Should Shiites be treated as Muslims

Saudi Arabia: Equal Treatment for Shiites

(New York, September 3, 2009) - Saudi authorities should treat the Shiite Muslim minority as equal citizens, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Saudi government should also set up commissions to investigate the cases of arbitrary detention of Shiites and to develop recommendations for measures to end systematic state discrimination. It is estimated that between 10 and 15 percent of the Saudi population are Shiite.

The 32-page report "Denied Dignity: Systematic Discrimination and Hostility toward Saudi Shia Citizens" documents the most violent religious tensions the kingdom has seen in years. This was triggered in February 2009 by confrontations between Shiite pilgrims and the religious police in Medina. In March, Shiite demonstrators were arbitrarily arrested in the Eastern Province. The closure of private Shiite prayer rooms in Khobar, which began in July 2008, and the detention of Shiite religious leaders in Ahsa that year have also contributed to the tension.

"All the Saudi Shiites want the government to respect and treat them equally," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "And yet the Saudi authorities regularly treat these people with contempt and suspicion."

The government should also appoint a commission to investigate the extent to which Muslims of different faiths can peacefully use holy sites together, particularly in Mecca and Medina, according to Human Rights Watch. King Abdullah has taken some steps towards religious tolerance, but discrimination by state institutions persists.

Between February 20 and 24, 2009, there were confrontations between Shiite pilgrims from the predominantly Shiite Eastern Province and the Sunni religious police. The pilgrims had traveled to Medina on the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Mohammed. The clashes broke out in Baqi Cemetery because of the different dogmas of the two faiths in relation to the rituals in remembrance of the dead. Security forces shot a 15-year-old pilgrim in the chest and an unknown civilian stabbed a Shiite religious leader in the back. During his attack, he yelled, "Kill these infidels [Shiites]." The authorities denied claims that there were injuries and downplayed the subsequent detention of Shiite pilgrims. On March 5, however, King Abdullah ordered all those arrested in Medina to be released from custody.

At the end of February and beginning of March, Shiites protested in the cities of Qatif and Safwa in the Eastern Province and expressed their solidarity with those detained in Medina. As a result of a sermon by the Shiite clergyman Nimr al-Nimr, in which he said: “Our dignity is worth more than unity,” protests in Awwamiyya also broke out in Awwamiyya with demands for equal treatment. The security forces responded by arresting dozens of demonstrators, many of whom were held for months.

In May, June and July the police allegedly arrested Shiites in Khobar on the instructions of the district government of the Eastern Province. The police are said to have pressured the Shiites to close private rooms for community prayer. One of these Shiites, Abdullah Muhanna, was held from May 25 to July 1. There are no Shiite mosques in Khobar, but there are numerous Sunni mosques that are state-supported.

In Ahsa ‘, in the southeastern province, the authorities detained at least 20 Shiites between January and July for their religious or cultural practices. These include the customs that women study the Koran and that special clothing is sold for religious ceremonies. The detainees were held for periods ranging from a week to a month without a judicial decision. In Ahsa ‘there have been religiously motivated arrests since at least 2001.

State discrimination against Shiites is not limited to religion. The report points to discrimination in education, where Shiites are not allowed to teach religion and Shiite students are told by Sunni teachers that they are infidels. Attention is also drawn to partiality in the judiciary. Sunni judges, for example, sometimes exclude Shiite witnesses from the trial because of their religion and only follow the teachings of Sunni law. Shiites are not allowed to be judges in ordinary courts.

This exclusion also applies to employment. There is not a single Shiite among the government ministers, senior diplomats and military officers. Shiite students generally do not have access to military academies.

In 2003, the then Crown Prince Abdullah initiated the “National Dialogue” and brought together high-ranking Sunni and Shiite clergy for the first time. In 2008, Abdullah - now King - renewed his efforts to promote religious tolerance by first bringing Shiites and Sunnis together in Mecca in June and later, in July and October of the same year, in his speeches in Madrid and New York, calling for tolerance between the religions. Yet there has been no progress towards religious tolerance in Saudi Arabia itself.

“The Saudi government has long viewed its Shiite citizens from the perspective of the Wahhabis and as a risk to the stability of the state. They have been branded as infidels and their national loyalty has been questioned, ”said Whitson. "It is time for Shiite citizens to be given equal rights."