BURAYDAH, CENTRAL SAUDI ARABIA—In 2010, I paid a visit to the city of Al-Qatif, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where the largest concentration of the country’s Shi‘a minority lives. An SMS message addressed to me arrived on the mobile phone of my friend Habib, who accompanied me on the trip. Habib is a Shi‘a cleric, donning the trademark symbols of piety of his sect, a turban and a robe. The text message was from another Shi‘a cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, with whom I had visited a year earlier at his home. We had tea together and ate Iranian cashews. The meeting was poignant—a roller coaster of emotions. Between his strident expressions of angst and pungent sense of humor, I found myself crying with him and for him, and crying as well from laughter.
Earlier this week, on January 2, Nimr al-Nimr was executed, together with 44 other Saudis (and two non-Saudi nationals), all indicted and convicted on charges related to the perpetration of lethal violence.
In 2009, Al-Baqi’ cemetery—which is next to the Prophet’s Holy Mosque and final resting place in the sacred city of Medina—witnessed clashes among Shi‘a and Sunni pilgrims, arising from differences between the two sects concerning graveside rituals. Shi‘a Muslims frequent al-Baqi’, home to the graves of members of the Prophet’s family whom they revere. The clashes widened—and in their wake, Sheikh Nimr delivered a series of sermons in which he called for Shi‘a-majority areas to secede from the kingdom and establish a government based on the Iranian revolutionary model of “Wilayat al-Faqih” (“The Rule of the Jurist”). The sermons placed Nimr on a list of men “wanted” by Saudi police, and he went into hiding. In the SMS message that my friend received from al-Nimr, he requested a meeting to solicit my suggestions as to the best ways to solve his problem with the authorities. I considered the request, but declined to meet him: The government requires Saudi citizens to report any encounter with a wanted man, and I judged the value of any advice I could offer him to be less than the risks which our encounter would place upon him.
Nimr’s flight from public view, and even from his closest relatives, stimulated the imagination of scores of Shi‘a youth—marginalized, neglected, unemployed, and influenced by Iranian government propaganda for years. The legendary occultation of the Shi‘a “12th Imam,” a tenet of their faith, raises the perennial question of who the Imam is and where he is hiding, such that Nimr, in vanishing, enjoyed a near-mythic, elevated status. Controversy swelled in his absence, particularly after some members of the Nimr family began to assert that they were “Sayyids,” or descendants of the Prophet, revered by Shi‘a everywhere. These claims led to schisms within his family. By the time Qatif’s violent clashes peaked in 2011, amid region-wide upheaval, Nimr, unseen, had attained an esteem surpassing that of traditional Shi‘a leaders who had enjoyed the highest respect among Shi‘a for decades.
By mid-2012, Al-Awamiya, the second largest township in Al-Qatif, had seen a year and a half of protests and violent, sometimes lethal clashes between demonstrators and police, claiming lives on both sides, but mostly Saudi police. Security forces arrested Nimr after overtaking him in a car chase. Passengers in the car were armed and shooting at police.
On December 13, 2014, Tawfiq al-Sayf, a Saudi writer and intellectual who took off the clerical robe years ago and is one of the most prominent Shi‘a in the country, wrote a memorable comment on his Facebook page. He declared that Shi‘a Al-Qatif is suffering from its own, Shi‘a equivalent of ISIS—native sons bearing arms who terrify anyone who differs with them or who proffers an alternative view of realities in the city. (He received numerous death threats from denizens of Al-Qatif after posting the comment.) Sayf also asserted that during Nimr’s two years in hiding, he had been inciting, organizing, and steering the turbulence Al-Qatif witnessed—causing not only the destruction of government property but also the murder of civilians and members of the security forces—by gunfire and explosions.
