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Saudi Shiites Look to Iraq and Assert Rights

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Saudi Shiites Look to Iraq and Assert Rights



Published: March 2, 2005



ATIF, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 25 - The Shiite Muslim minority in this kingdom once marked their Ashura holy day furtively in darkened, illegal community centers out of fear of stirring the powerful wrath of the religious establishment.


But this year Ashura fell on the eve of the 10-day campaign for municipal council elections, to be held here on Thursday, and a bolder mood was readily apparent. Thousands thronged sprawling, sandy lots for hours to watch warriors on horseback re-enact the battlefield decapitation of Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, in 680.


A few young men even dared perform a gory, controversial ritual no one can remember seeing here in public - beating their scalps with swords until they drew blood to mirror Hussein's suffering.


"It used to be a story that made us weep only," said Nabih al-Ibrahim, 42, a portly civil engineer running for a city council seat. "We believed we were weak. That this is why we didn't govern ourselves for a long time."


"Maybe now, after all that has happened in Iraq, we will take something political from the story of Hussein," Mr. Ibrahim added, echoing a common sentiment. "Now the issue will take another route, because Shiites have started the growth of their political culture."


Saudi Arabia's religious establishment, which is dominated by the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, still damns such rites as pagan orgies. But the fact that Shiites, at least in this city, their main center, no longer feel the need to hide reflects a combination of important changes here and elsewhere in the Middle East.


The most important include the emergence of an elected Shiite majority government next door in Iraq, the campaign for municipal elections here in the country's first nationwide polls and a relaxation in some of the discrimination that Shiites have long faced in the kingdom.


The limited municipal council elections scheduled throughout eastern Saudi Arabia are expected to earn Shiite candidates all five seats up for grabs in Qatif, an urban area of 900,000 on the Persian Gulf.


In a sight startling for Saudi Arabia, Sheik Hassan al-Saffar, a dissident Shiite cleric who has been jailed and spent the 15 years before 1995 in exile, spoke for an hour in one candidate's campaign tent on the first big night of electioneering. Even limited elections are important, he said, "because they ignited in people's minds the spark of thinking about their interests and aspirations."


Sheik Saffar also drew parallels to Iraq, saying voting was the least Saudis could do, considering the risks their brethren had taken next door to exercise this new freedom. He took great pains to say it was a question for all Saudis, not Shiites alone.


The kingdom's two million Shiites, most living in the Eastern Province, constitute about 10 to 15 percent of the native Saudi population.


The minority naturally faces the same problems as other Saudis, utterly lacking freedom of assembly, expression and most other basic civil rights. Activist Shiite women are outraged that all Saudi women are barred from voting.


But the Shiites feel their problems more acutely because they have suffered religious and economic discrimination in Saudi Arabia, particularly in the aftermath of Iran's Islamic revolution of 1979.


They were viewed as a potential fifth column, not least because Shiite Iran urged the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and violent riots erupted here in the early 1980's. The fact that the Shiite minority is concentrated right above the country's richest oil fields inspired a particularly harsh crackdown.


There has been no Shiite cabinet minister, and only one Shiite ambassador - to Iran. Shiites are kept out of critical jobs in the armed forces and the security services. There are no Shiite mayors or police chiefs, and not one of the 300 Shiite girls' schools in the Eastern Province has a Shiite principal.


Saudi Shiites believed that the government would at least start to regard them as citizens, especially after Crown Prince Abdullah met nearly two years ago with a group that presented a petition for equal rights, titled "Partners in the Nation."

The prince called for a better understanding between Sunnis and Shiites and included prominent Shiites in a couple of sessions of his "national dialogue," virtually the only public forum where Saudis are allowed to discuss ways to combat the religious extremism carried out by Al Qaeda and its followers.


In the last few years some restrictions on Shiites in Qatif were lifted or at least overlooked, including allowing limited construction of community and Shiite mosques, as well as the public celebration of Ashura rituals.


But the little that has changed outside Qatif raises questions in the community about the government's commitment to tolerance. Ashura celebrations are banned in Dammam, a neighboring city of some 600,000, including 150,000 Shiites.


