By Sayed Hasan
“Since our birth, we are subjected to oppression, intimidation, persecution and terror, so that even the walls frightened us. Even the walls! Is there anybody who has not suffered injustice and oppression in this country? I am over 50 years old, that's half a century. Since I was born, I never felt safe in this country, in no part of it, since my childhood. We are continually accused, threatened and attacked from all sides... Our chests will stay bare against your bullets and our hands will remain empty (unarmed), but our hearts will remain full of faith... We have only one alternative: to live on this land as free and dignified men, or be buried with honours (after martyrdom)... We will never cease to denounce your oppression and claim our rights.”
Nimr al-Nimr, 7 October 2011.
The Western media and the Arab world have widely reported the execution by beheading of Shi'a cleric Nimr Baqer al-Nimr and 46 other Saudi – mostly Sunnis – accused of terrorism and/or sedition. They also emphasized the virulent reactions of the Shiite world, from Sayed Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah (who went as far as talking of a death certificate for the dynastic rule of the Saud), via that of Sayed Ali Sistani, the highest religious authority of Iraq. Even if it was hardly mentioned, other bodies, movements and personalities have condemned the execution, in Iraq, in Pakistan, in India, in Yemen, in Bahrain and in Lebanon, including the Iraqi Council of Fatwas (Sunni), the Palestinian PFLP and human rights organisations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The emphasis was focused on the sectarian nature of the event, often seen in the context of a “growing gap” between Sunnis and Shiites, especially between Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam and the “heart” of Sunnism, and Iran, the spiritual heart of Shiism, in an apparent power struggle for domination of the Middle East. The age old conflict between “Sunnis” or “loyalists” of the “School of the Caliphs” (Companions who led the Muslim world after the death of the Prophet) on the one hand, and the “Shiites” or “supporters” of the “School of the Household” (Imams of the lineage of the Prophet, figures of the “opposition”) on the other hand, is very often presented as the key for understanding the ruthless struggles and wars that have torn the region. And this until the US-Saudi coalition which has been devastating for 9 months Zaydi Yemen – a minority branch of Shiism –, and the fight against Daesh which a “traditional” alliance would be opposed to (North America and Europe combined with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf oil monarchies) and an “orthodox” alliance (Shiite Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah, Alawite Syria – another minority branch of Shiism – and Russia).
But these analyses, overly simplistic, reflect a misunderstanding of the history of the Arab-Muslim world and the geopolitics of the Middle East, and are based on fallacious assumptions that do not withstand scrutiny. And, tellingly, they do not even pose the necessary questions, namely, as we are talking about the execution of an important religious figure, those of the alleged, suspected and/or probable motivations of that act, moreover in such a context, as Nimr al-Nimr had been imprisoned since July 2012 and sentenced to death for over a year.
So who was Nimr al-Nimr? He was indeed a Shiite religious figure (a “Sheikh”), who had followed a theological curriculum in Iran and Syria before returning to preach in his home province of Qatif, in Saudi Arabia. But first of all, it must be emphasized that the sole qualifier of “religious” is insufficient to describe Nimr al-Nimr, as secularism does not reign in the Muslim World, with many major political figures being clerics (Hassan al-Banna, Sayed Qutb, Ruhullah Khomeini, Hassan Nasrallah, etc.), especially after (successful) Western efforts to marginalise and/or destroy secular leaders and States (Nasser's Egypt, Saddam Hussein's Iraq , Gaddafi's Libya, Bashar al-Assad's Syria), with the results we are familiar with. Nimr al-Nimr must certainly be regarded as a religious preacher, but also, undeniably, as a major political figure of the opposition, very popular among the youth, and having an influence way beyond his sect and his country, thanks to his charisma and his courage against the flagrant injustices of Saudi society.
Nimr al-Nimr denounced with great virulence the Saudi Dynasty and called for reforms and a democratisation of the country, faced with a medieval monarchy which, as everyone knows, considers human rights, freedoms in general and freedom of speech in particular, as heresies, and, let it be emphasised, punishes heresy with the edge of the sword and crucifixion. Nimr al-Nimr was often imprisoned, and certainly tortured, for his vehement declarations and his participation in peaceful demonstrations despite the violence which citizens were subject to, repression using live ammunition, abusive arrests, torture, etc. In 2012, the British newspaper The Guardian described this situation as “the least reported conflict in the Middle East”, explaining that the Western media omertà on the Saudi “Arab Spring” is due to energy contracts and huge arms deals made with this oil monarchy by Washington and London – and Paris –, of which it is a strategic ally.