Nimr bears some resemblance to Sunni Islamists who begin by expressing reasonable-sounding demands but descend into guerrilla warfare. Nimr’s repeated call in his sermons to establish an Iran-like regime, and for the secession of Shi‘a areas from the kingdom—the latter, an inherently violent goal—constituted, in the eyes of many Saudis, treason, and also led to his exclusion from moderate Shi‘a circles. As Nimr moved toward radicalism and armed activity, his revolutionary approach proved appealing to young men in the area. His followers included the remnants of Hizballah al-Hijaz, the Iranian-backed movement with which Nimr himself was firmly aligned, as well as other “true believers.” They also included drug dealers, wayward teens, and some among the ranks of the unemployed and disenfranchised. He goaded these youth to take up arms, burn government property, and commit murder. This wave of chaos, in providing simple and cheap answers to complex problems, siphoned away support from Shi‘a leaders and notables who have enjoyed considerable social and political esteem.
As is the norm in the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, from the time of Nimr’s arrest in 2009 to the day of his execution, authorities took pains to tend to the needs of his family. His wife received extended treatment for her medical needs in one of America’s finest hospitals. His sons received full scholarships to American universities.
For many decades, Saudi Shi‘a have suffered from sectarian discrimination. They have not enjoyed the freedom to practice their rituals outside of their home regions and neighborhoods. The prevailing Salafi ideologies, embodied by many Saudi clerics, have regarded Shi‘a as having strayed from the “correct path,” and sometimes labeled them as non-Muslims. But meanwhile, paradoxically, the political leadership of the country has increasingly seen to Shi‘a advancement. Shi‘a hold some of the highest and most sensitive positions: at Saudi Aramco, the global oil juggernaut; in Saudi banks; and in various government institutions. In 2001, then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz initiated the “national dialogue,” aiming to ease tensions between Sunnis and Shi‘a and promote civil peace. From 2005 on, the late King Abdullah took many steps to advance this trend further. Shi‘a, who number between 10 and 11 percent of the population, constitute 40 percent of the students who travel abroad at the government’s expense to pursue higher education.
In the second half of 2014, three Shi‘a mosques were attacked by Saudi Sunni nationals identifying as members of ISIS. Shortly after King Salman took the throne on January 21, 2015, he became the first Saudi king ever to donate to rebuilding Shi‘a mosques—the three that had been attacked. The Crown Prince and other members of his family led delegations to convey personal condolences to the families who had lost their children and loved ones. For the first time in the history of the country, hundreds of Saudi Sunnis traveled from disparate provinces to give their own condolences to their fellow, Shi‘a nationals, widely covered in Saudi media and with encouragement from the political leadership. Moreover, King Salman is the first Saudi king under whose rule local establishment media and even Sunni clerics have described the Shi‘a victims of terrorism as martyrs—a sacred Islamic designation, as is well known. The king also recognized the sacrifice of young Shi‘a men who died in an effort to protect the mosques from the terrorists, referring to them as well as “martyrs” in a holy cause.
In 2015, the state established laws to punish anyone who promotes sectarian hatred. Saudi Sunnis were among those subsequently detained by authorities for having posted video clips expressing hostility toward Shi‘a. To anyone familiar with the history of the rule of the Al-Saud family and the heavy hand of Wahhabism and Salafism, these developments can only be seen as indicative of a significant shift.
But the legacy of centuries of hate between Sunnis and Shi‘a cannot be erased in a short time. History moves slowly, and slower still amid civil strife. No one can overtake the flow of history.
Since 2011, many Shi‘a moderates have received threats from armed individuals who participated in the violence in Al-Qatif. The home and personal car of at least one prominent moderate Shi‘a intellectual has been attacked by gunfire. Shi‘a leaders Isam al-Shammasi, Shukri Shammasi, and Muhammad Ridha Nasrallah, among other notables in the area, routinely receive death threats from those armed Shi‘a groups which the intellectual Tawfiq al-Sayf described as the Shi‘a equivalent of ISIS.
Between a tragic legacy and new signs of hope, moderate Shi‘a today have an historic opportunity. They can refuse to be silent in the face of extremists in their midst. They can take the initiative—on their own terms—in pressing for their right to be treated as equals in their native land. They can work to protect their youth from descending into the nihilism of terrorism. They can take part in the even broader national project of reforms that is embraced by both sects, both genders, all intellectual and cultural streams, to continuously improve the country—day by day, year by year, and from one generation to the next.