Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Sectarian Executions of Shiites in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Embassy in Iran torched after 47 Shiites executed including leading cleric
By Stephen Morgan

The execution of 47 Shiites, including the leading, cleric, Shaikh Nimr Alnimr, threatens to inflame sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis across the Muslim World. The divide between the two strands of Islam was already extremely tense and has been a key factor in the cause of the break up Iraq and the Syrian civil war. 

Although no regime is justified in taking the life of individuals whatever their crime, these executions were particularly unjust. Those executed were charged with "terrorist crimes against innocent people, properties, and security forces" and "spreading disorder and exposing national security and safety to dangerous threats." These accusations stem from the peaceful demonstration by the minority population of Shiites in Saudi Arabia for equal rights, democracy and better living standards during the Arab Spring of 2011-12. While Shaikh Nimr Alnimr encouraged the protests he himself has never carried weapons, nor has ever advocated violence.

Shiites (or Shias) represent 15% of the Saudi population, comprising about 2 million people. However, in the “kingdom of a thousand princes,” Shiites are treated as second class citizens, who suffer from higher levels of unemployment, lower wages, worse housing and poorer living standards than the Sunni majority. They are discriminated against and barred from jobs in the government and administration.

Despite the pornographic wealth of Saudi Arabia's ruling Sunni elite, the sheiks have done little to alleviate these problems. Instead, when faced with demands for change, they sent in 10,000 troops in the Shiite areas in 2011 to brutally suppress the democracy movement, while, at the same time, sending thousands of troops to help quell the Shiite rebellion in neighboring Bahrain.

The Sunni/Shia schism within Islam goes right back to the death of Mohamed in 632 and differences which arose about his rightful successor. The Saudi Arabian regime has changed little since then. In fact, their attitude to the Shiites has continued to be one of the most sectarian in the Muslim world, deriving its doctrine from the ultra-conservative strand of Sunni Wahhabism they practice.

This religious schism has divided the Middle East into two geographical areas spanning most of the countries in the region. The so-called “Shiite Crescent,” or “Shiite Arc,” stretches across the Middle East from Lebanon, through Syria, Iraq, Iran, the Gulf states, Yemen and all the way to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While Shiites only represent about 15-20 percent of Muslims worldwide, in the Middle East their presence is far greater. They constitute 90% of the population in Iran, 65% in Iraq , 40% in the Lebanon and 20% in Syria. About 20% of the population in Afghanistan and 15% of the population in Pakistan are also Shiites.

In the Gulf States, apart from the 15% of the population they represent in  Saudi Arabia, they also constitute 15% of citizens in the UAE, 10% in Qatar, 30% in Kuwait, 40% in Yemen and 75% in Bahrain. The reason they are discriminated against and repressed so harshly in the Gulf states, is not just the product of Wahhabism, but stems from the fact that the Shiite population is mainly concentrated in the oil producing areas of the region. Unrest or separatist movements are an obvious threat to the huge wealth of the Sunni elites.

Of course, the West couldn't really give a damn about the executions themselves. They are only worried about their ramifications. In particular, they are concerned about the possible disruption of oil supplies and its effects on their profits and the world economy, which could  result from a conflict between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Saudi Arabia, as well as the possibility of widespread unrest by Shiite populations in the Gulf states. A virtual general strike has already broken out in the Eastern oil producing, Shiite areas of Saudi Arabia and huge protests have been reported in neighboring Bahrain.

Moreover, the intensification of sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis could complicate matters for the West in its war against ISIS. Demonstrations by Shiites have erupted in capitals across the Middle East and violence between the two groups will intensify. One of the main reasons for the success of ISIS is that it has been able to profit from the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in both Iraq and Syria. However, there it has been the opposite to Saudi Arabia and has involved discrimination by Shiite elites against underprivileged Sunnis.

In Iraq, The exclusion of Sunnis from the political process led to the sectarian civil war of 2006-7 in which over 600,000 people lost their lives. When following the civil war, promises made of more power-sharing were renegaded upon, Sunnis lost faith in a solution to their problems inside the existing Iraqi state. The feelings of exclusion, discrimination and inequality intensified and were key reasons why Sunni tribes and opposition forces from Saddam Hussein's regime joined forces with ISIS. They made alliances with the ISIS through which many regions would be governed by Sunni tribal leaders under ISIS tutelage, and they have been given important governmental and security positions in the running of the caliphate more generally.

Many do not agree with the ideology of ISIS, but compared to the old Iraq, ISIS has provided them with protection from sectarian Shiite attacks, offered them jobs and some role in the government of their own lands. Without their support, ISIS would never have been able to achieve the spectacular military successes it did, nor rule such a large area of Iraq. Indeed, without the continuing backing of the Sunni tribes, ISIS would be in danger of losing most of the territory it now holds.

The danger is that the executions may further provoke the powerful Shiite militias fighting ISIS to take revenge on innocent Sunnis. They have already carried out atrocities against the local Sunni population in areas they won back from the jihadists. What could make the matter worse is that the Sunni tribes in the south of Iraq, especially in the important Anbar province, are linked by ties to the same tribes which inhabit the northern regions of Saudi Arabia. An intensification of Shiite/Sunni sectarian violence could, in turn, push the Sunni tribes further into the arms of ISIS.  

In Syria, similar sectarian problems have been at the heart of the civil war. The Sunnis, who make up 70% of the population, were discriminated against under the old regime and were angry at the domination of the minority Shia Alawite elite, who represent only around 10% of the population, but dominated government and held most officers' positions in the army and security services.  Assad – an Alawite – derailed the revolution against him into a sectarian civil war, and used the Alawite-led army against the Sunni protesters, as well as unleashing the criminal-based, thugs of the Alawite militia, the shabiha, who carried out massacres and atrocities in Sunni villages and towns. In the turmoil, ISIS again stepped in and presented themselves as the only real force capable of defending Sunnis.

The sectarian conflict in the Middle East is a lose-lose situation for both communities. Its roots are not just theological, but arise from economic conditions and inequalities, intensified by discrimination, and now inflamed by the violence of war. The fall in living standards that resulted from the world recession was the tipping point. Prior to that, despite the dictatorships and discrimination, there was stability and a relatively good standard of living. Under those conditions, Sunnis and Shiites lived in reasonable harmony. Many regions of Baghdad, for instance, were mixed communities and marriage between Sunnis and Shiites was common. The US invasion of Iraq destroyed all that.

It isn't the peoples or religious differences, which are to blame for this situation. If one digs deeper, one will always find the dirty hands of Imperialism and its puppets

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