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Saudi's husseiniya massacre: sectarianism coming home to roost

The murder of Shi'a worshippers in the Eastern Province, by fighters who are returned jihadis, is the latest instance of blow-back. The Saudi regime must quickly change course.

Screenshot from a video of the aftermath of the attack. Screenshot from a video of the aftermath of the attack.On Monday 3 November, tragedy struck in the Saudi Arabian town of Dalwa when three unidentified gunmen opened fire on a ‘group of citizens’, killing five and injuring nine. The next day, two Saudi security officers were killed in a shoot-out with a group of suspects, and two of the assailants were killed. Since then, at least fifteen people have been arrested in connection to the crime. This is an ominous development, not just in Saudi but for the whole Middle East. Only Saudi Arabia can challenge the causes.

The Saudi Press Agency reported it in this very short statement:

Ahsa, Muharram 11, 1436, November 04, 2014, SPA -- Police Information Spokesman in Eastern Region stated that at 11:30 p.m., on Monday evening, 10/01/1436 AH, and during the exit of a group of citizens from one of the sites in the village of Aldaloh in Ahsa Governorate, three masked men opened fire at them from machine guns and personal pistols after getting out of a car parked near the site, resulting in the death of 5 people and injuring 9 others, who were transported to the hospital to receive the necessary medical treatment. Ahsa police started the procedures of criminal investigation, and the incident is still under security follow-up.

The curious thing about this press release is that the Agency fails to mention who the victims are, and where exactly the attack occurred. The massacred individuals were Shi’a men, killed outside of a husseiniya, a Shi’a mourning house where every year, in the first ten days of Muharram, the Shi’a remember and mourn the martyrdom of Hussein -- grandson of the Prophet Muhammad killed by the tyrant Caliph Yazid. As the Islamic lunar calendar is shorter than the Christian solar calendar, the dates shift through the seasons. This year, Ashura (the tenth day of Muharram), fell on Tuesday, November 4. For Shi’a, the story of Hussein’s martyrdom is at the core of their philosophy.

Ahsa is one of the major centres of the Shi’a population, who are concentrated in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern province. This Shi’a minority, approximately 10% of Saudi’s population (between 2-3 million people), never fully accepted being a part of Saudi-- not that they were given the option to, and in turn have been singled out for repression, at certain times more forcefully than at others.

In October, Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr was sentenced to death after having been found guilty of ‘foreign meddling’ and ‘disobeying’ the rulers. The cleric was a leading member of the community in 2011, when the Shi’a were at the forefront of Saudi’s own ‘Arab Spring’ protests, marching out en masse in March of that year. The police responded swiftly and quickly broke their resolve for continual protest. Widely seen as politically motivated, al-Nimr’s death sentence sends a chilling message to the Shi’a of Saudi. The revolt in the eastern province has not been limited to 2011 and Nimr al-Nimr. September 2014 had a surge of protests as well, for example, after police killed one protester that month.

Links to Al-Qaeda

This brings us back to the perpetrators, and who they were. The three alleged gunmen fought in Syria for Al Qaeda before they returned home to commit their attack. It’s the nightmare of every state from which volunteer jihadis have travelled to Syria and Iraq: extremists becoming militarised and returning home to commit violent attacks. The attack on the husseiniya will be seen internationally as just that. The action itself was intended to send out two clear messages:

The first is that the Shi’a Muslim faith is wrong and extinguishing it is righteous. This thinking does not just target Shi’a Islam, it is the underlying thinking of dehumanisation that is behind all the massacres carried out in Iraq and Syria by Al-Qaeda and ISIS, whether they have targeted Shi’a, Christians, Yazidis or any other minorities.

The second message is that religious extremism is no longer contained in war-torn Iraq and Syria. The attack on the husseiniya was small-scale and localised. Though fifteen persons have so far been arrested in connection to the attack, we can assume that the gunmen were probably not acting in connection to some larger, grander project to attack the Shi’a of Dalwa or Ahsa. That it was seemingly uncoordinated is a good thing. That it could happen again, or that such a movement might grow, is profoundly worrying.