The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is described in these terms by Amnesty International in its 2014-2015 report:
“In the Gulf, authorities in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were unrelenting in their efforts to stifle dissent and stamp out any sign of opposition to those holding power, confident that their main allies among the western democracies were unlikely to demur. ... [In Saudi Arabia,] the government severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and cracked down on dissent, arresting and imprisoning critics, including human rights defenders. Many received unfair trials before courts that failed to respect due process, including a special anti-terrorism court that handed down death sentences. New legislation effectively equated criticism of the government and other peaceful activities with terrorism. The authorities clamped down on online activism and intimidated activists and family members who reported human rights violations. Discrimination against the Shi’a minority remained entrenched; some Shi’a activists were sentenced to death and scores received lengthy prison terms. Torture of detainees was reportedly common; courts convicted defendants on the basis of torture-tainted “confessions” and sentenced others to flogging… The government did not permit the existence of political parties, trade unions and independent human rights groups, and it arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned those who set up or participated in unlicenced organizations.... All public gatherings, including demonstrations, remained prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those who sought to defy the ban faced arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.”
As we see, it is at the peril of his life – and that of his family – that anyone engages in politics in Saudi Arabia.
Nimr al-Nimr was a major figure in this popular protest movement that called for the respect of human rights and more freedoms, and despite the provocations and abuses to which the demonstrators were subject, including his nephew of 17 years who was also arrested, tortured and sentenced to death – he is still awaiting execution –, he remained a staunch supporter of non-violence. It should be noted that the same applies to the protest movement in Bahrain that has continued since 2011 and whose leaders have maintained a peaceful nature despite the bloody repression and intervention of the Saudi armed forces – against which many protests were organized even in Saudi Arabia, with the active participation of Nimr al-Nimr. In Bahrain as in Saudi Arabia, the demonstrators demanded primarily a democratization of the country, like other spontaneous popular uprisings of the “Arab Spring”, in particular Tunisia and Egypt. But while these movements were widely relayed by Arab and Western media, which was generally sympathetic to these legitimate demands, the popular movements in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been ignored and/or denounced as sectarian demands, solely on the pretext of the large proportion of Shiites who participate. Recall that 15% of the Saudi population is Shiite, concentrated in strategic oil areas in the east of the country where it is the majority, and 60% of the population of Bahrain, and they face Wahhabi monarchies – an extremist and marginal branch of Sunni Islam that considers Shi'ism (and many schools of Sunnism) as heresies worse than democracy, freedom, etc.
Popular movements in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are not sectarian, and do not demand more rights only for Shiites – although these populations are particularly marginalized and oppressed – but for the entire population, bullied as a whole by the tyrannical ruling dynasties, the Saud and Al-Khalifa. This is what Nimr al-Nimr declared on October 7, 2011:
“We have three key demands: political reforms in the direction of more freedom and dignity for the people, the release of political prisoners arrested for their mere participation in demonstrations, some of whom have been imprisoned for over 16 years, and the end of repression in Bahrain.”
Are these sectarian claims, chapel quarrels? Certainly not: it is indeed a genuine movement for freedom and respect for human rights. And it could not be otherwise: since Shias are a minority in the Islamic world, and are still the main targets and victims of sectarian discourse, Shiite leaders are very vigilant on these issues, avoiding all sectarian notions and advocating Islamic and civic unity, denouncing any seditious speeches and any idea of division, secession or armed struggle, accusations traditionally made against them to discredit them with the rest of the population and justify their bloody repression.
It is absurd, outrageous and irresponsible to give a sectarian characterization to these demands for democracy for the sole reason that, in fact, they would allow better representation for Shiites, which is characteristic of any representative democracy. As such, any claim of democracy could be caricatured as the simple manifestation of partisanship because it would be enough to point to the political (and/or religious) colour of protesters or spokespersons of these movements to deny their legitimate and universal character. One could even say, a little more abusively, that this would amount to give a sectarian nature to an act of banditry after discovering that the perpetrator was Sunni and the attacked Shiite, or vice versa, even though none of them knew it and that the motive was obviously purely material. And even if the thief and/or murderer argued (rightly or wrongly) from a sectarian identity to rally gullible accomplices, would the leading cause not remain the material gain?
