Shia pilgrims killed in Medina: King Abdullah Has No Robes

George Galloway speaks about the killing of 4 Shia pilgrims by Wahhabis in Madinah

Unrest in Medina

King Abdullah Has No Robes


Weekend Edition
February 27 – March 1, 2009

Located in the Hijaz region of western Saudi Arabia, Medina is the second holiest city in Islam. It is home to the Prophet’s Mosque and its famous green dome, beneath which is found Muhammad’s tomb. Millions of Muslims visit Medina each year, often as a stopover before beginning the Hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca. This week though, in the normally tranquil environs of the mosque, violence erupted and blood was spilled. The strife in Media comes on the heels of recently announced ‘reforms’ of the religious police and judiciary by Saudi King Abdullah, and is a telling sign of just how dismissively they were received.


Many Muslims from Saudi Arabia and beyond chose to visit Medina and the Prophet’s Mosque outside of the Hajj season, particularly Shia Muslims, as they did this week. It was to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Prophet Muhammad on 28 Safar (in the Islamic lunar calendar) in 632 AD, corresponding to Feb. 24 this year.

Situated across from the Prophet’s Mosque is a cemetery known as Jannat al-Baqi or “The Garden of Heaven.” It is where many notable persons in Islamic history are buried, including the Prophet’s companions, wives, and the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th Shia Imams (who are direct descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima, and his cousin, Ali). Hasan, the second Imam and grandson of the Prophet, was murdered on 28 Safar. Since the day of his martyrdom coincides with that of the Prophet’s death, many pilgrims were also drawn to al-Baqi.

Before continuing, it should be understood that although Saudi Arabia claims to follow the Hanbali school in Islam, one of the four main schools of Sunni jurisprudence, in reality they follow Wahhabism; an ultra-puritanical and often intolerant version of the religion derived from the 18th century teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab.

It was the Muhammad ibn Saud, the founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia, who first forged an alliance and secured a pact with Abdul Wahab, which continues to be honored to this day. The followers of Abdul Wahab (or Wahabis) are allowed control over the educational and religious institutions in the country in exchange for permitting the Saudi royals family to rule it.

It is the Wahabis who have branded Shia Muslims ‘infidels’ for, among other reasons, their deep respect for, and veneration of, the family of the Prophet Muhammad. They consider the practice of visiting the graves of the Imams (who the Shia believe to be the Prophet’s divinely appointed successors) tantamount to idolatry. Indeed, not only visiting graves but commemorating anyone’s birth or death is anathema according to Wahabi doctrine.

As a result, there is pervasive and institutionalized discrimination against Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, where they form about ten percent of the population. Among other examples, they are barred from obtaining governmental positions; activists are routinely jailed; academic prejudice is commonplace; religious leaders are prevented from broadcasting on radio or television and religious rites are curtailed to the extent possible (which media are also prohibited from covering). In one instance, Shias were even banned from donating blood.

Pilgrims vs. Religious Police

And so they came.

Between 5,000-7,000 Saudi Shia pilgrims from Qatif and Al-Hasa in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where they constitute one-third of the population, arrived in Medina to visit the Prophet’s Mosque and al-Baqi cemetery in the days prior to 28 Safar.

The trouble started on the evening of Feb. 20 when the Mutawwa, or Saudi religious police, who work under the authority of the “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” were found to be illegally filming Saudi Shia women who had gathered outside al-Baqi (so much for virtue). Five male relatives who witnessed this demanded the police hand over or destroy the film. Instead, they were arrested.

After these arrests, thousands of pilgrims protested outside religious police headquarters. Scuffles ensued and riot police began beating protestors. In the following days, the religious police barred women from visiting al-Baqi, even in areas reserved specifically for them (women are not allowed to visit graves in Saudi Arabia) and were addressed with derogatory language at the Prophet’s Mosque. When all were prevented from entering the cemetery on Feb. 23, further clashes ensued. Three pilgrims were killed and nine arrested. Press TV also reports that a bus carrying them was attacked and a cleric stabbed.

Sheik Hussein Al-Mustapha, a prominent Shia cleric, told the Associated Press, “There was a flagrant aggression on women’s rights and the Shiite visitors. It was a premeditated action by extremist men who want to put an end to visits by Shiite visitors.”

It would not be the first time Shia pilgrims have been harassed and abused when visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In 2007, American citizen Sayyid Jawad Qazwini and a group of US and UK pilgrims experienced first-hand the ruthless behavior the Saudi religious establishment exhibits toward Shias.

‘Reforms’ of King Abdullah

Less than a week prior to the violence in Medina, King Abdullah unveiled the most sweeping reforms and reshuffling of prominent department officials the country has seen since he became king in 2005.

They included:

  • Sacking the head of the religious police, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith. His replacement,

Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Humain told Al-Arabiya news, “We will try to be close to the heart of every citizen. Their concerns are ours.”

  • Removing Supreme Judicial Council leader Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan (infamous for his fatwa ordering that owners of satellite channels showing “immoral” content be killed).

  • Expanding the Ulema Council (council of religious leaders) to include members of all four branches of Sunni Islam. Previously, it was limited to only those following the Hanbali school. No Shia members were included, although there are indications two eventually may be.

  • Appointing the first woman deputy minister, the most senior job ever held by a woman in the Kingdom (although women are still prohibiting from driving).

  • New heads of the administrative court, the Supreme Council of Justice, and the Supreme Court were named.

The Aftermath

The tragic events which occurred in Medina are sobering evidence of the grip that the Wahabi religious establishment has on Saudi society, its police, and judiciary. The wanton discrimination and violence which continues to be meted out against Saudi Shia citizens make the reforms of King Abdullah—no matter how well intentioned—appear empty and hollow. Saudi columnist Najib al-Khonaizi remarked, “There’s a feeling that the Shiites’ ambitions have not been realized as hoped, and that could have played an indirect role in inflaming emotions. We have to admit that there’s tension in the Shiite street.”

As a result of the clashes, arrests and killings in Medina, there are now reports of protests breaking out in the Eastern Province with demands for increased freedom of expression and equal rights becoming more vocal. As reported by the Associated Press, demonstrators were even seen carrying banners reading “down with the government” and spray painting anti-government slogans on billboards—all unheard of in the tightly controlled nation.

It may very well be that spreading anger over the harassment and violence directed against Shias in Medina—insultingly juxtaposed against King Abdullah’s purported reforms—will become the real nidus and driving force behind meaningful change in the Kingdom.

Until then, it will be Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslims who will point to King Abdullah and the litany of his reforms and remind everyone that truly, “the emperor has no robes.”

Rannie Amiri is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri at yahoo dot com.


3 killed in Medina unrest: Sources
Wed, 25 Feb 2009 17:23:43 GMT

The Prophet Mohammed Mosque in Medina, the second holiest city in Islam.

Informed sources have confirmed that security forces in Saudi Arabia have killed at least three Shia pilgrims in the holy city of Medina.

The unrest erupted after religious police and security forces clashed with female pilgrims who were gathering outside Baqi Cemetery to commemorate the death of the Prophet of Islam.

Two of the victims were from Qatif and a third from al-Ahsa, two Shia regions in eastern Saudi Arabia.

The pilgrims were seeking entry into the cemetery, which houses the graves of many of the Prophet’s relatives and companions.

Several others were also wounded in the clashes, according to the sources.

There are also reports that Saudi security forces have attacked a bus carrying pilgrims and a cleric has been stabbed.

Saudi officials, who deny clashes had caused casualties, say they have arrested nine people in connection to the case.

According to reports released by rights groups, the Shia minorities who live mostly in the eastern regions of the kingdom are systematically suppressed by the government.


Saudi Arabia: Critic calls for inquiry into Shia arrests

Riyadh, 25 Feb. (AKI) – A prominent Saudi intellectual has asked the government to hold an inquiry into the behaviour of religious police after nine Shia pilgrims were arrested during clashes in the holy city of Medina. Tawfiq al-Sayf called for probe because he believed the pilgrims’ arrests occurred for no reason.

Saudi authorities reportedly arrested at least nine Shia pilgrims after three days of violent clashes in the holy city. The first protest occurred on Friday and the last protest took place on Tuesday.

Jaafar al-Shaib, a leading figure among minority Saudi Shias, said the clashes occurred between Shia pilgrims and religious police near a mosque that houses the tomb of Prophet Mohammed.

“Some 1,500 Shia pilgrims gathered near the mosque for the commemoration of Prophet Mohammed’s death,” Jaafar told the media.

“We came here to celebrate the birth of Mohammed and the religious police charged at us. While we were in front of the mosque, plainclothes police charged at us with batons to disperse us.”

Religious police often prevent pilgrims venerating tombs, seen as idolatry under the strict Saudi version of Islam.

According to Arab daily, al-Quds al-Arabi, there were as many as 1,500 pilgrims outside the mosque where they held a demonstration, shouting slogans against the government and accusing authorities of discrimination.

Some pilgrims were injured in a stampede after police fired into the air to disperse the crowd, Jaafar said.

He also said some shops owned by Shias were attacked.

An interior ministry spokesman for security affairs described the incident as “a quarrel between visitors and worshippers”.

Relations are tense between Saudi Arabia’s majority Sunnis and the Shia, who are a minority of the country’s 22 million people.

The Shia are regarded as infidels under the fundamentalist Wahabi interpretation of Islam followed in Saudi Arabia and often complain of discrimination.

Many Shia critics have been jailed, and others claim to have been banned from jobs in the religious police and teaching religion.


Top cleric blasts Saudi

Published Date: February 28, 2009

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s top Shiite cleric is calling on Saudi Arabia to punish policemen who beat Shiite pilgrims during a scuffle last week at a revered Shiite cemetery in the Sunni kingdom. Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah says “serious” clashes between the pilgrims and riot police at the cemetery in Medina threaten to inflame sectarian tensions. Shiite witnesses said religious police – who enforce Saudi’s strict code of Sunni Islam – beat a group of Shiite pilgrims outside the cemetery. Saudi offici
als blamed the pilgrims for the disturbances. Yesterday’s criticism by the influential Fadlallah is the first from outside Saudi Arabia since the incident. Tensions are already high between Saudi’s Sunni majority and its tiny Shiite minority.


Iran complains of Saudi treatment of Shia pilgrims
Wednesday, 25th February 2009. 3:26pm

By: Nick Mackenzie.

Prominent Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia have attacked what they describe as the ‘insulting behaviour’ of Saudi officials to Shia pilgrims to the shrine of the Prophet in Medina.

According to informed sources in Saudi Arabia, confrontation between pilgrims and security forces in the holy city of Medina still continues.

Following the row, Sheikh Hassan Saffar, a well-known Shia figure in Saudi Arabia has called for the immediate release of those arrested in the past few days.

Some news sources from the city of Medina reported three days ago that more than 2,000 Shia Muslims from Arab countries took refuge in the sanctuary of “Baqee Cemetery” in protest at the Saudi security forces’ insult to Shia women. But the Saudi-related officials responded by accusing the protestors of creating disorder and arrested five people.

Local police spokesman Mohsen Radadi claimed the Shia pilgrims are anarchists who raised their voice for nothing.

Thousands of Shia Muslims from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are in Medina to mourn the anniversary of demise of the prophet Muhammad.


Published February 28 2009

Saudi shout-down: Shiite minority demands more freedom, representation in Sunni-led country

Shiite Muslims are shouting anti-government slogans and demanding more freedoms in rare protests amid the minority’s worst confrontations in years with authorities in this overwhelmingly Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

By: Donna Abu-Nsr, Associated Press

Shiite Muslim community leaders

Shiite Muslim community leaders gather for lunch in Qatif, the de facto capital of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite heartland in the Eastern Province. (McClatchy Tribune)

Ali al Marzouk, Shiite Muslim activist

Ali al Marzouk, a Shiite Muslim activist, strolls past an ancient fort in Tarut, a city in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where most of the kingdom’s Shiites live.(McClatchy Tribune)


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Shiite Muslims are shouting anti-government slogans and demanding more freedoms in rare protests amid the minority’s worst confrontations in years with authorities in this overwhelmingly Sunni kingdom.

Prominent Shiite clerics and intellectuals called on the government Wednesday to launch a fair investigation into a dispute last week that triggered the unrest.

Hundreds of protesters in the poor Shiite town of Awwamiya carried banners saying “Down with the government” and spray-painted the slogan on billboards Tuesday, witnesses said. One said youths threw stones at a police post before officers fired in the air to disperse the crowd, which included women. No casualties were reported.

Clashes between Shiites and religious police also were reported Monday and Tuesday outside a cemetery at the center of the latest uproar.

The Sunni majority has long had strained relations with Shiites, who are a small minority of the country’s 22 million people. Considered infidels under the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam widely followed in Saudi Arabia, Shiites routinely complain of discrimination and outspoken Shiite critics have been jailed.

Latest conflict

The latest eruption of tensions began with an argument Feb. 20 near a cemetery in Medina, Islam’s second holiest city, that contains the graves of revered imams.

Shiites say members of the religious police who maintain an office at the al-Baqee Cemetery filmed female pilgrims and refused to hand over the tapes or destroy them. A Saudi official blamed Shiite pilgrims for the trouble, accusing them of performing religious rituals offensive to other worshippers and authorities at the cemetery.

Shiites say riot police were heavy-handed in dealing with the pilgrims, beating them with batons and arresting some.

The protests came a week after King Abdullah ordered the most significant changes in government, the armed forces, the judiciary and the religious establishment since he became king in 2005, but left Shiites feeling left out of the reforms.

Shiites had hoped for appointments as ministers or representation in the council of senior scholars that had been restructured to include all schools of Sunni Islam. But no Shiites were chosen for those positions.

“There’s a feeling that the Shiites’ ambitions have not been realized as hoped, and that could have played an indirect role in inflaming emotions,” said Najib al-Khonaizi, a Shiite columnist. “We have to admit that there’s tension in the Shiite street.”

Deliberate provocation

Many Shiites say authorities deliberately provoked the dispute at the cemetery.

“There was a flagrant aggression on women’s rights and the Shiite visitors,” Sheik Hussein al-Mustapha, a prominent Shiite cleric, told The Associated Press. “It was a premeditated action by extremist men who want to put an end to visits by Shiite visitors.”

“We demand an investigation into the incident in order to put an end to these ugly practices,” he said.

A Saudi official put the blame on the Shiite pilgrims, saying they triggered the dispute by practicing rituals deemed by others to be “religious infractions,” such as the practice of Shiites to grab a handful of dust as a blessing and pray at the graves of the imams.

The official, who would not allow his name to be used, said such “infractions” are frequent at al-Baqee and usually are dealt with quietly by asking pilgrims to stop. But last week, he charged, a large crowd of Shiites was bent on provoking other worshippers and authorities at the cemetery.

Asked if members of the religious police had videotaped Shiite female pilgrims, the official said that if there was filming it was to take evidence of the infractions and not for voyeurism.

The official said nine of the Shiite visitors to the cemetery were arrested. He said the government was keen to find out the truth and the reasons for the escalation. He said the perpetrators would be held responsible, but did not elaborate.


Shias in the Gulf

Grumbling and rumbling

Feb 26th 2009 | CAIRO
From The Economist print edition

Shia unhappiness is rattling regimes in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf

EPA Women versus women in Bahrain

LIKE the crude oil that lies in vast pools beneath the Persian Gulf, tensions between the region’s Sunni and Shia Muslims tend to stay below ground. But when pressures build and a ready channel is cleared, they can bubble to the surface with alarming force. Thirty years ago the Islamic revolution in Shia-majority Iran inspired a wave of unrest among fellow Shias of the opposite shore. Things then calmed down. Nervous Arab rulers, all of them Sunnis, soothed their Shia subjects with a few rights and promises of more, while Iran largely gave up trying to export its revolutionary fervour.

But with Iran lately sounding more aggressive under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, small incidents are again triggering bigger eruptions. On February 20th, for instance, a group of female pilgrims visiting the most revered Shia site in Saudi Arabia, a cemetery in Islam’s second-holiest city, Medina, where hundreds of the Prophet Muhammad’s descendants are said to have been buried, screamed when they spotted what they guessed was a religious policeman filming them from on top of a security wall. Male relatives, outraged by this invasion of modesty, demanded the footage. Instead, the all-Sunni police force arrested five of them, sparking a riot by thousands of Shia pilgrims, more arrests and injuries. Repeated protests over several days then spread from Medina to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. That province contains many of the kingdom’s Shia minority, numbering about 10% of Saudis, as well as most of its oil reserves.

As Shia clerics weighed in with calls for an end to what they called systematic persecution, Sunni extremists accused the rafida, an abusive term for Shias, meaning rejectionists, of acting as a fifth column for Iran. “Today they besiege the religious police,” howled one website commentator. “Tomorrow they will encircle the Eastern Province along with the Shias of Bahrain and with Iranian backing.” The Saudi king should “strike them with an iron fist”, declared the writer. Another suggested that the Shias be hurled into the Red Sea or, better still, dropped onto the Iranian shrine city of Qom.

Mention of Bahrain carries particular resonance. It was in this tiny neighbouring island kingdom, where two-thirds of the citizens are Shias and where the American Fifth Fleet is based, that sectarian troubles loomed alarmingly in the 1980s. More recently, in December, Bahrain’s authorities accused 35 Shias of plotting to overthrow the state. Since then, sporadic riots have rocked the poor Shia villages that ring Bahrain’s capital, Manama. In January three human-rights campaigners were arrested. This week 21 people, including two of the human-rights activists, appeared in court, accused of planning to ambush policemen and bomb public property, shopping malls, markets and hotels.

Yet when Iranian politicians recently sniffed that Bahrain used to be an Iranian province, Bahrain’s main Shia parties were quick to reaffirm their Arab identity, joining a chorus of Arab protest that led some commentators to remark pointedly that several Iranian provinces happen to house large Arab and Sunni populations. Fearing damage to the reputation it has tried to build as a defender of pan-Islamic causes, Iran hastily apologised to Bahrain.

The ugly nearby example of sectarian strife in Iraq, though it has subsided in the past two years, has left little appetite in the region for more trouble of that kind. Despite suspicions of their loyalty, Shia Arabs tend to look not to Iran but to their own spiritual leaders for guidance. Yet with Iran determined to chase the Arabs’ American ally from the Gulf, and with Shia Arabs often still suffering political exclusion and social stigma, unrest is likely to break out from time to time. Considering local, regional and international variables, a clash between the Saudi regime and its Shia citizens is a matter of time, reads an ominous analysis on a popular Saudi website.



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