guilty of sedition or treason, contrary to what Saudi authorities have stated. Thus, a predisposition or antipathy toward one country should not play a role in deciding whether the execution of Sheikh al-Nimr was justified or not.

Any execution of political dissidents is reprehensible. Sheikh al-Nimr was executed alongside others who were convicted of terrorism. Saudi Arabia’s insecurity with any dissent or questioning of its authority leads to it making strategic blunders that have regional and global repercussions. For example, during the Arab Spring, not only did Saudi Arabia introduce laws to stifle free expression, it also sent troops to Bahrain to help repress protestors there. The execution of a peaceful activist is a strategic mistake because it has highlighted the lack of fundamental rights in Saudi Arabia and has understandably angered Shi’ites in the region and around the world who view the killing as a continuation of the oppression of Saudi Shi’ites.

By executing Sheikh Al-Nimr, Saudi Arabia has fanned sectarian flames. This sectarianism is used to mask the fact that its judicial system is tainted by lack of due process with trumped up charges and accusations of forced confessions. Saudi “justice” is used not to protect rights, but to to stifle criticism. The smallest dissent is seen as a challenge to the royal family and a threat to their perceived stability. Neither the egregiously extravagant lifestyle nor and the heavy-handed and absolute authority of the Saudi monarchy is to be questioned and bringing attention to the government-sanctioned prejudice suffered by a minority will not be tolerated.

The people in the region continue to suffer, and our sympathies should be with them whether they are Shi’ites in the Gulf, the displaced Syrians, or the occupied Palestinians. American Muslims must avoid judgments based on labels and ethnicities and remain true to making assessments based on accurate information and our values. Leadership in the Middle East is myopic and arrogant. We must not fall into their sectarian and narrow-minded views. It is this that creates the discord they sow in the region in the first place.



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