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They Are Not Our Brothers: Hate Speech by Saudi Officials

By Adam Maida for Human Rights Watch

September 26, 2017

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia traces its origins to a 1744 pact between a religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and the Al Saud family, under which al-Wahhab’s movement enabled the Saudi rulers to expand their political rule in return for enforcing his religious teachings. The power relations between the Saudi royal family and the clerics have changed over time, but the clerics and religious scholars continue to wield power and directly influence the policies and politics of the Saudi state, especially in the justice and education sectors.

Since its establishment, the Saudi state has permitted government-appointed religious scholars and clerics to refer to Shia citizens in derogatory terms or demonize them in official documents and religious rulings, which influence government decision-making. In recent years government clerics and others have used the internet and social media to demonize and incite hatred against Shia Muslims and others who do not conform to their views.

Saudi state-funded religious scholars, who generally follow the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, are variously described as “Wahhabi” after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab or “Salafi.” Salafism refers to a movement within Sunni Islam that developed in Arabia in the first half of the 18th century and advocated a return to the traditions of the “devout ancestors” (the salaf). There is extensive academic and political debate over these terms and their usage, as well as their relationship to a spectrum of Sunni religio-political movements, including the Salafi-Jihadi ideologies that have fueled armed groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State or ISIS. This debate is beyond the scope of this report, but further reading on this topic can be found in the sources cited in the footnotes.

The Saudi-sponsored “purist” Islamic belief and practice has influenced Muslims across the globe, but it is by no means uncontested. Many Sunnis regard this form of Islam as intolerant and extremist. Sufism in particular represents a strain of Islam, long popular among Sunnis and Shia alike, that shares many practices with mainstream Shia Islam, such as veneration of the prophet’s family and local saints. Therefore, like Shia Islam, Sufism has been a prime target of Saudi-sponsored hate speech and intolerant rhetoric.

International human rights law prohibits “[a]ny advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” Implementation of this prohibition by states over the years has been uneven and sometimes used as a pretext to restrict lawful speech or target minority groups. In order to address this problem, experts in recent years have proposed a six-part threshold test to establish whether any particular speech can be lawfully limited, including the context of the speech, the position of the status of the speaker, the intent of the speech, the content or form of the speech, the extent or reach of the speech, and an assessment of the risk of resulting harm of the speech.

Under this formula, Saudi religious scholars’ anti-Shia rhetoric documented in this report sometimes rises to the level of hate speech or incitement to hatred or discrimination. Other statements by Saudi religious scholars documented in this report do not rise to the level of hate speech or incitement to hatred or discrimination but nevertheless should be publicly repudiated and counteracted by Saudi authorities. Given the influence and reach of these scholars, these public anti-Shia statements are instrumental in Saudi Arabia’s enforcement of a system of discrimination against Shia citizens. This discrimination occurs in various areas, including refusal to permit Saudi Shia to build houses of worship outside limited Shia-majority areas, the imposition of a justice system that often displays anti-Shia bias, and an education curriculum that stigmatizes Shia religious beliefs and practices.

Government religious clerics often refer to Shia using derogatory terms such as rafidha or rawafidh, meaning “rejectionists,” and stigmatize their beliefs and practices. They have also condemned mixing between Sunnis and Shia as well as intermarriage. One current member of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the country’s highest religious body, responded in a public meeting to a question about Shia Muslims by stating that “they are not our brothers ... rather they are brothers of Satan…”

Saudi Arabia’s former grand mufti, Abdulaziz Bin Baz, who died in 1999, condemned Shia in numerous religious rulings. Bin Baz’s body of fatwas and writings remain publicly available on the website of Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas. They remain influential and are often cited in Saudi court rulings, which are based on Islamic law.

Some clerics use conspiratorial language when discussing Saudi Shia, accusing them of being a domestic fifth column for Iran and disloyal by nature.

In addition to government-affiliated clerics, the state likewise allows other clerics to employ enormous social media followings – some in the millions – and media outlets to stigmatize Shia with impunity.

In addition to statements by Saudi religious scholars, anti-Shia bias extends to the Saudi judicial system, which is controlled by the religious establishment and often subjects Saudi Shia to discriminatory treatment or arbitrary criminalization of Shia religious practices. In 2015, for example, a Saudi court sentenced a Shia citizen to two months in jail and 60 lashes for hosting private Shia group prayers in his father’s home in the Eastern Province town of Khobar, a city in which Saudi authorities do not permit Shia mosques to be built. In 2014, a Saudi Arabia court convicted a Sunni man of “sitting with Shia.”

