The Corner

National Security & Defense

Will Saudi Arabia’s Execution of Nimr al-Nimr Lead to War?

The public execution in Saudi Arabia of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has caused an outcry. That country likes to proclaim itself a champion of the Sunni branch of Islam, but Sheikh al-Nimr was a Shiite, the minority branch of Islam that forms about a quarter or maybe a third of the Saudi population. A man seemingly in his late fifties, Sheikh al-Nimr was the unacknowledged leader of the Shiites in the country. This meant that he had the support of Iran, where Shiites are the majority. Since the 1979 revolution in Iran, the Shiites have been pursuing imperial ambitions against the United States and Israel, but above all against Sunnis. To the Saudi regime in contrast, Sheikh al-Nimr was nothing less than a heretic and a traitor.

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) is an Israeli service that keeps up with the news by reproducing on the Internet videos from the Islamic countries and providing translations. As shown by MEMRI, Sheikh al-Nimr is a shock. He uses his sermonizing for exclusive political purposes, raising his voice to rant about the Saudi king and the royal family, calling for their overthrow and delighting that the previous king is in the grave. This style is practized rather widely. Imams in Gaza and Jerusalem, for instance, right now brandish knives in the pulpit and exhort their congregations to go out and kill Jews. But what consequences could Sheikh al-Nimr have expected? He was inviting martyrdom quite as certainly as if he were a suicide bomber.

In the name of their respective sectarian beliefs, Saudi Arabia and Iran are already confronting one another in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and the Islamic caliphate. Iran’s armed intervention alone might have saved Sheikh al-Nimr but things have not yet reached that pitch. Meanwhile Iran is busily executing Sunnis, mostly Arabs from the Arab province of Ahwaz who repudiate violence and have done nothing worse than call for free speech, far more mild in substance and tone than Sheikh al-Nimr.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have identical systems of justice wholly dependent on the rulers and they also share the culture of treating doctrinal beliefs as issues of life and death. Judicial murder is integral to the culture. Nobody can imagine how this can lead to anything other than violence and likely warfare.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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