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Saudi Arabia shaken by Ashura mosque attack Open in fullscreen

Badr Ibrahim

Saudi Arabia shaken by Ashura mosque attack

The attack's sectarian undertones shocked the kingdom [AFP]

Date of publication: 10 November, 2014

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The recent fatal attack raises questions about sectarian divisions in the kingdom, and the need to adopt a more inclusive model of citizenship.
Saudi society was shocked by last week's attack on a hussainia, a Shia meeting house, during commemorations for the Day of Ashura. While Ashura is important to all Muslims, it is of particular significance to Shia. It is a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, that takes place every year on the tenth day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar. The attack took place in al-Dalwa village located in the country's eastern al-Ahsa governorate.

It is thought to be the first such attack in the country's history. Assumptions that the violence had sectarian motives have sparked discussion about the extent of the sectarian crisis in the kingdom. Most people condemned the crime, and the government arrested more than 20 suspects. The Saudi Council of Senior Scholars was quick to condemn the attack, and "notables" from the Shia community tried to play up national unity in the aftermath.


     The strongest condemnation of the attack came from members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Pro-tolerance and co-existence rhetoric spread quickly. It was promoted both by Islamists and liberals who had until recently been endorsing sectarian messages. There is no doubt that many of the condemnations were genuinely rejecting sectarianism. However, many were not criticising sectarian behaviour, instead speaking out against the impact of the attack on security and stability in the country.

The strongest condemnation came from members of the Muslim Brotherhood, or those close to the organisation, who mixed their criticism of the attack with their own personal and regional grievances. They called into question relations between Saudi Shias and regional Shia powers deemed hostile to the kingdom - after giving their messages of condemnation.

The widespread condemnation of the attack in al-Dalwa is a good thing, but the sudden emergence of rhetoric endorsing co-existence cannot necessarily be trusted. Condemning the attacks does not mean sectarian speech will be eliminated.

Discussions about the causes of sectarianism and how social divides can be managed have been rising in volume. Attention has especially focused on sectarian TV channels that incite hatred. There have also been repeated discussions about the need to criminalise hate and sectarian speech. However, all this oversimplifies the problem and ignores the underlying issue - which is that the attack on al-Ahsa and its repercussions are a part of a regional crisis, and reflect competing regional sectarian struggles.

     Sectarianism in Saudi Arabia is connected to a crisis in national identity.
Sectarianism in Saudi Arabia is connected to a crisis in national identity and the absence of real citizenship. National identity is currently a narrow sectarian identity that has been forced on all citizens, but it is one which fails to represent the commonality between them.

Sectarian strife is exploding across the Mashreq -in L
ebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Syria. It is not a conflict about imams, religious leaders in Islam, or the Sahabah - the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Neither is it ideological or traditional. Instead, it is about power and influence and control of the state. This makes it a political dispute caused by turning followers of a denomination into members of an exclusive sect.

Sectarianism will not be cured by banning ideological teachings, or a special interpretation of religion or religious disputes - which will exist for eternity. Neither will sectarian majorities and minorities be able to coexist within a state, as seen in Iraq and Lebanon where attempts at sectarian coexistence have failed.

What is needed is an all-encompassing national identity that includes Shias in the national body, and ensures religious and cultural specificities without politicising sectarian, tribal or regional identity. Citizens must all be equal with the majority tolerating the minorities. The sectarian crisis goes deeper than discussions about a satellite channel. It is a political crisis that needs a political solution which addresses crucial issues of national identity and citizenship.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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