A less obviously disturbing factor, but one of supreme importance, is the Saudi media’s choice of what they left out. By removing the facts of who was killed, where they were killed and why they were specifically targeted, the Saudi media fails to criticise the underlying ideology that drove the killers.

They flinched from mentioning the Shi’a faith of the murdered, and of the Shi’a religious ceremony they were participating in. The fact that seven people are dead is a tragedy, but that five of them were Shi’a, and that a religious ceremony was the site of the attack, is a clear statement by the perpetrators. What does it then say about Saudi Arabia, that their media cannot report the faith shared by all the victims of the massacre?

That their faith is not mentioned implies that being Shi’a is something shameful or to be hidden away, that it is not acceptable. This official state discourse is perhaps the more benign form of what is, at its core, a sectarian worldview. But it is these subtle, permitted and encouraged expressions of sectarianism that ultimately allow extremism to thrive.

In Saudi Arabia, some degree of anti-Shi’a feeling is accepted, and that has been allowed to fester into something potentially lethal. The subtle sectarianism of the Saudi regime in this capacity cannot be considered separately from the sectarianism of the extremist ideology of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, especially taking into consideration how Saudi Arabia, historically and presently, so readily produces many young militant jihadis. Another example of the malleability of this discourse is the amount to which private individuals from Saudi (and elsewhere in the Gulf) have been directly responsible for heavily financing Al Qaeda and other salafi-jihadi groups.

A clear but under-reported showcase of the Saudi regime's conflicting reactions to the underlying ideology of the gunmen is what happened on Wednesday, November 5: King Abdulla's minister of culture, Mohieddin Khoja, quit his post soon after Khoja ordered a ban on the Wesal satellite TV channel–infamously known for its anti-Shi’a programmes and messages. Whether or not the sacking has anything to do with the relieved Khoja’s last major act as minister is unknown. The entire affair raises perplexing questions on Saudi’s position on extremism. On the one hand, the Saudi ministry of interior has described it as a ‘terror act’. On the other hand, the timing of Khoja’s sacking may well be interpreted by some as an endorsement of the sectarian messages Wesal broadcasts, much listened to and absorbed by men who might well commit to travelling to Syria and Iraq to join the jihadi groups.

Transnational discourse

Sectarianism crosses boundaries. When in 2011 protests erupted in Bahrain, the Saudi regime did not wait long before intervening. In mid-March, a month after protests began, a state of emergency was declared and the Peninsula Shield Force–a coalition army of all six Gulf-Cooperation Council countries, but in this case composed mainly of Saudi units–entered Bahrain to help suppress the protests. The officially accepted narrative is that this army served only in ‘protecting and securing vital locations’. But their role has never been totally clear, and some Bahrainis claim that the Saudi military participation went far beyond that.

During the state of emergency, Bahrain’s security forces demolished 53 Shi’a mosques, husseiniyas and shrines. Shi’a were targets of intimidation. These problems remain unresolved. Like in Saudi Arabia, sectarianism is a looming threat in Bahrain. Indeed, among the Islamic State’s premier religious imams is the 29-year-old Bahraini, Turki al-Binali. Other Bahrainis have joined him. The Islamic faith, with its transnational concept of brotherhood, cannot be addressed on a country-by-country basis. Ideas and philosophical positions are international, and what happens in Saudi effects what happens in Bahrain, and vice versa.

The terror attack in Saudi is one of the first of its kind since the outbreak of war in Syria and the extraordinary and rapid advance of ISIS. But it very well may not be the last. Saudi Arabia has the opportunity to take a leading stance against extremist ideology, this cannot be done through a security response. Primarily what is needed is an ideological one. This is obviously a major and difficult task for the kingdom's rulers since wahhabism, a cornerstone of Saudi national identity and law, is also the basis of the more extremist militant jihadism. But if conservative Saudi can shift its hegemonic discourse away from this ideology– even if only slightly – it might go a long way to combating the poisonous ideology of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.


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