By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
QATIF, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 30 -- Fawzia al-Hani dropped her black veil over her face and wept softly on Sunday, enveloping herself in the sadness of the last days of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad and Shiite Islam's most tragic and revered martyr.
The women in the packed community center commemorating Ashura, the anniversary of Hussein's death in A.D. 680, watched on a projection screen as a turbaned cleric described how Hussein set out with a small band of family and followers to confront a large army, then was filled with anguish when his favorite son was slaughtered before he himself was killed.
Beside the cleric, men huddled on the floor with their heads bowed, dabbing at their eyes with tissues.
To many of the region's historically persecuted Shiites, the death of Hussein in what is now Karbala, Iraq, the event that triggered the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, remains central to their lives. Shiite belief that Hussein and his descendants were robbed of their rightful succession as rulers of the Islamic world heightens their sense of persecution and victimization.
The story of Hussein, who chose to confront an enemy army with only a small band of men rather than bow to an oppressive leader, permeates Shiite life from childhood, Hani said.
"You cannot understand Shiites if you don't understand the lessons of Hussein's death," the 44-year-old author added. "Hussein taught us not to fear death because you can achieve victory even through death, as long as you fight injustice and stay true to your principles."
That lesson has not been lost on Saudi Arabia's long-suppressed Shiite minority, a 2 million-strong community living mainly in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Shiites here have only recently been granted greater religious freedoms, including the right to commemorate Ashura publicly. But fears in the Arab world of growing Shiite clout have raised concern among local Shiites that sectarian tensions could roll back some of the progress.
Shiite Iran's increased regional influence, Iraq's newly dominant Shiite majority and the push for more power by Lebanon's Shiites have led to a closing of Sunni ranks in many countries of the region and calls for quashing a Shiite revival.
Shiites, who make up less than 15 percent of the kingdom's 16 million citizens, are considered heretics by the Wahhabi Sunni ideology practiced in the kingdom.
Emboldened by Iran's 1979 revolution, Saudi Shiites began staging demonstrations during Ashura demanding more rights and freedoms. This led to a brutal government crackdown that resulted in scores of deaths, hundreds of arrests and tense relations in the 1980s.
The situation improved after Shiite exiles returned in 1994 following a truce with the government. And several years ago, reform-minded King Abdullah launched a policy of openness, allowing the community to build mosques and once-illegal community centers called husseiniyas. Shiites have also been granted a small measure of political power with wins in local municipal elections in 2004. But many complain that they still face severe discrimination in government positions, in the military and in schools.
Now, after a lull, Wahhabi clerics have again started issuing fatwas, or religious edicts, labeling Shiites infidels who are more dangerous to the faith than Christians and Jews. Abdullah ibn Jebreen, a prominent Saudi cleric, wrote on his Web site last week that Shiites should be expelled from Sunni lands.
The monarch has been brought into the fray. In a widely circulated interview last week, Abdullah was asked about claims in the Arab media that Iran is attempting mass conversions of Sunnis to Shiism. Without mentioning Iran by name, he told the Kuwaiti daily al-Seyassah that the kingdom was aware of the issue but that Sunnis were immune to conversion and would retain their historical dominance.
Shiites here say Iraq's sectarian violence in particular has inflamed local anti-Shiite feelings. Lawyer and activist Sadeq al-Jubran accused extremist Sunnis of importing the problems of Iraq into the kingdom unnecessarily.
"What's happening in Iraq is not my problem. If Sunnis and Shiites kill each other off, that's in Iraq," Jubran said. "But what's worrisome is that you have people here asking clerics whether it's permissible to kill Shiites because Shiites in Iraq are killing Sunnis."
Hassan al-Saffar, the country's most prominent Shiite cleric, said anti-Shiite fatwas are dangerous and should be criminalized. The community's sympathies with Shiites in Iran or Iraq should not be taken against it, the soft-spoken cleric said. "We are Saudi citizens concerned first of all with local issues. Our religious sympathies do not affect the security and stability of the country," he said.
Despite the common religious ties of the region's Shiites, Saudi Shiites have different interests and live in a different context, said Shiite writer and former dissident Taufiq al-Seif. "Shiites here have reached a level of political maturity and have realized that though they sympathize with co-religionists in the region, they have their own concerns and their own very unique situation. Our interests lie not with Iran but very much with other Saudis."
Speaking at a recent Ashura gathering, Seif urged his listeners to distinguish between religion and politics and not to be swayed by ideology. "We should not sympathize with Shiites just because they're Shiites, even when they are wrong," he told the dozens gathered.
Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was detained last year for calling for greater religious freedoms, said Shiites have learned from the example of Hussein to refuse injustice imposed by tyrannical leaders.
"You can't separate Shiite Islam from politics," Nimr said. "It's in the nature of Shiites to fight oppression, and it's in the nature of governments to be oppressive, so naturally there is a confrontation." Nimr said that he did not condone violence or confrontation but that he had learned from the lesson of Hussein not to fear death and to fight for his rights.
Outside, Qatif, a predominantly Shiite enclave that is home to about 900,000 people, was an area in mourning. Black cloth covered entire sides of small apartment buildings, while young boys and girls ran around with red and green mourning bands tied around their heads with the words "O Hussein, O Martyr" sewn on them.
In the Awami neighborhood in the town of Tarut, huge portraits of Hussein, some with blood running down his forehead, lined an empty sandlot in preparation for a reenactment of the events in Karbala surrounding his death. Black and white tents were pitched next to red papier-mache rocks, and plastic sheets were laid out to look like the Euphrates River in Iraq.
On Sunday, after the call to afternoon prayers, Muhammad Zaki Khabbaz took off his jacket and joined several hundred young men for a funeral procession. They snaked their way through narrow, garbage-strewn alleys dotted with green and red banners, beating their chests rhythmically as a poem about the events in Karbala was recited through a bullhorn. The group passed under a covered alleyway with a large cloth banner that read, "Every day is Ashura, and Every Place is Karbala."
"Imam Hussein died rather than bow down to the oppressor," said Khabbaz, a 27-year-old computer company manager. "And by commemorating Ashura, we are confirming our allegiance to never giving up and to upholding those principles.
"When we beat our chests, we are saying that we will never forget Imam Hussein's tragedy," he said. "Every day there is oppression is Ashura, and every place there is oppression is Karbala. And every day, we will fight that oppression."