Last week, the winds of change blew with a vengeance in Saudi Arabia, when armed terrorists opened fire on visitors to a Shi’ite Husseiniyah (meeting house) in the Al-Ahsa province, killing eight people, among them three children. True, this is not the first time Saudi Arabia has witnessed a crime of this nature, where innocent civilians and children have lost their lives. In fact, it has seen even worse. But it is the first time such terrorist acts have played on the country’s dissonant sectarian chord in such an ugly and dangerous way, in an attempt to fan the flames of sedition and strife between its people. It is also the first time Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, and its entire Council of Religious Scholars, have come out in defense of Saudi Shi’ites in this way, and they were joined by all groups in society—unequivocally and without pretense.
It is not surprising for us in Saudi Arabia to witness Sunni members of the country’s security forces giving their lives in order to protect their fellow Shi’ite brothers. Nor is it surprising for us to witness the country’s interior minister traveling to the site of the attack to pay his respects to the families of those killed. The real surprise here, in my opinion, is that the forces seeking to incite sectarian hatred and strife between Saudis have not, on this occasion, succeeded in doing so among the vast majority of the population. This time, it was the love of Saudis for their country and their depth of feeling and sadness over the tragedy that befell their fellow citizens, that prevailed—and not the “sectarian project” that has been insidiously at work in the country for years. This time it failed miserably, and the attack in Al-Ahsa—whose perpetrators no doubt thought the incident would help further their cause—may well be the knockout punch that will end this sectarian project once and for all.
There is no denying that there are still transgressions being committed against some Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia; but we must of course make the distinction between transgressions sanctioned by the state and those committed by individuals, who no doubt think that through these actions they are upholding their “rights,” when in fact they are committing an affront to the law in a most blatant manner.
So, yes, things are not entirely rosy; after all, you can never truly be rid of intellectual and doctrinal differences. Moreover, we must concede that attempts to worsen sectarian tensions are gaining ground, as far as the region as a whole is concerned. Events in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Bahrain cast a dark cloud on the region, whether we like it or not.
But this cloud may have a silver lining, and this incident in Al-Ahsa may be an opportune moment to, once and for all, draw a line in the sand between what has come before and what will come in the future. The Saudi government is not institutionally racist, nor does it tolerate this phenomenon in any way. The efforts of these sectarian instigators, who seek to widen the cracks between the different confessional groupings in Saudi society, must now be put to a swift end. But this will not happen so long as this minority believes it can do as it pleases with impunity, finding support here and there, without the security services or the law being able to apprehend and call to account those who commit such actions. No one has the right to impose their sectarian outlook on an entire nation, to divide its population into first- and second-class citizens.
The move by the Saudi government last week to release a unified Friday sermon for all mosques across the country, in which the Al-Ahsa attack is condemned in the most unambiguous terms, is a colossal one, as are the efforts announced to root out all sectarian rhetoric from Sunni mosques in the country. But this rhetoric clearly will not go down without a fight. That very same Friday, I was praying at a mosque in the eastern city of Al-Khobar, and I found the preacher warning during his sermon of the dangers the Shi’ites and the “Kharijites” posed to the faith. It is people such as these that endanger the government’s laudable efforts.