Nimr al-Nimr only referred to his sectarian affiliation in order to inspire unity, as he did in this same speech of October 2011:
“Who claimed that the Shiites are the only ones being oppressed? Should we remain silent because we are not the only victims of arrests and repression? But it's even worse! How would this be an excuse (for the regime)? Should we tolerate them (unjustly) arresting Sunnis? On what basis? Why do they arrest thousands of people (Sunni and Shiite)? We are all victims (of this regime). Where is the money, where are the billions? Unemployment, imprisonment, deprivation affect the entire population... We will continue to demand the rights of all the oppressed.”
He also denounced sectarian allegiances, recalling that since Islam abhorred any kind of oppression, the responsibility of a Muslim is to dissociate from any oppressor, whatever he is: Saud and al-Khalifa families first, until the al-Assad family, both Sunni and Shia are innocent of the crimes of these ruling families, and must condemn them on pain of being accomplices, he affirmed in December 2011, concluding that the oppressed must unite against their oppressors. Finally, Nimr al-Nimr was a fierce defender of the Palestinian cause, and called his government to send its armed forces against Israel instead of attacking Bahrain.
Some media have talked about the “provocative” character of the speeches of Nimr al-Nimr, but these are absurd or even indecent “oratorical precautions” that seem to ignore the massive and unprecedented violence, physical, not verbal, to which they are a response. In one of his last speeches dating from June 22, 2012, two weeks before his arrest, Nimr al-Nimr evoked the death of Prince Nayef, Minister of Interior and heir to the throne, by explicitly stating that the only reaction possible in the face the disappearance of the murderer, torturer and jailer of their children – including members of his own family – was to glorify God and rejoice, only the “Angel of Death” being able to reach these absolute monarchs who claim the throne in life. A statement that is entirely “proportionate”, to use a term dear to our political and media men, and that certainly does not justify the withering epithet “provocative” against cold-blooded despots, murderers and torturers: on the contrary, in such conditions of oppression, rather it is his wisdom and moderation that should be praised, as he has always rejected calls to violence and sedition which they strove to drive him to, and has always been a strong advocate of peaceful dissent.
The accusation of being an “Iranian agent”, an instrument of Persian “expansionism” – although Iran has not committed any act of aggression since the nineteenth century – was also brought against him. But his denunciation of the Syrian regime, strategic ally of Tehran, is an eloquent sign of his independence, repeatedly claimed, and witnessed by the United States themselves according to Wikileaks. Moreover, Nimr al-Nimr has shown the inanity and contradictions of this unsubstantiated accusation, recalling that oppression against the Shiites, inherent in Wahhabism, came well before the Islamic Revolution. Such persecutions have occurred since the establishment of the first Saudi State following the alliance of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and the House of Saud in the eighteenth century and lasted until this day, extending to the entire population, as clearly indicated the Amnesty International report. And besides, Nimr al-Nimr pointed out, it ill becomes the Saudi regime and the Gulf countries, whose territory is home to many US military bases and the West flooded its weapons, to accuse them of getting any help from Iran, which can consist only of moral support. Nimr al-Nimr was therefore a genuine national political opponent, in the noblest sense. That is why Amnesty International has clearly denounced “a political and grossly unfair trial” and a manipulation of related questions:
“Saudi Arabia’s authorities have indicated that the executions were carried out to fight terror and safeguard security. However, the killing of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in particular suggests they are also using the death penalty in the name of counter-terror to settle scores and crush dissidents.”
Why did the Saudi regime decide to execute Nimr al-Nimr in this particular context? Definitely out of spite at the failure of their campaign in Yemen, which reveals itself as a spectacular failure despite the 9 months of war without mercy from a coalition of the richest Arab countries – supported by the West – against the poorest of them, in which Saudi Arabia cannot even defend its own territory against the regular Yemeni strikes and incursions decimating their troops. Similarly, the investments and hopes of Saudi Arabia in Iraq and especially in Syria went up in smoke since the Russian intervention, Daesh – which Saud is the father of, Wahhabism the mother, and the West the matchmaker – beating a retreat on all fronts. These colossal expenditures, combined with falling oil prices, strain the Saudi economy and impose reforms on it, so that its leaders are reduced to bloody acts of revenge such as the execution of Nimr al-Nimr and more destruction and crimes against the civilian population in Yemen, where Riyadh announced the end of the cease-fire, hoping to instill terror in all and stifle any demands with this bloody message.
