By Jamal Khashoggi
13 November 2014
Saudi Arabia’s al-Jazirah newspaper published a wonderful headline last Wednesday. It read in bold red: “Your terrorism won’t divide us.” It’s a reassuring message that Saudis need at a time when they see their neighbours fighting and killing one another after being divided into sects and parties. However, is it true that “they won’t divide us?” Has the Iraqi Sunni or the Iraqi Shiite chose to live through the war they are currently facing? Should we contemplate how sectarianism flared up in Iraq and who ignited it?
Sectarianism and hatred are not the choice of the general public. Most people are moderate centrists like the people of the Saudi town of al-Ahsa who were shocked last Monday evening by the first and most dangerous sectarian incident to happen in their governorate. The aggressors were not from the area and they do not represent the majority of Saudis. They are a group with deep hatred towards the Shiites or rather towards “the other,” regardless of who this other is. Their vision of the country and society does not harmonize with that of the majority. Even if elections happen in Saudi Arabia, they wouldn’t win. But why are they capable of dragging us all into the fire of sectarianism as they did in Iraq? It’s because they are willing to do so and because we haven’t fortified ourselves from the infection of sectarianism when they spread it among us. Most of us refuse to make such a confession; however it’s the truth. Take a quick tour of a religious education workshop and listen to the sectarianism and insults when other sects, particularly the Shiites, are discussed. Take another quick look at satellite television channels and you will hear even more hateful statements under the excuse of defending what’s religiously right. School books, fatwas (religious edicts), articles, social media and conversations in gatherings’ have all instilled sectarianism and intolerance in us and have prepared us to become involved in sectarian strife either by taking action or by making statements.
Attack on a Husseiniya
The leader of the attack on a Husseiniya in the village of al-Dalwa embodies this very well. All we know about him is that he snuck back from Syria into Saudi Arabia and that he was member of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). We can therefore imagine what kind of intellect and doctrine he espouses. He certainly did not go through the risk of sneaking back into Saudi Arabia just because he hates the Shiites.
He returned to Saudi Arabia, planned and conspired because he and his ISIS state have a sinful scheme that targets the kingdom and its national unity. His plan, as we later learnt, sought to cause as much harm as possible to the Shiites. He and his gang tried to target the women’s section in the Husseiniya (a Shiite gathering place) first because he knew that killing women causes more anger. He wanted to stir hatred in order to drag in moderates from all sides. This would anger the Sunnis who in turn would verbally attack the Shiites. The state would arrest the assailant and tension would increase among us. Al-Qaeda or ISIS would then respond with an attack and the victims would always be moderate citizens who did not choose to be part of the struggle between the two parties. People would then forget who started the fight but they would remember who killed who. They would exchange photos of victims and each party would exaggerate the brutality of the other - brutality that forms the basis of extremism between Sunnis and Shiites. The victory of the Khomeini revolution and the rise of Sunni fundamentalism are what will fuel great sedition.
Don’t Underestimate the Threat
Don’t underestimate the threat of al-Qaeda, ISIS or Salafist Jihadism by saying they’re incapable of disintegrating our national unity. I hope the Shiites also clarify their stance towards extremists on their side, such as towards Nimr al-Nimr who has been detained and sentenced to death and who attacked the pillars of the Saudi state. Don’t be reassured by the romantic stories of Sunnis and the Shiites eating dates together in a farm in al-Ahsa. The Iraqis also ruefully speak of the days of co-existence between their Shiites and Sunnis but look how they ended up when they submitted to people like Nouri al-Maliki and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who are capable of dragging everyone into their sectarian agenda.
Yes, tension with Iran contributed to increasing sectarian strife but it’s in Saudi Arabia’s interest to refrain from using sectarianism as one of the tools in this struggle with Iran. Despite the latter’s obvious sectarianism, we must rise above this. We cannot act like them and hang every Shiite opposition figure on gallows like they are doing to Sunni Ahwazi people every Friday.
We are not helping the Syrian people because they are Sunnis but because they want freedom. We did not oppose Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq because he’s a Shiite but because he tore his country apart. We must prevent any preacher from attacking the Shiite sect because by attacking the latter sect, he is harming all Saudi citizens, tearing the country’s unity apart and creating the foundation for al-Qaeda and similar groups to act.
Let us neutralize sects when it comes to the struggle with Iran as the latter is like al-Qaeda - it hopes for chaos and strife in our country because that is how it seeks to expand.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.