by Catherine Shakdam (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 8, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1435)
The Saudi regime tolerates no dissent. It also does not allow any calls for reforms or demands for rights. The latest victim is Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, sentenced to death for criticizing regime policies.
Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr, a leading Islamic scholar representing the Shi‘i community in Saudi Arabia is on trial for nothing more than demanding equal rights for all citizens. His case has gone largely unnoticed amid the global focus on the threat posed by the takfiris rampaging through Syria and Iraq.
Ironically, while the takfiris have been unleashed by the Saudi regime in connivance with the US, few commentators outside the social media network have paid much attention to this aspect. The trial and tribulations of Shaykh al-Nimr have also gone largely unreported.
A religious scholar, rights activist and politician, Shaykh al-Nimr has for well over a decade been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, unafraid to challenge the authorities or call for a more inclusive socio-political system where all Saudis of every school of thought would enjoy equal rights and responsibilities. Unfortunately for the Saudi regime, such calls amount to “terrorism.” King Abdullah signed a decree to this effect last February. Far from subduing people, many launched statements on Facebook challenging the regime openly. Within days, millions of people in the Kingdom had visited these sites.
As far as Shaykh al-Nimr is concerned, he has sought to end the kingdom’s reactionary stance, urging King Abdullah to see in his subjects not a threat but as an opportunity for harmonious growth. Such calls for peaceful change and civil rights and equality have been met by systematic oppression and repression.
But there lies the mistake! The trial of this one man will reverberate across the region and potentially set alight already simmering tensions between various sects that the Saudis have deliberately stoked. By putting Shaykh al-Nimr on trial, the House of Saud has crushed any hope for reforms or peaceful change.
Since the Saudi Wahhabis simply do not tolerate what they fear would become a “Shi‘ah uprising” to be laid at the heart of their dominion, the opposition has to be crushed, and all so-called dissidents silenced.
And so began the trial of Shaykh al-Nimr whose death sentence is but a symptom of the Kingdom’s crusade to crush any manifestation of Muhammadi Islam — Shi‘i or Sunni — hence its attempt to put a definite stop to progress and brand any call for change a heresy against the entrenched House of Saud.
But as often in a state where repression becomes the main institutional axis, the opposition only has to find one rallying cry, one pivotal moment where the collective’s fear of oppression and persecution is overcome to turn a movement into a revolutionary storm.
While 2011 provided the latter by breaking the shackles that have kept millions of people across the Muslim East in bondage, Saudi Arabia’s revolutionary spirit still awaits the spark. Shaykh al-Nimr could become that impetus people in the Arabian Peninsula have been waiting for to focus their frustrations on and carry their hopes forward. A smouldering revolutionary pit, the eastern province of Qatif has seen too many of its sons and daughters pay the ultimate price for their dreams of freedom to bear the crucifixion of Shaykh al-Nimr in silence.
With over 30,000 political prisoners — Shi‘is and Sunnis — languishing in Aal Saud dungeons, many have come to realise that it is the regime’s oppressive narrative that in the end will prove its undoing. By banking on its citizens’ fear to impose and assert their rule, Aal Saud royals are simply not equipped to deal with courage and strong political convictions.
Projecting the Kingdom as an oasis of calm and stability amid the tumult and bloodshed that have swept the Muslim East, it may well be that such calm would prove the lull before the storm, one that has already found echo across the entire region.
With an irony that only history can provide, one cannot help but ponder over the symmetry that has arisen between Saudi Arabia 2014 and Iran 1979. While Iran found its catalyst in the return of Imam Khomeini and the subsequent furious repressive deluge that befell the Iranian people, Aal Saud stands to transform a Shi‘i religious scholar’s calls for reforms into a vengeful cry for retribution against not only the monarchy but its archaic ideology of Wahhabism.
It is crucial to understand that while Shaykh al-Nimr’s actions have been political in nature, the regime’s response has come by way of religious repression, thus fanning sectarian hatred. Because his campaign has focused on the right of one community to exercise its religious freedom in peace, a plight that Shi‘i Muslims in Bahrain, Lebanon, Yemen, Kuwait, Syria and Iraq have identified with, Shaykh al-Nimr has come to embody Shi‘ah Islam’s plight for freedom, acceptance and recognition.
Shaykh al-Nimr’s sentencing could further drive a wedge in the region at a time when sectarian tensions have reached a dangerous level, thus creating greater instability and chaos. More troubling yet, the takfiris operating under the erroneous label, the “Islamic State” could interpret Saudi Arabia’s move against Shaykh al-Nimr as a nod of approval for their own religious cleansing and crusade against all Shi‘is in Syria and Iraq.
Shaykh al-Nimr’s religious standing and his position as an outspoken Shi‘i cleric has unified the Saudi opposition under one banner — a development Aal Saud has failed to assess fully, disengaged as they are from their people.
The Martin Luther King of Shi‘i Islam, if Shaykh al-Nimr is executed merely for calling for freedom and reforms, it is likely to give birth to an insurrection movement that will stretch far beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia and will act as a domino effect to challenge other monarchies, that erroneously project themselves as “Sunnis,” in and around the Arabian Peninsula.
Looking back, Aal Saud might just realise that this one “insignificant” man, would by his death, signal the end of Ibn Saud’s monarchical legacy. The lava of resentment is bubbling beneath the surface and it could explode into full fury anytime. Once that happens neither the wealth stolen by Aal Saud, nor its close links with the Americans and the Zionists would be able to protect it. After all, there is ample evidence that many an American puppet have bitten the dust and are no longer even mentioned anywhere except in the most demeaning manner.