December 10, 2014 Special Dispatch No. 5901

Saudi Columnists: There Is Anti-Shi'ite Incitement In Our Country

December 10, 2014
Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 5901

On November 3, 2014, on the Shi'ite 'Ashura holiday that marks the anniversary of the 680 CE Battle of Karbala and the death of Imam Hussein, several masked men opened fire at a Husseiniya, or Shi'ite religious center, in the village of Al-Dalwa in the eastern Saudi Governorate of Al-Ahsa, killing eight Shi'ites and wounding several more.[1] The attack, carried out by Sunnis, sparked fear among the Saudi authorities of an escalation in Sunni-Shi'ite tension in the kingdom; for this reason, the authorities quickly took steps aimed at dissipating this tension and preventing unrest.

Thus, just a few hours after the attack, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced that suspects had already been arrested.[2] At the same time, official Saudi circles hastened to vehemently condemn the attack, and stressed that it was a terror attack carried out by "Khawarij"[3] and "aimed at sparking fitna," that is, civil war. They also claimed that the perpetrators were from global jihad organizations.[4] Saudi officials, headed by Interior Minister Emir Muhammad bin Naif, paid condolence calls to the families of the victims and visited the wounded, extending condolences and get-well wishes from King 'Abdallah bin Abd Al-'Aziz and Crown Prince Salman bin Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Sa'ud and emphasizing that the king was determined "that security would prevail across the kingdom" and that "security personnel will strike with an iron fist at anyone trying to harm the security of the homeland."[5] The governor of Al-Ahsa governorate called the attack "a criminal and dastardly terrorist operation... lacking any shred of humanity" but emphasized that "Al-Ahsa Governorate will remain united."[6] In addition, it was reported that Saudi Prince Walid bin Tallal had donated 2.5 million riyals to the families of the victims.[7]

Funeral of Al-Ahsa victims (image: Al-Iqtisadiyya, Saudi Arabia, November 9, 2014)

The religious establishment in Saudi Arabia also hastened to condemn the incident. Saudi Mufti 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh called the incident "a cruel and oppressing terrorist attack" and its planners "hypocrites [munafikoun][8] who have gone astray and who want to ignite fitna within the ummah."[9]A member of the Saudi Senior Clerics Council condemned the attack as "a loathsome crime whose perpetrators deserve the harshest of shari'a punishments" and called on citizens in the kingdom to "not allow the enemies of this religion and this country to harm our unity and stability as they seek to do."[10] Religious police head 'Abd Al-Latif bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh also denounced the attack, saying that it "contradicts the religion, religious law, values, and morality," and stressing that it would only increase unity among the people in the homeland.[11] In addition, the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs ordered mosque preachers to devote their Friday sermons to condemning the attack.[12]

At the same time, the Saudi government press mobilized for a campaign condemning the attack. The establishment press published dozens of editorials and op-eds reiterating and stressing the kingdom's "unity," "cohesion," and "coexistence." These articles stated that the attack was aimed at igniting fitna in the country but that instead "the Saudi street had united as one man against the terrorism," proving that the entire Saudi nation, both Sunnis and Shi'ites, were together and united.[13]

Saudi Interior Minister Muhammad bin Naif (standing third from left) paying condolence call to victims' families

Against this backdrop, a handful of articles in the Saudi press stood out for their deviation from this line; the attack had not come out of nowhere, they said, adding that there was anti-Shi'ite incitement in the kingdom on the part of the religious establishment, preachers, and even university lecturers - and that it was on the rise. Some of the articles even claimed that the Saudi authorities were aware of it but allowed it to continue, and called for wiping it out and acting against the inciters. One writer even claimed that the campaign of condemnation of the attack and declarations about Saudi unity was just for show.

