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:


My op-ed in the Guardian

I wrote an op-ed for the Guardian today that was published as part of their coverage of the Middle East unrest. You can read it here. They misspelled my first name, though. They used an a in the middle instead of e, which is a common mistake. I asked them to correct it, but I have not heard back from them.

Unacceptable

Sheikh Namer al-Namer is back at it again. After his idiotic statements last summer he was detained for a while and later released, but he was banned from leading prayers and speaking in public. The recent tension in Madinah made him break the restrictions and he came out with even more idiotic statements.

In a speech he gave last Friday in a mosque in Awwamiyah, Sheikh al-Namer said that Shia should seek independence if the government continues its discrimination against them. “Our dignity is above the unity of this country,” he added.

What a moron!

Instead of trying to sooth the tension and calm the public down, he is openly calling for a civil war. During difficult times you expect some people to step up and rise to the occasion, show wisdom and leadership. Unfortunately, we have seen none of that during this crisis. Both the government and Shia leaders have failed to show the needed sense of responsibility to deal with the incidents and their aftermath.

However, I’m glad that I’m not alone in rejecting al-Namer’s divisive statements. People like Tawfeeq al-Saif has come out to denounce these statements. “They are totally rejected,” al-Saif said. There are conflicted reports on the web regarding the fate of al-Namer after his fiery speech. Some websites say he was arrested, others say he managed to escape the security forces that came to arrest him.

He will be arrested and then he will be released. But the truth is that his words will harm the Shia community and the national unity in Saudi Arabia much more than they will cause him harm.

Taking to Streets in Saudi Arabia

On the 19th of December, a few hundred people demonstrated in Qatif, a predominantly Shiite area east of Saudi Arabia, to protest the Israeli siege on Gaza. The protesters lifted posters of Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasarallah and chanted anti-Israeli and anti-US slogans. According to the website Rasid, the demonstration ended peacefully under the eyes of security forces who watched closely. However, tens of young men who demonstrated were arrested in the following week.

After Israel started their barbarian attack on Gaza last Saturday, thousands of angry demonstrators took to the streets in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and other countries. In Saudi Arabia, where the law does not give people the right to demonstrate publicly, more than 60 political and human rights activists signed a letter to the Ministry of Interior asking for permission to hold a peaceful demonstration in Riyadh.

While activists in Riyadh were waiting for a reply from MOI, protesters in Qatif demonstrated again on Monday, but this time they were faced by the security forces and riot police who fired rubber bullets to break up the protest. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman of MOI, denied that such protest took place. “Street protests are banned in the Kingdom and that the security forces will intervene to enforce the ban,” he added. His denial is not surprising, but everyone knows that people of Qatif have a long history in street protests with major demonstrations held in 1979, 2002 and 2006.

Four activists who signed the letter were summoned to meet a senior official at MOI today who also said the country’s regulations do not allow such activities. The activists said nothing in the local laws bans street protests but they signed a pledge that they will not hold the demonstration which was planned to take place tomorrow in Nahda Street. Another activist who did not sign the letter said he does not need a permission from anyone to protest. Khalid al-Umair said that he and other activists will be there tomorrow “because we are simply exercising our natural right in expressing our opinion peacefully.”

This was the first time for a group of activists to ask for such permission, and it was expected that MOI would not give a positive response. Although the request was denied, it seemed to encourage more people to take similar steps. More than 200 students at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah sent a letter today to the rector asking for permission to hold a demonstration but he refused saying the university is not the right place to protest.

People should be allowed to protest, but it seems that the government is afraid that people will realize the power of public demonstration and later use it not just to protest against Israel but also to demand their rights. Giving permission to these demonstrations would set a precedent that the government clearly doesn’t want to deal with its results and consequences. 2009 will be interesting.

UPDATE: Khalid al-Umair and Mohammed Abdullah al-Otaibi have been arrested Thursday noon.

Also read:

Shia Khums: Where’s Our Money?

Some young people from Qatif have published an open letter to Shia religious leaders, calling for a reform in management of Khums. According to Shia Islamic legal terminology, Khums means “one-fifth of certain items which a person acquires as wealth, and which must be paid as an Islamic tax.”

In their letter, they raised questions on the fate of millions of riyals paid by the faithful. These enormous amounts of money have gone to support religious schools in Iraq, Iran and other places, as well as supporting liberation movements in other countries. Meanwhile, most people in the local Shia communities never dared to ask where does the money go and how it is spent, especially when our communities suffer from many problems that could have been solved using these vast resources.