The Saudi Ministry of Education religion curriculum also employs anti-Shia rhetoric. The religion curriculum for the 2016-17 school year does not mention Saudi Shia by name, but instead uses veiled language to stigmatize Shia religious practices as shirk, or polytheism or ghulah, “exaggeration.” Saudi religious education textbooks direct these critiques in particular to the Shia practice of visiting graves and religious shrines to venerate important religious figures and members of the family of the prophet, as well as tawassul, or intercession, by which Shia Muslims call on the prophet or members of the prophet’s family as intermediaries to God. The textbooks state that these practices, which both Sunni and Shia citizens understand as Shia, are grounds for removal from Islam and incur the punishment of being sent to hell for eternity. These beliefs about Shia are shared by many Sunnis outside Saudi Arabia, but in the Saudi context, the government textbooks perpetuate an anti-Shia narrative in Saudi society that serves to incite hatred against Shia citizens and maintain a system of discrimination against them.

Not only does the Saudi government tolerate hate speech, it sometimes imprisons those who criticize it. For example, in 2008, the government arrested prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Tawfiq al-Amer after he spoke out in a sermon against a statement signed by 22 prominent Saudi clerics in which they called Shia “an evil among the sects of the Islamic nation, and the greatest enemy and most deceptive to the Sunni people.” At the time the statement was issued, 11 of the 22 signatories were current government officials and 6 were former government officials. Al-Amer is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence for publicly demanding constitutional reforms.

Anti-Shia hate speech has fatal consequences when armed groups such as the so-called Islamic State or ISIS or al Qaeda employ it as a justification for targeting Shia civilians with violence. Since mid-2015, ISIS has carried out attacks against six Shia mosques and religious buildings in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and Najran, killing over 40 individuals. ISIS press releases claiming these attacks stated that the attackers were targeting “edifices of shirk” and Rafidha, which is the same language used by Saudi religious scholars and Ministry of Education textbooks in describing Shia citizens. Saudi officials immediately condemned these attacks, but they have not acted to stamp out the hate speech that supports them. ISIS has employed similar justifications for attacking Shia civilians and religious sites in Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

Following two of the ISIS attacks on Shia mosques in May in May 2015, Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, the country’s highest advisory body, debated a proposed “Regulation on Protecting National Unity,” which would have criminalized hate speech, but Shura Council members ultimately rejected the proposal by a vote of 74 to 47.

Human Rights Watch supports the right to free expression, which is clearly set out in international law, and has repeatedly documented and criticized Saudi Arabia’s unlawful efforts to limit free expression and restrict critical debate on important political, social, or religious topics. Any lawful restriction on the content of expression concerning hate speech should address speech that is likely to incite violence, discrimination, or hostility against an individual or clearly defined group of persons in circumstances in which such violence, discrimination, or hostility is imminent and alternative measures to prevent such conduct are not reasonably available. Government agencies and officials, as well as others who effectively wield governmental authority or exercise effective control over territory and population, have a duty to refrain from speech advocating violence, discrimination, or hostility toward any individual or social group.

Human Rights Watch’s examination of statements and writings of Saudi clerics, courts, and textbooks in this report demonstrate that Saudi government officials and institutions have incited hatred or discrimination against its own Shia citizens, and that hostility and discrimination against Shia both in Saudi Arabia and beyond its borders directly resulted from these statements and writings. In addition to Shia, these hostile statements have also targeted Jews, Christians, Sufis, Zoroastrians, and others. Rather than turning a blind eye to such rhetoric, Saudi Arabia is obligated to halt or take measures to counter such speech.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has classified Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern” – its harshest designation for countries that violate religious freedom – repeatedly since 2004. Despite this designation, Saudi Arabia has not faced sanctions mandated for such countries under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) because the law allows the US president to issue a waiver if the waiver would “further the purposes of IRFA” or if “the important national interest of the United States requires the exercise of such waiver authority.” The US president has issued a waiver for Saudi Arabia since 2006. Among the sanctions for countries of particular concern are private or public condemnation, delay or cancellation of scientific or cultural exchanges, denial or cancellation of US visas for officials, suspension of aid, or even prohibition of export or import agreements. The president of the United States should immediately rescind the waiver for Saudi Arabia and use the tools of the IRFA to push Saudi Arabia to halt incitement to hatred and discrimination against Shia Islam and other religions.

Saudi authorities should take immediate steps to end hate speech by state-affiliated clerics and bodies because of its role in undergirding and perpetuating its anti-Shia discrimination in Saudi society. They should also immediately dissociate the state from any cleric or preacher who uses rhetoric that incites hatred against Shia including by firing members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars who have targeted Shia with hate speech. Saudi authorities should also take measures to counter hate speech by government and non-government clerics in the media and on social media.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia should enact anti-discrimination legislation that would prevent anti-Shia bias in the justice and education system, allow Shia to build houses of worship and freely practice their religious beliefs on an equal basis with Sunni citizens, and authorities should reform the education curriculum to remove anti-Shia elements.