Back in 2017 a report by Human Rights Watch warned against Saudi Arabia’s propensity to play up sectarianism as a valid expression of its state policy. “Saudi clerics, including those holding official positions, have ‘vigorously employed’ modern tools, such as Twitter, to stoke intolerance among millions of followers” the New-York based watchdog wrote.
Weaved around Wahhabism/Salafism – a faith whose interpretation of the Islamic Scriptures has given rise to what we know today as Islamic Terrorism, Saudi Arabia has long been held the cradle of religious extremism.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s undersecretary Stuart Levey, then-America’s top financial-counterterrorism official, made crucial remarks in an article for the Washington Post as to terror’s delivery pathways.. He noted:
“we must focus on educational reform in key locations to ensure that intolerance has no place in curricula and textbooks. Unless the next generation of children is taught to reject violent extremism, we will forever be faced with the challenge of disrupting the next group of terrorist facilitators and supporters. And Saudi Arabia is one such key location.”
If many and grave warnings have been issued against Saudi Arabia’s ever-growing religious intolerance, no measurable actions so far have materialised – at least nothing beyond the publication of rebukes by rights groups or admonitions by foreign officials.
A year after HRW confirmed that Saudi Arabia is condoning hate speech against its Shia minority from the upper echelons of its religious establishment, schoolbooks and social media, the state felt so inclined as to materialise verbal hatred and incitements to violence into actual acts of violence.
“Often their words rise to the level of “incitement to hatred or discrimination”, HRW warned in 2017, adding:
“Derogatory statements against Shia made by influential clerics mirror language found in state-sanctioned religious edicts end even children’s school-books, which use widely understood terms to castigate Shia religious beliefs.”
Saudi Arabia has moved beyond teaching children to hate minority Muslim sects with its school religious curriculum; it now wants to ostracise and penalise Shia Muslims within the education system – a dangerous actualisation of sectarianism.
Parents in the eastern province of Qatif – home to the majority of all Shia Muslims in the Kingdom, have been warned their children would lose exam points should they be absent from school on the Day of Ashura.
The announcement, which was promptly made public on social media by concerned parties reads as follow:
“Dear guardian, we are informing you that student absence for the upcoming week – especially Monday and Thursday [September 17, September 20) without a medical note will lead to a loss of grades.”
A day held sacred because it marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the 3rd Shia Imam and grandson to the Prophet Muhammad, the Day of Ashura is central to Shia Islam in that it came to embody the principle of resistance and truth against tyranny and falsehood.
Every year millions of people come together to mourn the death of Imam Hussain, a figure consecrated in history for the power his stance conveyed. Mahatma Gandhi said of him: “I learnt from Hussain how to achieve victory while being oppressed.”
If we consider what beliefs Saudi Arabia holds vis a vis Shia Muslims, and how frighteningly open its clergy has been as to what fate should befall Shiites, one must indeed ponder over the means the state will employ to enforce its hatred.
By HRW’s own admission such patterns of behaviours have comforted radicals in their sectarian pursuit. “The Islamic State and al Qaeda have used it to justify targeting Saudi Shiites with violence: Since mid-2015, the Islamic State has carried out attacks against six Shiite mosques and religious buildings in Eastern province and Najran, a southwestern city that also has a large Shiite population, killing more than 40 people,” the rights group stated.
Saudi Arabia’s ire against Shia Islam … and other Abrahamic faiths is as old as it has been vocalised.
In the opening fatwa of a Saudi government booklet distributed to educate Muslim immigrants in 2005 by the Saudi embassy in the United States, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia asserted that any one cleric who would ever dispute that Jews, Christians and Shia Muslims were infidels worthy of the sword was himself an infidel.
He said: “He who casts doubts about their [Christians, Jews, and Shia Muslims] infidelity leaves no doubt about his own infidelity.”
School-children are not the only target of Saudi Arabia’s anti-Muharram vicious campaign.
The Governor of Qatif, at the behest of Riyadh, issued a series of warnings to the province’s Shia community regarding their right to assembly and freedom of religion, and the subsequent steps the authorities would take to crack down on Shia Islam during the holy month.
Tents housing Muharram mourners have been destroyed by the State.
With nowhere to congregate, worshippers peacefully took to the streets – turning their neighbourhood into giant mourning halls.
It is difficult to rationalise how a country like Saudi Arabia, a staunch supporter of counter-terrorism according to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and members of the United Nations Human Rights Council can be allowed to violate its nationals’ most fundamental and basic human rights.
Earlier this year, London-based lawyers Rodney Dixon QC and Lord Kenneth Donald John Macdonald called for the suspension of Saudi Arabia’s membership from the Rights Council noting it would “act as a major lever for the government to clean up their act and make a proper new start”.
Our collective apathy before Saudi Arabia’s rising religious inquisition will only serve to empower dangerous fanaticism in a region already plagued by religious extremism. It stands to reason to stamp out every and all forms of radicalism if indeed we ambition to forever disappear terror.
Catherine Shakdam is a research fellow at the Al Bayan Centre for Planning & Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements. She is the author of A Tale of Grand Resistance: Yemen, the Wahhabi and the House of Saud. She writes exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.