The “New Terrorism”

The situation in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province has been tense for months. At least six people have been killed since November. The government repeatedly said the unrest in Qatif is backed by an unnamed foreign power, widely understood to mean Iran. The government refuses to acknowledge the protests in Qatif. Instead they call them ‘riots.’

“We do have evidence of a relationship with somebody else abroad,” Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour al-Turki told a news conference last month when he announced that the ministry ordered the arrest of 23 men in Qatif who it said were responsible for unrest.

Some people noted how the government used to make similar announcements during the confrontations with Al Qaeda few years ago. While this announcement was very similar in style and presentation, the government kept referring to the recent unrest as “riots” but stopped short of calling it “terrorism.”

Until today.

The state news agency published a statement by an unnamed source at the Interior Ministry this morning saying “what is being committed by this small minority is new terrorism that the government has the right to confront like it has done before” with Al Qaeda attacks. A reporter for Arab News tweeted that the unnamed source is actually al-Turki.

Saudi MOI. Photo credit: Paul Tupman

This statement comes as a response to a Friday sermon by Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, the most prominent Shia leader in the country. In his sermon, al-Saffar said he rejects the use of violence by protesters against security forces, but at the same time he condemned the excessive use of force by the police. “Those are citizens, Muslims and humans. Their souls are dear and their lives are precious. The state is responsible for their lives and blood,” he said.

Obviously, the government could not accept this kind of language even coming from a moderate like al-Saffar and felt compelled to send a strong message. Security forces will confront the situation “with determination and force and with an iron first,” the statement said.

Al-Saffar has played in important role in mediating between the government and the Shia community since he returned to the country in the early 1990’s after years in exile. However, it seems that his role has been marginalized as young people decided to take matters into their hands by taking to the street, and also because the government chose to deal with the unrest heavy-handedly.

The Interior Ministry dismissed al-Saffar’s comparison of the situation to what is happening in neighboring countries, where governments are killing their own people. Saudi security forces are simply “acting in self-defense,” the ministry said.

So the ministry is basically saying the killings in Qatif happen when security forces defend themselves against terrorist attacks incited by foreign parties. Haven’t we heard this line before? Help me here: Was it Syria? Or Bahrain?

But the above questions are not important. The important questions are: How can this escalation in rhetoric by the government help to ease the tension? How do they plan to do that without allies like al-Saffar? Will the iron fist option work?

I don’t know the answers, but Toby C. Jones and Madawi al-Rasheed, two academics who wrote extensively about Saudi Arabia, had this interesting exchange earlier today on Twitter:


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Unsettling

Sheikh Namer al-Namer is a radical Shia cleric who enjoys a following in his little hometown of al-Awamiya in Qatif. If Sheikh Hasan al-Saffar represents the dominant and more tolerant, open-minded voice calling for unity and dialogue with the government, then Sheikh al-Namer stands at the other end of the Shia spectrum with some extreme views and a divisive message. As you might expect, his views didn’t win him many friends, especially in the government who has detained him several times over the past few years.

In his Friday sermon last week, Sheikh al-Namer talked about a possible war between the US and Iran. He asked Iran to reassure the neighboring countries that their peoples’ vital interest will not be compromised, and at the same time said that Iran has the right to defend itself. “They would definitely have the right to close the Straits of Hormuz, to destroy the Zionist entity and to hit American bases and its interests present all over the world,” he added.

Moreover, he said “We stand by Iran and we will do everything to support this country.”

Now of course Sheikh al-Nemer has the right to express his opinion in any issue he wants, but I don’t think the pulpit is the right place to promote his political agenda. I don’t know what the hell he was thinking, but the message he is sending here is certainly unsettling to many of his countrymen and reinforces the prejudices some of them already have regarding the loyalty of Saudi Shia to their homeland.

There are some efforts on both sides to soothe the sectarian tension, but unfortunately most of these efforts remain modest compared to the loud voices of extremists like al-Nemer and his counterparts on the other side of the divide. I believe moderates should work harder and join forces with the King who has repeatedly shown his commitment to dialogue and better understanding between the different trends in our society, as well as between all Muslims and between major faiths around the world.