In Saudi Arabia, just belonging to wrong Muslim sect can be deadly

In Saudi Arabia, just belonging to wrong Muslim sect can be deadly April 17, 2020

Even if you’re a Muslim living in modern-day Saudi Arabia, you can still be executed for trying to spread your faith — if it is not the kingdom’s official Sunni version of Islam.

saudi arabia execution religion shia sunni iran islam
Saudi nemesis: Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazari (front), a top cleric and close associate of Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khameini, leads thousands in prayer at Tehran University after the 1979 Iranian revolution. (Tullio Saba, Flikr, Public Domain)

Of 186 people executed by the Saudi government in 2019, at least 58 were foreign nationals accused of trying to propagate Shia Islam, a capital crime in the Sunni Arab state, according to human rights organization Reprieve, as reported by the British online news site Daily Mail.

Why adherents of Shia Islam suffer such brutality at the hands of the Saudi regime, a longstanding and broadly applied injustice, requires some explaining to the uninitiated.

The Sunni and Shia branches of Islam evolved from a dispute about succession when the new and rapidly expanding faith’s founding prophet, Muhammad, died in 632 A.D. The disagreement was over whether the new leader should be chosen by consensus or by bloodline related to the prophet. Ultimately, the title of caliph was passed to Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s trusted aide, but some Muslims at the time believed the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali should have succeeded him instead.

Skullduggery followed for a number of years. Ali eventually was named caliph after Abu Bakr’s two successors were assassinated, and Ali himself was later assassinated with a poisoned sword at a mosque in what is now Iraq. Ali’s two sons, Hussein and Hasan, then jointly claimed the title, but Hussein and a slew of relatives were murdered in 680 A.D.

The idea of Hussein’s death as martyrdom is a central tenet of Shia doctrine (the term “Shia” comes from shiat Ali in Arabic, meaning “followers of Ali”). Ali’s assassination is formally mourned by Shia faithful each year.

A deep schism in Islam remains from this ancient dispute. Today, most of the Arab world follows Sunni Islam, and Iran contains the largest Shia population, followed by Iraq and pockets of that sect elsewhere.

Of political note, Saudi Arabia’s Shia population is mainly clustered in the critical oil-producing Eastern Province, so Shia in that region have long been viewed by the king and ruling family as a worrisome political hazard, considering their proximity just across the Persian Gulf from Shia Iran, the kingdom’s main geopolitical and religious rival.

The schism has effectively rendered Saudi Arabian Shia as second-class citizens in their own country, despite being Muslims.

In 2016, Saudi government executed prominent Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr for “inciting violence against the state.” Al-Nimr had protested for greater political rights for his Muslim sect in the kingdom and surrounding Arab countries. Forty-seven other Shia and supporters were convicted of terrorism and killed along with al-Nimr in a mass execution. After the execution, Iran’s ruling Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini warned that Saudi Arabia would face “divine vengeance” for killing the outspoken cleric, a sign of the event’s political as well as religious significance.

saudi arabia execution religion shia sunni iran
“Chop Square”: A 2014 picture of Dira Square in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The site was known as “Chop Square” because condemned prisoners were ushered out of this government building to be beheaded in the concrete square. (Luke Richard Thompson, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

This sectarian prejudice in Saudi Arabia sharply illustrates one of the “occupational hazards” of religion, so to speak, where the lust for spiritual purity targets noncomplying “others” as heretics of their own religion. As we saw in Europe’s vicious, bloody Christian holy wars in the Middle Ages between Catholics and various evolving Protestant sects, it’s not just Islam that suffers from the horrors of religious schism.

However, the Saudi brutality toward its Shia citizens is not unique. The government’s apparent comfort with capital punishment targets many human activities officially viewed as crimes, from murder to political opposition to the king.

Since current King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was enthroned in 2015, after the death of beloved King Abdullah, executions in the kingdom have nearly doubled, according to Reprieve. Some 800 execution have been carried out during that period, including 186 in 2019 alone — 37 in one mass execution on April 23, the Daily Mail reported.

By comparison, only 423 executions were performed during 2009-2014. This tends to belie Islam’s oft-stated assertion that it is “a religion of peace.”

Among those executed in King Salman’s reign were two teenagers — Abdulkareem al-Hawaj and Mujtaba al-Sweikat, who were 16 and 17 when arrested. Charges for both included “attending an anti-government protest,” Reprieve reported. Al-Hawaj was also convicted of being a “terrorist,” and Al-Sweikat was “tortured into confessing crimes against the state,” the agency noted, citing reports from other human-rights charities.

But for the purposes of this blog, the execution of Saudis for their religious beliefs in the 21st century is what most alarmingly stands out, although executions are always morally problematic, and unjust ones unconscionable.

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