I join these young men and women in their call for more transparency regarding the management of Khums money. The lack of transparency and accountability has led to increased incidents of corruption and misuse of power. If religious leaders claim the Khums money is spent the way God intended, then they should not be afraid to come out and publish regular financial reports to back these claims. I believe we have the right to know how our resources are managed, and I believe that our local communities are entitled to see these resources contribute to improving living standards of people here.

The Qatif Girl, Again

I honestly did not want to write again about the Qatif Girl case. The last thing this country needs is bad publicity, and as we have seen the so-called Ministry of Justice did not just bring us bad publicity, they also caused a global outrage and tremendous embarrassment to this nation. It wasn’t enough that the ruling was wrong to begin with, they continued to show their incompetency by releasing gibberish statements to justify their ridiculous position.

I think that when MoJ found that their image was badly damaged by this case, they decided that the best way to repair it is by slandering the girl and portray her like a slut who deserved to be raped. How is this supposed to improve their reputation is beyond my comprehension, but let’s wait and see what kind of gems MoJ are still keeping for us.

Two days ago, Shatha Omar on LBC hosted Abdul-Rahman Al Lahim, the girl’s lawyer, to talk about the case. In the opposite direction there was Sheikh Abdul-Mohsen Al Obeikan, an adviser to MoJ and member of the Shoura Council. I was shocked to hear Al Obeikan using certain expressions and words to imply that the girl committed adultery. It was really sickening. Later in the show, there was a call from the girl’s husband who sadly complained that the court did not consider the emotional and psychological state of his wife. “You think I would forgive her if she committed adultery?” he asked. “I’m an Arab man, after all.”

I agree with Al Lahim when he said this ruling sends a strong message to women in Saudi Arabia: don’t seek justice from the legal system, and if you were raped don’t even bother to report it to authorities; you better swallow it and shut up. Moreover, suspending Al Lahim and the statements issued later send a message to the rest of us: don’t even dare to question the judges or criticism the the legal system. But you know what your freakin’ honors? We will not shut up. We will speak up, we will expose your injustice, and we will do our best to ensure that justice and common sense would prevail in the end.

UPDATE: Ibrahim Al Khodhairi, a judge at the appeals court in Riyadh, told Okaz today that the judges in this case should have imposed the death penalty on all the parties involved, including the girl. He also said a lot of nonsense in his interview but I’m not in the mood to deconstruct his statements.

Justice and Common Sense

As the new reforms on the legal system are yet to be implemented, I guess that some judges thought they would use whatever left of time for the current system to demonstrate their misjudgment and lack of intelligence. It was not enough for them to sentence the Qatif girl to 90 lashes a year ago, so they decided to more than double the number of lashes plus six months of jail. The girl is a rape victim, but apparently being raped is not enough to spare her the punishment for something called ‘khulwa’.

Now what kind of ‘khulwa’ that would take place in front of a crowded shopping mall is beyond my comprehension, but that’s just me. I’m pretty sure our esteemed judges and those who support this bizarre ruling have many justifications to present upon request, but then again, who on earth am I to question a court which uses the word ‘sharia’ to legitimize their decisions no matter how absurd these decisions are?

Some people have asked me why I have not written about this earlier, and the reason is because I was angry, disgusted and depressed. Those following me on Twitter have probably seen this, and although I have been discussing the issues with my family and friends who share the same feelings with me, I could not bring myself to write about it without using some kind of language that I’d rather not to use on the blog.

The victim’s lawyer Abdul Rahman Al Lahem has been suspended from the case and faces a disciplinary session because the judge thinks that Al Lahem was using the media to affect the court’s ruling. Now how can the media be used to affect the ruling is anyone’s guess, but why should the judge be affected by the media might be something we should be looking at, because as far as I have been told, our right honorable judges are very wise men who claim to base their verdicts on Qura and Sunna, not some blabbering in the media. Anyway, it is not the first time that Al Lahem faces a problem like this. He has been jailed before for defending reformists but he continued his work as Saudi Arabia’s most important human rights lawyer.

It is up to the appeal court now to confront this unjust ruling and finish the suffering of the girl and her husband who bravely stood up beside his wife. Otherwise, this case might require the interference of the king in order for justice and common sense to prevail. Let’s hope they will prevail in the end.

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