Shia Days of Rage: The Roots of Radicalism in Saudi Arabia
A half world away, the politics of the Middle East can be hard to decipher. The myriad of cultures, societies and institutions can be even more mysterious the religious expression of Islam can seem indecipherable to even those who try and keep up with current events.
The Shia-Sunni divide can be especially difficult to comprehend.
Firstly, to really understand the chasm which separates the two versions of Islam (this is not the Baptist/Methodist divide) a bit of history is in order.
As Islam was going through it’s turbulent formative stages, there was much violence and killings directed at early religious figures. The most significant event was the murder of Ali, son in law of Mohammed. This single event was to have violent and repercussions that have lasted to this day. Ali’s death led to a huge schism between early Muslims. There were those who considered Ali to be the rightful ‘heir to the throne’ and as such, the rightful successor to Mohammed, and there are those who refused the idea of that kind of succession. Followers of Ali morphed into the Shiites, while the majority of Muslims became the Sunnis.
The Sunni persecuted the Shiites, referring to them as non believers or a corrupter of Islam. Within the Sunni Islamic world, the Shiites are considered a sect, a breakaway group that has forsaken Islam.
Each culture defines conflict differently. What may be grievous offenses in one culture are mere slights in others. Cultures also can be differentiated in how they deal with conflict. Some cultures demand violence and confrontation, others insist on negotiation and accommodation.
As long as cultures and societies remain relatively isolated, those comparisons meant little, because most societies and cultures were unaware of what was going on ‘outside.’ Their reality was their existential four cubits. Over the last two hundred years, that was to change dramatically. As technology, travel, trade and political/economic exchanges developed, the isolation of backward Arab societies (in relation to western cultures) from the rest of the world was to come to an end.
With the advent of sunlight, we are offered a glimpse into how some of the Middle East conflict, in the context of the Arab Spring and current events, are played out.
Saudi Arabia may have at first appeared untouched by the 2011 Arab uprisings, but the apparent calm belies a simmering crisis. Shia and Sunni sectarian tensions are arguably at the highest level since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and a harsh government crackdown is mobilizing radical elements in the Shia community and undercutting its pragmatists. The United States faces no shortage of crises in the region, but it would do well to not let this one slip too far off the radar. Aside from obvious concerns about human rights and reform, the continued unrest in the predominantly Shia Eastern Province of the Sunni-led kingdom presents a potential strategic threat to U.S. interests. Iran has historically sought to aid beleaguered Shia communities in its neighborhood, and, as evidenced by the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing and, more recently, the cyberattack on Saudi Aramco in August of this year, it has the capability and intent to hit Saudi Arabia. Currently, there is little evidence of Iranian material support of Shia groups in the Eastern Province, but continued unrest could change that. The mounting frustrations of Saudi youth could translate into a ready pool of recruits, or prompt the reincarnation of the Saudi Hezbollah.
Comprising ten to 15 percent of the kingdom’s population, Saudi Shia have long faced religious discrimination, political marginalization, and economic hardship. Although the Eastern Province contains the majority of Saudi oil reserves, the Shia population there has yet to benefit economically, especially when compared with Sunnis living in the central Najd region, the historic seat of Saudi power. It is therefore unsurprising that the 2011 revolts in Tunis and Cairo reverberated strongly in the east.
Riding on the wave of change in the region, moderate Shia activists rekindled long-dormant relationships with Sunni reformists in the Najd and Hijaz provinces and planned countrywide protests for March 11, 2011. But the so-called Day of Rage fell apart, undermined by mutual distrust among Sunnis and Shia. As the day approached, Web sites and Facebook pages appeared proclaiming uniquely Shia demands and calls for reform. A number of Web-based Sunni activists lambasted the Shia organizers for pursuing a narrowly sectarian agenda that diluted the overall movement and played into the hands of the regime. This development later proved a watershed in the fracturing of the opposition and, arguably, the demise of the Saudi Spring.