Despotism in Saudi Arabia
by Stephen Schwartz
PRESIDENT BUSH, in his State of the Union address, gave a stirring summation of the values dear to America and its allies in the struggle against global terrorism. Among the "non-negotiable demands of human dignity," Bush included religious tolerance. He did so at a time when American policymakers and citizens alike are wrestling with the challenges posed by our relationship with Saudi Arabia, a country some promote as our best friend among the Arab powers.
It is not, however, a friend that shares our commitment to religious tolerance. "Religious Freedom in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," a new report issued by the dissident Saudi Institute (www.saudiinstitute.org) in McLean, Va., is a stark reminder of the kingdom's repressive regime in religious affairs, dictated by the Wahhabi dispensation that is the official state sect. Saudi Arabia's ban on Christian worship and its physical exclusion of Jews from the country are familiar. But the lengths to which the Saudi authorities go to suppress Islamic alternatives to Wahhabism are virtually unknown outside the Muslim world.
Among the more than 200 religious prisoners currently being held in Saudi Arabia are 17 who face execution or life sentences. Their offense: They are Shiite Muslims. Shiites are the most oppressed victims of Wahhabism in the kingdom. They are forced to change their names (as were Jews in Nazi Germany, Koreans under Japanese imperialism, and Albanians ruled by the Serbs). Further, thousands of Shiites are barred from leaving the country (in a measure reminiscent of Soviet communism).
In the southern city of Najran, Shiites face a campaign to force their conversion to Wahhabi Sunni Islam. As the new report notes, "The history of Shiaism in Najran is 1,400 years old." Nevertheless, a state religious commissar, Sheikh Ali Khursan, denounced the Shiites as "infidels" to the Wall Street Journal last month. Shiite clerics have been arrested on charges of "sorcery," and Shiites have been accused of conducting orgies in their meeting places.
One Shiite divine, Sheikh Mahdi Theab al-Mahaan, was imprisoned for three years and received 3,000 lashes, a common punishment for religious unorthodoxy. Four Shiite high school students in Najran, aged 16 and 17, were arrested after a fight with a Wahhabi instructor who insulted their faith. They received two to four years in jail and 500 to 800 lashes each. Sheikh Ahmed Turki al-Sa'ab was arrested on January 15, six days after he was quoted in the Wall Street Journal.
On April 23, 2000, Saudi intelligence agents and religious police stormed al-Mansoura, the main Shiite mosque in Najran. This attack followed a campaign of incitement by the city's lead judge, Sheikh Muhammad al-Askari. Officers arrested a Shiite religious teacher in the mosque, confiscated religious manuscripts, and shot one Shiite Muslim. About 60 Shiites gathered at the residence of the regional governor (in a Holiday Inn!) to protest the arrest of the teacher. Trucks mounted with machine guns were posted outside the hotel, and two Shiite protesters were shot dead and dozens wounded. The injured were taken from the hospital to prison, where they remain today.
Authorities sent emergency forces to the town, but they could not enter the neighborhood of the al-Mansoura mosque; some Shiites armed themselves to guard the home of their local leader, Sheikh Husayn Ismail al-Makrami. The government sent army troops to the city, accompanied by 20 American-made tanks and other combat vehicles. The military occupation lasted a week, during which 600 Shiites were arrested on the streets, some of them beaten.
REPRESSION, of course, is hardly confined to Najran. And members of three non-Wahhabi Sunni sects, the Malikis, Shafi'is, and Hanafis, are also subjected to discrimination. All textbooks used in Saudi Arabia are based on Wahhabi doctrines and condemn other Sunnis as heretics, even though Shafi'i Islam was once dominant in the country and its adherents still comprise the majority in western Arabia. Publications by non-Wahhabi sects are banned, confiscated, and burned. Religious commentaries on state electronic media are limited to official Wahhabi arguments. Meanwhile, here in the United States, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, an official Saudi body with an office in Falls Church, Va., distributes literature describing Shiite Islam as the product of a Jewish conspiracy.
The success of the 70-year campaign of disinformation maintained in the West to protect Saudi power is reaching an end. Difficult as it may be for our leaders to say it in public, it is increasingly clear that Saudi Arabian Wahhabism is part of the "axis of evil"--and possibly the most dangerous part.