This paper will present translated excerpts from these articles: 

Saudi Journalist: The Campaign Of Condemnation Of The Attack And Promotion Of Sunni-Shi'ite Unity Is A Lie; In Saudi Arabia, There Is A Discourse Of Hatred

In a blunt article titled "Don't Lie - Sunni-Shi'ite Hatred Is Real," published November 6, 2014 on the website of the Saudi Al-Arabiya channel, Saudi journalist Fares bin Hazem spoke out against the many condemnations of the Al-Ahsa attack in the Saudi media. He said that the statement regarding the Sunni-Shi'ite coexistence in Saudi Arabia that has been constantly reiterated by Saudi officials and media since the attack is a distortion of the truth, and a big lie. He wrote: "We are currently witnessing, and we will witness in the days to come, a campaign of deception regarding Sunni-Shi'ite unity in Saudi Arabia. One incident [the Al-Ahsa attack] exposed the mutual Sunni-Shi'ite hatred [in the country]. The campaign of announcements, condemnations, and outcry [over the attack] will not last long, and everyone will return to their usual custom of actualizing the extremist discourse. The Sunni-Shi'ite hatred in Saudi Arabia is no different than in the rest of the [Muslim] countries. These are general sentiments that cross borders, the intensity of which is determined by the regime in each country...

"The daily Saudi reality is full of hatred campaigns. It is the clerics who have laid the foundations, and society that has adopted them. No party is innocent. The extremists, whether Sunni or Shi'ite, are all the same. They are similar in their statements, and they feed society their ideas - they did it yesterday, and they will do it tomorrow and the day after as well. The solution will not come via a campaign of announcements [of condemnation] or via the romance of denunciation that is common these days.

"A brief look at the social discourse - the one that doesn't appear in the media - shows the intensity [of the hostility] between the sides. Each side feeds its public with toxic ideas [saturated with] hatred towards the other. It is this situation that in recent decades has caused immense social crises, [during which] the Sunnis and Shi'ites became different in their dialect, dress, and even style of mustache and beard.

"When it is left to the clerics to determine what [path] society will choose, it cannot be expected that they will turn to peace and coexistence. The slogans [of coexistence] will continue to be declarations without deeds. The best example of this is the religious events that become spectacles of fanning hatred, since every side assesses the other on a religious basis. In all cases, they do not [lay down] a foundation for coexistence and cooperation; [coexistence and cooperation are invoked] only at press conferences that maintain the ongoing lie [that they actually exist].

"The celebration of national [unity] now underway is a clear case of self-delusion. The general social discourse [in Saudi Arabia] is one of hatred. Don't lie."[14]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Editor: We Must Act Against Those Who Take Advantage Of Their Authority To Incite Against Shi'ites

In contrast to bin Hazem, who claimed that sectarian incitement is commonplace in Saudi Arabia and even that it is encouraged by the authorities, Salman Al-Dossary, editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote that the Saudi government firmly rejects anti-Shi'ite incitement in the country, but acknowledged that there was such incitement among a tiny minority of the population. He said that those who belong to this minority take advantage of their status and authority to incite against the Shi'ites, and feel they can do so  with impunity, and called for rectifying this situation. He wrote:

"This incident in Al-Ahsa may be an opportune moment to once and for all draw a line in the sand between what has come before and what will come in the future. The Saudi government is not institutionally racist, nor does it tolerate this phenomenon in any way. The efforts of these sectarian instigators, who seek to widen the cracks between the different confessional groupings in Saudi society, must now be put to a swift end. But this will not happen so long as this minority believes it can do as it pleases with impunity, finding support here and there, without the security services or the law being able to apprehend and call to account those who commit such actions. No one has the right to impose their sectarian outlook on an entire nation, to divide its population into first- and second-class citizens.

"The move by the Saudi government last week to release a unified Friday sermon for all mosques across the country, in which the Al-Ahsa attack is condemned in the most unambiguous terms, is a colossal one, as are the efforts announced to root out all sectarian rhetoric from Sunni mosques in the country. But this rhetoric clearly will not go down without a fight. That very same Friday [November 8, 2014], I was praying at a mosque in the eastern city of Al-Khobar, and I found the preacher warning during his sermon of the dangers the Shi'ites and the 'Khawarij posed to the faith. It is people such as these that endanger the government's laudable efforts."[15]

Saudi Columnist: University Lecturers In Saudi Arabia Tweet Anti-Shi'ite Incitement And Foment Civil War