There is only one officially sanctioned Shiite mosque there, and no functioning Shiite cemetery. The distinctive Shiite call to prayer is banned, and even the small clay pucks that Shiites are supposed to rest their foreheads on during prayer are outlawed.


Shiites in Dammam wish some of those issues could be discussed in the municipal election campaigns. The elections are being held in three stages in different parts of country, with the second, eastern stage scheduled for Thursday. But candidates and voters said they did not dare raise such topics in the election tents, lest the campaign be shut down.


Saudi Shiites hope that once a few of them are elected to city councils, at least in Qatif, they can discuss their problems more openly.


"Whoever is going to be elected by the people has the legitimacy nobody else has, not even the king, believe it or not," said one Qatif candidate in a flush of excitement. Exactly three minutes later he reconsidered. "It would be wise if you don't quote the statement about the king," he said, sparking a burst of laughter from his colleagues.


The full-bore hatred that the Wahhabi sect bears for Shiites spills out on Web sites, in the local news media and even in school books.


Saudi textbooks contain passages that describe Shiite beliefs as outside Islam - the original split emerging because Shiites supported the claim of Muhammad's heirs to control the faith. Wahhabis believe that Shiite veneration of the Prophet's family, including worshipping at tombs in the Iraqi cities of Karbala and Najaf, incorporates all manner of sins, including polytheism.


Such practices prompt some to revile Shiites as a lower order of infidel than even Christians or Jews.


A recent article in a Saudi magazine suggested that a form of temporary marriage allowed by the Shiites helped spread AIDS. When a Sunni was arrested for trying to set fire to a Shiite community center in Qatif, Sheik Fawzi al-Seif, a local cleric, said one writer on a Web site had asked why the arsonist had acted while the building was empty.


Web sites also urged Sunnis to vote Thursday lest they find the dreaded Shiites on their municipal councils.


Last week a prominent Islamic law professor, Abdel Aziz al-Fawzan, accused anyone who took part in any Ashura celebration of being an infidel, the rough equivalent of a death sentence.


Shiites say they have no recourse to address any manner of discrimination. "Who am I going to complain to, a judge who is a Wahhabi sheik?" said Hassan al-Nimr, a prominent Shiite cleric.


What Saudi Shiites really seek is a clear statement from the government pronouncing Shiite Islam an accepted branch of the faith, believing that all other rights will flow from that. But the Saud dynasty gained its control over much of the Arabian Peninsula via adherents to the Wahhabi teachings, and its legitimacy rests on maintaining their support. The religious establishment considers itself the guardian of Sunni orthodoxy and holds sway over institutions including the courts and the education system.


Shiites say they have learned their lesson that riots only lead to repression, although the Saudi government remains wary that any sectarian violence in Iraq may ignite similar clashes at home. Shiites think a combination of outside pressure and changes like elections will slowly gain them equal rights.


They believe that Osama bin Laden and his ilk created an important opening, with the royal family now casting about for ways to limit the Wahhabi extremism that it has encouraged but which now seeks to overthrow Saudi rule.


More important, the minority puts great stock in what develops in Iraq, although the changes remain too raw and violent to gauge fully.


If the Shiites who dominated the Iraqi elections show that they can work with Sunnis and Kurds, Shiites in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf say, it will strengthen the idea that democracy works and undermine the longstanding prejudice that Shiites are monsters intent on undermining Sunnis everywhere.


The same holds for the Shiite majority in neighboring Bahrain, long ruled by a Sunni minority, and the Shiite minority in Kuwait. There are about 112 million Shiites among the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.


Fears about a Shiite wave have been expressed by such Sunni rulers as King Abdullah II of Jordan, who described the emergence of a Shiite crescent from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut as a possible threat to regional stability. (The Alawite minority that runs Syria is a Shiite sect, though mainstream Shiites regard it as heretical.)


"What is happening today in Iraq raised the political ambitions of the Shiites," said Muhammad Mahfouz, the editor of a cultural magazine in Qatif, "that democracy and public participation is an instrument capable of defusing internal disputes, so Shiites can attain their rights and aspirations."



Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting for this article.

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