With the commencement of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic Calendar that is mourned by most Muslims as a month in which the historic Battle of Karbala took place, Shi’as, their Muharram-related rituals and gatherings, along with harsh responses they receive for those have once again become quite a hot potato. And obviously, if you are to talk about Shi’as and the discrimination, hate and persecution they face at the hands of extremists, you will be missing a whole load of content if you don’t include Saudi Arabia in your talk.

The guts of Shi’ism are quite keenly hated by Wahhabism, the base of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Whether it’s the public executions of Shi’a human rights and peace activists, deportation of Shi’a immigrants or arresting and ‘taking care’ of Shia pilgrims who dare to carry out their religious rituals at their holy sites in Medina, KSA is guilty of it all.

I’ve been researching on this topic quite a lot lately and in my research, I had the privilege to get in touch with individuals who had a firsthand experience of the social condition there. One of the people I interviewed for this article was an Indian female who had migrated back from Saudi Arabia four years ago and requested to stay anonymous as “I don’t know how safe it is to display this with my name as my father and brother are still in Saudi. I may seem paranoid but you never know what happens.” She reported that “in Saudi, it wasn’t safe to even disclose that we’re Shi’as. And if a family was recognized as one, they were sent back to their own country.” Upon enquiring my interviewee about how favorable the climate was in KSA for people who wished to visit the Baqee Cemetery in Medina, I was given the reply that: “A few years ago, they built boundaries around the Baqee [Cemetery] with nets, so that people could only view it and not enter it, [and] now they’ve covered everything so that nothing is visible. Yes, they do arrest people if that (ritual lamentation and recitation of eulogies) happens. In short, it’s a crime to be a Shi’a there.”

As someone who has always taken a keen interest in the political happenings of Saudi Arabia and all that makes it to the international media after the country’s strict media censorship, I can testify to her report. In an article published in 2016, it was reported that nine Shi’a Bahraini pilgrims were detained in Saudi Arabia, with the authorities refusing to provide any charges leveled against them. Once more, my interviewee said about the arrests that “Places like Jubail and Al-Hasa are Shi’a dominated areas but even [then] if there is a Juloos (non-violent, religious procession), only the Saudi Shi’as are safe, so many Pakistanis and Indians disappeared because they participated in the Juloos and the Police ‘took care’ of them.”

The interviewee further added in her report that “the only way we could practice our Islam was through holding family gatherings, so all our Shi’a family friends held a programme at their place every week. But we had to be very careful about it, especially in Muharram with reciting Nauhas (ritual lamentations/eulogies).” One other reporter, a woman in her sixties hailing from Pakistan an having spent a good part of her life in Saudi said recalled to me how it was like for them to organize weekly prayer gatherings on Thursday nights. She told me that they had to be discreet and could not risk letting anyone in their neighborhood know about it, lest they may inform the police. She said that they couldn’t use speakers for any private gatherings they held, because it created the risk of the noise of their easily recognizable Shi’a prayer (Dua-e-Tawassol) creating serious consequences for them.

The harsh treatment received by Shi’as in general in Saudi Arabia is not a new or a sporadic thing.

A press article published in Foreign Policy, cited in November that Saudi Arabian Shi’as says that: |We were too scared to leave our homes, and most of the shops were shut down or burnt’, a resident of Awamiya, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province, told me this month.” Among those officially executed for non-violent activism in KSA is the world-known Shia rights activist and author, Sheikh Baqir al-Nimer and the list doesn’t start or end with him.

Protestors against the execution of Sheikh Baqir al Nimr, Saudi Arabian Shia rights activist and author

If I were to make a list of Saudi atrocities on the Shi’a minority, there’s a heavy chance I’d go way beyond my word limit, and still not be able to conclude it. Here, the real question is why a so-called ‘Islamic Kingdom’ is bent on continuing with its oppressive ways of dealing with the Shi’a minority, which is indeed a sect inside the fold of Islam itself. The answer lies in researching about the ‘Islam’ Saudi Arabia preaches and takes its roots from. There are a lot of Sunni Muslim countries where the Shi’a minority is residing quite peacefully and harmoniously, thus making it clear that Sunni Islam is not the problem. Such oppressive and aggressive treatment of minorities takes shape when and where doctrines like Wahhabism and Salafism are preached and enforced on a governmental level. I am in the process of doing more research on the topic of Wahhabism and its derivatives, and hope to shed light on these topics in my future articles. Meanwhile, all people who are capable of feeling for humanity are left with a few points to ponder over: Why are humans tolerating such oppression and violation of the rights of their fellow humans who happen to be a part of a religious minority? Why are world organizations that chant slogans of peace silent? Is it because the oppression is being committed by those who happen to be rich exporters of petroleum? Does the ownership of assets allow one to do as they please?

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