Similarly, Ali Al-Sharimi, columnist for the Saudi government daily Al-Watan, spoke out in a November 6, 2014 article against the expanding phenomenon of Saudi clerics who are also lecturers at Saudi universities and who incite against Shi'ites in the country via Twitter and called for taking steps against them. He wrote:

"I have never stopped warning against the rise of extremist groups afflicted with the disease of sectarianism, which incite to murder people just because they belong to a different sect. I wrote about this a few years ago, asking whether the people who take this bullying approach have the right to incite the masses to participate in violent actions. Are they allowed to bring us back to the backwardness and barbarism of the Middle Ages? I have also repeatedly demanded that the Education Ministry, including all its many and varied institutions, reexamine the religious curricula, purge them of the defects that contravene the values of human rights that our religion encourages - such as religious extremism... I have also demanded the silencing of the extremist preachers who pray for the demise of some of the groups in Islam that are different from them...

"I will be frank and tell the full truth: No strategy for fighting terrorism will be effective if it does not grasp the [necessity of] dealing with the third side of [the] terrorism [triangle, that is,] its embrace by society.

"That is, it is not enough to punish the little guy who commits the crime and leave the big inciter alone... I cannot forget the hashtags on Twitter a few months ago that [encouraged] sectarian war. These were started by several academic preachers in the kingdom who have the title 'Dr.' These, by means of blunt tweets, incite against [Saudi] citizens belonging to one of the Islamic sects [i.e. Shi'ites].I used to think it was only [a handful of] vampires on Twitter, who sit in the dark caves of hatred, resentment, invective, and takfir [accusations of heresy], [while] hiding behind pseudonyms. But now I realize that the issue has become much worse, for some university lecturers repeatedly and brazenly tweet in their own names, and in essence everything they do is to encourage civil war and rioting, and to disrupt the public order, social stability, and national and social unity. We must bury these [deeds], and stop them - Look, their tweets have now been translated into action[in the Al-Ahsa attack].

"Therefore, I do not hesitate to again demand that the Interior Ministry pass a law defining as criminal all those who show any kind of racism towards the other, and all those who spread hatred in society. If the [existing] punitive laws demand to punish all those who curse, slander, or defame, then it is unreasonable that those who incite and play with sectarianism will be immune from punishment and will go free... and will not receive any punishment that will deter them..."[16]

Saudi Journalist: Saudi Society Is Steeped In Racism

In an article he published in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, prominent Saudi journalist Hussein Shobokshi sharply attacked the racism and extremism which, he said, permeate Saudi society and  find expression, inter alia, in school curricula and in the media. He argued that this is a problem as serious as the Al-Ahsa attack itself, which was the most recent violent expression of this racism. He wondered how Saudi society, which takes pride in its religious piety, is so steeped in this racial, tribal and sectarian discrimination, which is prohibited in Islam, and expressed satisfaction that the Saudi Shura Council means to discuss a draft law criminalizing expressions of racism. He called to approve and enforce this law immediately and strictly, noting that it has been on the Council's table for six years but has not been approved despite the dire need for it.

Shobokshi wrote: "It is strange that Saudi society, which is conservative and pious by nature, and takes pride in its adherence to the directives of the monotheistic Islam, ignores Allah's clear and explicit command to abandon the pre-Islamic custom of taking pride in tribes and [tribal] affiliation, and is mired in racial discrimination, in all its forms.

"Fanaticism and irresponsibility have become a dangerous cancer taking various forms. Recently, all sectors of society were horrified by a ghastly murder perpetrated by criminal extremist killers in the Al-Ahsa region, which claimed the lives of innocent Shi'ite civilians. The positive response to the event proves that a natural instinct exists to oppose bloodshed and killing in the name of divisive and destructive slogans Racism is not expressed only in this brutal and murderous way; it has other manifestations as well, no less damaging and negative... [Racist] considerations exist in education, employment, sports, marriage and various social relations, and this gradually transforms society into isolated 'cantons' and 'islands,' [a problem] that needs to be addressed immediately.

"The extremism of open incitement, which reveals its ugly face on the social networks, has evidently become a dangerous disease that, when ignored, becomes a security danger threatening the stability of the delicate and sensitive social balance. The issue must be addressed more seriously [by] purging all poison from books and curricula, and criminalizing all expressions [of racism] in literary forums and study curricula, as well as religious circles, sports and the media.

