Demonstration against Saudi Arabia's execution of Nimr in Tehran on Jan. 4
Fehim TaÅŸtekin


ISTANBUL â€" 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.

Revolutionary fears

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 â€" 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.

At a Jan.4 demonstration against Saudi Arabia in Tehran â€" Photo: Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua/ZUMA

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 â€" 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 â€" 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.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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