Officially, they do not exist. In reality, however, Saudi Arabia’s Shiites account for 15 percent of the kingdom’s population of 20 million.
Last month their existence was tacitly acknowledged when the state media briefly reported a meeting between a delegation of Shiites and the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdallah Ibn Abdel-Aziz.
Those who took part in the meeting say they are bound by a vow of secrecy. But they also say that the talks, which lasted for almost four hours, were held in “a positive atmosphere.”
In any case, the Shiites appear determined to come out of the closet and equal citizenship rights.
The latest sign of their determination came last weekend when they published a petition signed by almost 500 business, cultural, and social leaders of the community.
Addressed to the Crown prince, the petition calls on the government to set a national committee to propose “urgent measures” to remove all discrimination against Shiites and other religious minorities.
The petition refers to the “historic changes in the region,” presumably meaning the war to liberate Iraq, and urges the authorities to “adapt to new circumstances.”
Concentrated in the oil-rich province of Al-Sharqiyah, Saudi Shiites form a good part of the kingdom’s urban middle class. They are also strongly present in the liberal professions and the private business sector.
And, yet, when it comes to public positions, Saudi Shiites shine with their absence. Of the top 400 government positions, a only one is held by a Shiite undersecretary of state. Of the 120 members of the all-appointed Saudi parliament only two are Shiites.
Worse still, the official theological organs of the state, exclusively held by clerics from the Hanbali Sunni school of Islam, publicly castigate Shiites as non-Muslims. Courts, controlled by the Hanbali clerics, do not admit testimony by Shiites. The same clerics have banned marriages between Hanbali Sunnis and Shiites and declared all Shiite marriages as “illegal.”
The Shiites counter by insisting that the Hanbalis, often wrongly known as Wahhabis, do not represent the overwhelming majority that they claim.
“Saudi Arabia is a far richer mosaic of religious beliefs than many people imagine” says a Jeddah scholar on condition of anonymity.
Apart from duodecimains (twelvers), who share the same beliefs as Iranian and Iraqi Shiites, there are Ismaili “sevener” Shiites, a majority in the Najran area, and Zaydi Shiites of Yemeni origin all over the kingdom.
But even the Sunni majority, some 70 percent of the population, is not monolithic. Hanafi and Shafei Sunnis are probably the majority in the Red Sea provinces of the kingdom.
The situation has become more complicated because many heterodox individuals, and at times whole villages and towns, practice taqiyah, or dissimulation, to escape persecution and Discrimination by the majority.
Saudi state policy towards the Shiites has varied between benevolent neglect and active repression.
The late King Faisal Ibn Abdel-Aziz removed many restrictions against the Shiites in the 1960s and enabled them to benefit from state educational and health services. In the 1980s agitators dispatched from Iran tried to mobilize Saudi Shiites in support of a Khoeminist version of their faith.
They failed. But their presence gave the hard-line Hanbali clerics a pretext for seeking new restrictions on Shiites. Some Saudi Shiites fled into exile, mostly to Iran and Britain. In 1987, however, King Fahd Ibn Abdel-Aziz persuaded most of the exiles to return home in exchange for reforms in favor of the Shiites.
With the rise of militant Hanbalism, one version of which is represented by the fugitive terrorist Osama bin Laden, Shiites, including Ismailis and Zaydis, have emerged as the strongest supporters of the royal family.
The rational for their support is that if the Al Saudi dynasty is toppled its place would be taken by fanatics like bin laden who publicly state that Shiites must either convert to Hanbalism or leave the country or face death.
Some radical bin Ladenists have used the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq as a pretext for fomenting violence against the Shiites. They claim that the Taliban regime in Kabul collapsed because Afghan Shiites, the Hazara, and the Badakhshani, cooperated with the U.S. “forces of invasion.” They also blame the quick fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad on Shiites, a majority of the Iraqi population. Some hard-line preachers told mosque congregations that the ultimate aim of the Shiites is to “destroy Muslim Arab states in the interest of the U.S., Israel, and Iran.”
Such is the hatred of the Hanbali clerics for Shiites that they have issued an edict that humanitarian aid collected for Iraq should not be distributed among Iraqi Shiites.
“Let the Shiites of Iraq be fed by their masters: America, Iran and Israel,” thundered one radical Sunni preacher, Sheikh Utba Ibn Marwan, in a Riyadh mosque last week. Conspiracy theorists have been spreading anti-Shiite rumors for months. One such rumor is based on a partial reading of a report presented by the French-born scholar Laurent Murawiec to the National Defense Board in Washington last year.
In the report, which was rejected by the board, Murawiec urged the U.S. to use military force to occupy the Saudi oil provinces where Shiites form a majority of the population.
What is the main reason for the radical Sunnis’ dislike of Shiites? I put the question to Sheikh Abdel-Aziz bin Baz, then Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking Sunni theologian during a four-hour, often stormy, interview.
It turned out that bin Baz was specially shocked by the Shiite claim that even the basic rules of Islam could be open to interpretation and reinterpretation.
“When the Shiites say that Reason (Aql) must be favored over Tradition (Naql), what they mean is putting man in place of God,” the blind sheikh asserted. ” For us Islam is a truth from the beginning (Azal) to the eternity (Abad). It cannot be something today and some thing else tomorrow.”
Such issues, of course, cannot be debated in any useful context for as long as radical Sunni theologians believe that they become “unclean” even by shaking the hand of a Shiite.
Right now Saudi Shiites are making modest demands.
First, they want their faith to be officially acknowledged as a legitimate version of Islam. They base themselves on a 1947 “concordat” signed between Qom, the center of Shiite Islam, and Cairo, the center of Sunni Islam, on mutual recognition and respect.
Next they want the kingdom to purge its educational textbooks of “vicious lies and slanderous claims” against Shiites. (Some books, often financed by the government, claim that Shiism was ” invented by a Jew as a means of splitting Islam” and accuse Shiites of practicing incest and cannibalism in secret.)
Another demand of the Shiites is for legal equality that would include recognition of the marriages and admission of their testimonies at all state courts.
Also, they want the state to allow Shiites to own and manage their own mosques, perform their religious rites, including the mourning ceremonies of Ashura and Arbain, to open schools to train their own theologians, on to go on pilgrimage to Shiite sites in Iraq and Iran.
Further, the Shiites want the government to open the civil service and the armed forces to Shiite candidates.
“It is not normal that there are no Shiite army offices, ministers, governors, mayors, and ambassadors in this kingdom,” says a Shiite businessman from Dhahran. ” This form of religious apartheid is as intolerable as was apartheid based on race.”
It is not at all clear whether the Al Saud is prepared to risk a direct clash with the Hanbali sheikhs to please the Shiites. But some Shiite leaders claim to have “strong allies and sympathizers within the royal family.”
There is one other factor: Iraq may soon emerge as a democracy in which the Shiite majority has the leading role. That prospect, plus the presence of a large American army just next door, has changed the political landscape of the region.
— Amir Taheri, an NRO contributor, is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. Taheri is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com. A version of this piece appeared in the New York Post and is reprinted with the author’s permission.