On Aug. 17, seven prominent Saudi Shiite scholars issued a statement condemning the attack against a police station in Qatif, in the kingdom’s east. They described what happened as a “terrorist” act, after a security man was killed by gunfire from unknown assailants.
The scholars confirmed the importance of state institutions and emphasized the significance of maintaining social peace. They called for cooperation between citizens and security forces to confront terrorism and criminality. Figures with different intellectual and political orientations signed the statement.
Among them is prominent cleric Sheikh Abdelkarim al-Hubail, who appeared in a BBC Arabic documentary in 2014. He sat with photos of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei behind him. Hubail’s signature and condemnation of terrorism lifts the religious cover off any armed act under the name of revolutionary work.
After the statement was issued, prominent cleric Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar and a group of social activists visited the police headquarters in Qatif to offer condolences for the death of the security man, whom the statement described as a “martyr.” This description has social and religious significance as it places the killed man in the ranks of good people and believers.
This declared stance by these significant Saudi Shiite clerics, which considers violence a religiously prohibited violation of the law, is nothing new. However, it comes within the context of other occasions in which they confirmed that the solution to any problem that the Shiites suffer from must be peaceful.
In March 2014, notable Shiite scholars in Qatif and Dammam stated that using arms against citizens and security forces is illegitimate and religiously prohibited. They warned of the threat of “extremist groups and movements that practice terrorism and violence under religious and political slogans.”
They added: “Any use of weapons and violence against the state or society is condemned and rejected by scholars and the society in general and does not have any political or religious cover.” This statement was one of the clearest, and is considered an important development as it was not directed against the terrorism of Sunni groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but against the terrorism of Shiite groups.
Saudi Shiite citizens reject violence because of the direct negative repercussions it has had on their livesHassan al-Mustafa
Armed violence in Qatif is nothing new. It developed and took a different turn following the 2011 Arab Spring. Back then, some youth groups took up arms after some protests were held under “political” slogans. They claimed that they were defending themselves against the violence of security men, and that they sought to achieve more justice for Shiite citizens.
The youths, driven by the euphoria of the Arab Spring and revolutionary enthusiasm, were joined by criminal groups involved in armed robberies of houses and stores. Some were even drug-dealers and arms-traffickers. This is why many social categories rejected these groups that suddenly emerged and began terrorizing the people of Qatif.
Security forces suffered from the violence of armed men in Qatif, as did Shiite religious and social figures. Moderate cleric Sheikh Jaafar al-Rabah received death threats, which made him stop performing mosque prayers for a while. Nabih al-Baraheem, a member of the municipal council, was subjected to gunfire that targeted his house and car. This led many figures to declare their rejection of these criminal groups.
Saudi Shiites currently confront two major sources of violence. The first is represented by ISIS, which directly targets them whenever it can, most recently with the thwarted operation against Al-Mustafa mosque in the town of Um al-Hamam in Qatif. Another operation that was thwarted last month aimed to target a coffee shop on the island of Tarot.
The second source of violence is represented by armed groups in Qatif. They have complicated life for its residents. Perhaps the clearest example of the social and security difficulties the people face there is their inability to withdraw money from public ATMs, which are not being filled with cash because the cars that transfer money no longer enter Qatif due to several armed robberies in which millions were stolen.
It is believed that this money was used to fund armed groups. The most recent incident happened this month in the town of Al-Nabya in Qatif. This has created a real problem for citizens, who now have to stand in long queues in local banks to get cash. Employees of the Saudi oil giant Aramco can no longer take company buses to work because they no longer enter Qatif after one of them was attacked in June 2015.
All these complications have made Saudi Shiite citizens reject violence more because of the direct negative repercussions it has had on their lives. They believe security forces protect them from the terrorism of al-Qaeda and ISIS, so these forces must not be fired upon.
This has strengthened the conviction of most citizens that sectarian problems must be resolved within an integrated national project, and through peaceful and continuous dialogue with state institutions and political leaders. This is what Shiite leaders in Saudi Arabia seek.
Hassan Al-Mustafa is Saudi journalist with interest in middle east and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters.