ISTANBUL — Saudi Arabia silenced Ayatollah al-Nimr by executing him. He was an open critic of the Saudi royal dynasty and the cruelty against the Shia, while a longtime advocate for democratic elections. The Saudis lumped Nimr in with 46 al-Qaeda members who were charged with terrorism in order to ruin his reputation.
You are immediately labeled "pro-Iran" if you dare to speak about the tragic fate of the Shia minority in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Saudis do their best to avoid foreign criticism by calling Shia leaders like Nimr "tools of Iran." Yet oppression against the Shia did not start with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran, which regimes like Riyadh saw as an expansionary threat.
Iran's own record of executions does not excuse what the Saudis are doing to their Shia citizens. The Shia on the Arabian Peninsula have been living under a religious "apartheid regime" since the Wahhabis became allies with the Saudi dynasty in the 19th century, which ultimately led to the foundation of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
The Saudi-Wahhabi alliance showed its destructive manner in 1802 by carrying out a mass slaughter at Karbala and destroying and pillaging the tomb of Hussein ibn Ali. They called this carnage "the big jihad." The Wahhabi practice of targeting Shia clerics' tombs and destroying Shia mosques was repeated in 1903 in Al-Ahsa, in 1926 when four tombs of imams were destroyed in Medina, and when Imam al-Sadiq's tomb was targeted in 1975.
If you consider the Wahhabi approach to law and order, takfir practices and views on women, Saudi Arabia is really just another version of ISIS but as a nation-state recognized by the United Nations — and the number one ally of the U.S. in the Gulf. Following the execution of Nimr, many people compared the two: the "white ISIS" and the "black ISIS." Maybe "gray ISIS" is the term that fits best.
Wahhabism is the official sect of Saudi Arabia and it considers the Shia as being "more dangerous perverts than the Christians and the Jews." The state policy and the shared mentality are shaped according to this. Animals slaughtered by the Shia can't be eaten because they are dirty; Shia women are not to be married because they are not Muslims; the Shia cannot testify in court because they would lie, and so on.
Since 1979, driven by the fear that the Iranian revolution would spread, the eastern Saudi city of Qatif is treated as "the traitors' zone" where the war against the dynasty will be fought. A carrot-and-stick policy has been practiced since 1990 as harsh countermeasures were balanced with increased social services. Shia leaders were released from prison in 1993, and some exiles were allowed to return. But could they become equal citizens? No.
Calls for violence against the Shia by Saudi scholars and the official religious authority have continued. The fatwas are always the same: "Either pick the correct path of belief or be killed or exiled." Official comments labeling the Shia as "the greatest enemy of the Muslims," "perverts," or "deviants," are still common.
The government promises more jobs but you do not see a single Shia as a governor, police chief, judge or pilot. There is not one Shia principal in any of the 300 or so female Shia schools. Students have to read national textbooks that demean their existence. Back in 2002, Ali Ahmed, director of the Insitute of Gulf Affairs, summed it up well at U.S. Congressional hearings,when he called Saudi Arabia "a glaring example of religious apartheid."
Shia clerics' struggle against the policies that demonize them and deprive them of their basic rights was generally reconciliatory, peaceful and reformist. The exceptions happened to be some acts of violence by the Saudi Hezbollah or resistance against the extreme police brutality at demonstrations.
Arab Spring fallout
There is no tolerance for the Sunnis who try to end the sectarian hostility either. For example, writer Mikhlif al-Shammari from the Shammar tribe was sentenced to two years jail time and 200 lashes for visiting Shia leaders under attack and attending a Shia funeral.
Nimr's execution will do nothing but feed sectarian hatred. King Salman could have used his authority to grant amnesty — but he chose not to.
During the "Arab Spring" wave of 2011, dozens of Shia youth were murdered at demonstrations that simply demanded more political and economic rights for all. Nimr was among the leaders who raised their voices bravely at the time. He kept his distance from Iran despite the accusations against him, and he came out in support of toppling the Assad regime in Syria, backed by Tehran. The only charge against him was speaking against the royal family — that is, not being diplomatic enough!
The execution of Nimr is not surprising due to the history of hostility toward Shia, but it comes at a delicate moment in terms of regional politics. The Saudis could not get what they wanted in Syria and Iraq, which has pushed them toward more aggressive policies, both foreign and domestic. They attacked Yemen with a vengeful approach when the Houthis were close to coming to power. Then they tried to start a Sunni coalition against terrorism. They play a dangerous game by expanding their sectarian domestic policy to a regional scale.
The Saudi regime fictionalized the successes of al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria and Iraq as a "Sunni barrier" against the "Shia crescent," which is a manufactured fear. The founding ideology and oil money of Saudi Arabia have fed these organizations. Riyadh's fears of the Frankenstein terror monsters they've created is now multiplied by the consequences of their aggressive policies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.