 "The destruction seen everywhere in the region surrounding Saudi Arabia, committed in the name of [some] tribe, community, region or [religious] school, should serve as a loud warning bell calling to treat this issue [i.e., the violence] and the social terrorism [i.e., the racism that causes it] as equally [dangerous], rather than dismiss every criminal who seeks to divide society into classes, which contravenes the directives of IslamÔǪ

"The mechanism [i.e., draft law] that the Shura Council has announced it will examine is an important social and cultural measure, but it will be meaningless unless it is justly and strictly enforced, immediately and without exception."[17]

Saudi Journalists On Twitter: Attack Was The Natural Result Of Anti-Shi'ite Incitement In The Kingdom

Many Saudi journalists and internet users took to Twitter to condemn the anti-Shi'ite incitement in Saudi Arabia, which is expressed in many fields. The following are some notable tweets:

Muhammad Aal Al-Sheikh, a columnist for the official daily Al-Jazirah, tweeted: "After the Al-Ahsa attack, will our sheikhs understand that Ibn Taymiyya's culture, which incites Sunnis against Shi'ites, will bring disaster upon us that will cause the fate of our homeland and the unity of our people to be like Iraq's?"[18]

Several tweets condemned Sheikh Nasser Al-Omar, a prominent radical Saudi cleric who is known for inciting against Shi'ites and who recently called not to accuse any group of people of carrying out the attack in Al-Ahsa with no proof. For instance, Saudi writer Muhammad Al-Saif tweeted: "Sheikh Nasser, there is no doubt that the perpetrator of the attack read your book The Reality of Shi'ites in the Country of Monotheism, and became zealous because of your words and your incitement..."[19]

Yousef Aba Al-Khail, a columnist for the official daily Al-Riyadh, wrote: "Many of those who condemned the event in Al-Ahsa were from among those who incite sectarianism and spread religious hatred. It has always been this way - they kill their rival and come to his funeral!"[20]

The Hashtag "Al-Ahsa United Against Fitna" featured a tweet from Anas Zahid, a Saudi writer for the official dailies Al-Medina and Al-Sharq, who wrote: "For years there has been a religious discourse that incites against Shi'ites, and this crime is [just] its first result, so long as we do not legislate a law criminalizing sectarian incitement."[21]

The hashtag also included a tweet by Al-Riyadh journalist Muhammad 'Ali Al-Mahmoud, who wrote: "Young men who hear the Friday preacher calling to kill Shi'ites, and similar things - what can they do if this preacher's words convince them?!"[22]

Saudi Shi'ite writer Hassan Aal Hamadah tweeted: "[This] country is being eaten away by sectarianism. Curricula accuse us of being infidels. The media incites against us. Preachers demand to slaughter us. ISIS members threaten to strap bombs to themselves to blow us up. Therefore, it is only natural that there are martyrs [killed] in Al-Ahsa."[23]



[1],  Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 4, 2014.

[2], November 5, 2014; Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 4, 2014.

[3] The Khawarij were an infamous early Muslim school that rebelled against the central authority and was quick to declare other Muslims apostates.

[4]Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 5, 2014; Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 9, 2014.

[5]Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 6, 2014.

[6]Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 5, 2014.

[7]Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 9, 2014.

[8]Munafikoun is a Koranic reference to those in Al-Madina who declared their belief in Islam but did not accept the authority of the Prophet Muhammad; according to the Koran, their punishment awaits them in Hell.

[9]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 5, 2014.

[10]Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 4, 2014.

[11]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 7, 2014.

[12]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 6, 2014.

[13] See for example Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 5 and 6, 2014; Al-Jazirah and 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), November 6, 2014; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 6, 2014; Al-Madina and Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), November 7, 2014.

[14], November 6, 2014.

[15], November 10, 2014.

[16]Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 6, 2014.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 26, 2014.

[18], November 4, 2014.

[19], November 4, 2014.

[20], November 5, 2014.

[21], November 4, 2014.

[22], November 4, 2014.

[23], November 3, 2014.

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