What about the sectarian issue and the “rivalry” between “Sunni” Saudi Arabia (or rather Wahhabi) and Shiite Iran? It is clear that Saudi Arabia, which, since the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979, has spent billions of dollars flooding the Muslim world with anti-Shiite diatribe, shamelessly slandering the followers of this school and presenting Iran as the main enemy of the Arab-Muslim world (well before the United States or Israel), has continued to do everything possible to give this sectarian colour to the conflicts. The propaganda of Daesh recruits “jihadists” to fight in Iraq and Syria by the same processes, persuading brutes conditioned by decades of Wahhabi propaganda to defend the original purity of Islam against the “Shiite and Alawite innovators” who must be driven through with the sword. This speech, galvanised by the plans of Washington, London and Paris in the Middle East and their unlimited means and resources, could have affected tens of thousands of fanatics at the beginning of the Syrian crisis, but it has lost much of its impact on contact with reality on the ground, especially since the indiscriminate crimes of takfiri terrorists were brought to light. The vast majority of their victims are indeed Sunnis, and from the beginning of the crisis in 2011, especially in Syria where the majority of the loyalist army is Sunni, all ethnicities, religions and sects fought Al Qaeda, Daesh and others side by side, as they have peacefully coexisted for centuries. This new barbaric act of Saudi Arabia could also constitute a provocation aimed at reviving these sectarian tensions and rally the Sunni world behind it, like the cut of its diplomatic relations with Iran subsequent to the attack against its embassy in Tehran, a convenient pretext for a certainly premeditated action.
What is the real role of religion in all this? This applies to those wars like all previous wars: religion is never the real motive, but is a mere pretext to hide purely political purposes, struggles for influence and power, between aspirations for independence and freedom and will of hegemony and domination, at the scale of nations, the region and the world. To be convinced that the “rivalry” between Iran and Saudi Arabia is of a political nature and not religious, just remember that if Iran is an Islamic Republic since 1979, it is Shiite since the sixteenth century. When Iran, under the Shah Muhammad Redha Pahlavi, was the main ally of the United States and the “"Middle East’s policeman”, was he not the ally and even the master of Saud? The current king of Saudi Arabia, Salman b.Abd-al-Aziz al-Saud, has he not himself greeted the Shah with dances in the early 1970s? The Shah was he not a Persian, was he not allegedly Shiite? Saudi Arabia was it not Wahhabi? Certainly yes. But that was no problem, because the essential was safe, namely the bonds of mutual vassalage to the US and its imperial and neo-colonial policy in the Middle East to which Tehran and Riyadh, just like Tel Aviv, were faithful agents. It is therefore absurd to claim that sectarian issues form the basis of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which dates only from 1979, the year of the Revolution of Imam Khomeini that transformed Iran into an independent, anti-imperialist and internationalist power, and implacable enemy of the United States, like Cuba in 1959, against which Washington feared a “domino effect” of triumphant sovereignism that has indeed taken place in Latin America and is underway in the Middle-East. So they had to fight Iran, under the pretext of the “fight against Shiism” for Saudi Arabia, the “fight against the Persians” for Saddam Hussein's Iraq (the Iraqi population being mostly Shiite, the sectarian pretext was unthinkable), and the “fight against fundamentalism” or “nuclear proliferation” scam for the United States.
Nimr al-Nimr strongly denounced this imposture in his speech, addressing the Saud and condemning their seditious policies both within the country and in the region:
“We see no problem between Sunnis and Shiites, between Sunni countries and Iran. The only problem is you, and you laugh at the world [by exploiting this alleged sectarian rivalry]. There are no problems between Sunnis and Shiites, they are just lies and falsifications that you use to deceive the ignorant of your supporters and thugs who claim to be 'Salafist': the 'Salafists' of Nayef, the 'Salafists' of Saud, which give no consideration to religion, the 'Salafism' which is based on murder, rape of honour, betrayal, collaborationism with the United States, such is their 'Salafism'. These are the Saud.”
By his faith in non-violent struggle and in the invincible power of a word of truth facing the most backward, the most ruthless tyranny, Nimr al-Nimr embodied in an exemplary way the aspirations of Arab peoples for democracy and dignity. Although the condemnation of his execution was lukewarm in the West, often hiding behind timid condemnations of principle of the death penalty, all genuine supporters of the right to self-determination of peoples and freedom of expression may consider Nimr al-Nimr as a martyr and mourn him.