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Opinion: When the Terrorists Become “Activists” | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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FILE – In this Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012 file photo, a Saudi anti-government protester carries a poster with the image of jailed Shiite cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr during the funeral of three Shiite Muslims allegedly killed by Saudi security forces in the eastern town of al-Awamiya, Saudi Arabia. A court in Saudi Arabia has postponed […]

Saudi Arabia has issued a death sentence for a Saudi Shi’ite religious figure, Nimr Al-Nimr. The charges that have been proven against him are numerous and quite varied. The most prominent among them include using armed violence against the state and leading efforts to incite and support terrorists who have murdered civilians and security personnel and set fire to public property, not to mention his publicly boasting of his links with Iran and calling for the fragmentation of Saudi Arabia and for the establishment of the velayat-e faqih (rule by a supreme Islamic jurist) in “his country.”

What really stands out here, however, is the way international human rights groups and media outlets have dealt with the sentence, labeling Nimr an “opposition” figure and not a terrorist, despite his committing acts that are illegal in every country in the world.

I am fully aware that the issue of religious minorities in Arab countries is very much a tune the West likes to whistle, and there is a widespread belief—some aspects of it true, others false—that these minorities currently suffer from persecution and discrimination in their countries. This belief, however, is based on emotion, not fact. It holds that anything these minorities do falls under the umbrella of “human rights,” while everything done to them constitutes an infringement of their basic rights as citizens. Unfortunately, there are those who belong to these minorities who exploit this, in effect harming their own countries.

Maybe if this sentence was carried out on a non-Shi’ite it would have been considered a mere judicial one, but in Nimr’s case it has been considered by some to be political, the idea here being to transform Nimr into an “opposition figure” being hunted down by the state. But the very same court issued a very similar sentence against Al-Qaeda’s official ideologue. How can one of these men be a terrorist and the other an “opposition figure” if their crimes are virtually identical? The truth is there is only one difference between the terrorists of Al-Qaeda and those from Nimr’s hometown, Al-Awamiyah: the former are Sunni and the latter Shi’ite. It is also a truth that Saudi Shi’ites have the same rights and responsibilities as all other Saudi citizens.

Let’s leave aside Iran and its allies and helpers for a minute—that is, Lebanese Hezbollah, the Bahraini Al-Wefaq party, and the Houthis in Yemen—for they are part of a strategic Iranian project that is very much public knowledge now. What we are concerned with here are those organizations and media outlets who have failed to realize that Nimr, despite the proven crimes which he has committed, is not so much of a threat to the Saudi state that it has to make him the target of political persecution; after all, there are others in the Kingdom who raise their voices, attacking the state with their words, sometimes even overstepping their limits, but none of them face any legal measures whatsoever. As for that broken record of “freedoms and human rights”—the perennial lifeline of transgressors of the law—the whole world understands this game now, and it has become hackneyed and boring; not even Western governments fall for it anymore. Perhaps to illustrate this point, I can turn to part of the actual sentence itself, where it says that Nimr had “gone beyond merely expressing an opinion, which the convicted [Nimr] did for years without facing any [legal] response.” In other words, the issue here is not one “opinions” or “freedom of expression” as is being reported.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said recently that those British citizens who had declared allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) should be considered “traitors” and tried for “high treason”—a charge which carries a life sentence. Notice here how this punishment is meted out on those who merely declare their allegiance to ISIS. Well, what about those who also support, strengthen and defend terrorist organizations? Two days ago, those terrorists that Nimr incited to commit violent acts fired on a security patrol unit in Al-Awamiyah and blew up an oil pipeline there. Who knows, we may find some people calling them “activists,” the way Nimr has been labeled an opposition figure.

The various phenomena which have emerged from what is known as the “Arab Spring” seem endless. The most prominent of these is that of the “colorless, tasteless” political activist. The role of the activist no longer possesses, as it did before, strict guidelines that allow us to differentiate between a true activist and a mere amateur (and self-styled) activist who takes upon himself a label without even possessing the bare minimum of credibility. For at the same time we are entering the twilight of this porcelain “phenomenon of the activist,” we now have to contend with another, more inane phenomenon, one which seeks to transform terrorists into opposition figures, defying laws, convention, and even logic.