Daesh/ ISIL blows up Shiite Mosque in Saudi Arabia, seeking Sectarian Civil War

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | –

A suicide bomber with a concealed weapon detonated his payload during Friday prayers at the Ali b. Abi Talib Mosque in Qadif, a suburb of the major Shiite city of Qatif in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. It killed 21 and wounded 102, according to the Eastern Province ministry of health.

Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) announced that the operation was its.

Daesh’s policy, like al-Qaeda from which it branched off, is to “sharpen the contradictions,” provoking sectarian civil war so as to be able to take advantage of it. Among the Shiites of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, it is fishing in troubled waters.

Saudi’s Council of Leading Clerics roundly condemned the bombing and counted it a hideous crime that aimed to strike a blow against the unity of the Saudi people and to shake the country’s stability, saying “Behind it stand criminal terrorists with foreign fighters.” It added, “They were driven mad with rage when the Kingdom fulfilled its religious and Arab and Islamic duty.”

This is murky, but I suppose they are referring to the fact that Saudi Arabia is one of the coalition allies of the US that have conducted airstrikes against Daesh in Syria. Now Daesh has taken a clever sort of revenge, not just hitting back at the capital, Riyadh, or at the Saudi royal family, but rather hitting Saudi Shiites in hopes of stirring them up against the monarchy. The idea is that the Shiites will either think that King Salman should have protected their mosque from being blown up or they will think that the bombing was a false flag operation actually carried out by the Saudi secret police against them. Either way, Daesh has succeeded in making trouble for Riyadh.

In late April, Saudi Arabia arrested 93 persons allegedly belonging to Daesh, who were charged with a plot to blow up the US embassy in Riyadh. Such a bombing could have hurt US-Saudi relations.

The kingdom’s relationship with its Shiite citizens in the Eastern Province has long been difficult. They improved a bit in 2005 when the first municipal elections were held in Saudi Arabia, and the major Shiite city of Qatif put Shiites in charge for the first time. Although Wahhabis abhor Shiite rituals and had driven them underground, the elected city council permitted mourning rituals for Imam Husayn, the martyred grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, inside Qatif city limits (so as to avoid offending Wahhabis in the rest of the Eastern Province).

But relations with the central state took a downward turn with the youth protests of 2011, which were disproportionately staged in the majority Shiite Eastern Province. The Wahhabi government cracked down hard and is said to have arrested 500 people. One of them, the prominent cleric Nimr al-Nimr, has been sentenced to death, provoking further protests in the Eastern Province.

Saudi Arabia is a country of about 20 million citizens, with roughly 8 million foreign guest workers. About 12% of its citizens, i.e. 2.4 million, adhere to the Shiite branch of Islam. Most of them live in the Eastern Province (al-Hasa), though there are also communities in Medina in the Hejaz and in Najran (the latter being Ismaili rather than, as with the others, Twelvers, who believe in 12 Imams or vicars of the Prophet Muhammad. Twelvers predominate in Iraq and Iran).

The state religion and the majority religion in Saudi Arabia is the Wahhabi (“Unitarian”) branch of Islam founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century. It was originally not part of Sunni Islam and considered Sunnis lax apostates and infidels, but over time it has been accepted as a form of Sunnism among some. (When I’m in the Gulf, I hear people talking about “Sunnis and Wahhabis,” so regionally they are still not considered the same thing). Wahhabis have distinctive beliefs and practices, being more suspicious of technology, more willing to excommunicate people from Islam, and more insistent on the public practice of a rigid form of the religion, in the service of which it provides religious police to whip people into praying at mosque (this is not done in Sunni countries). There are still substantial numbers of Sunnis in the western Hejaz province, where 35% or 7 million of Saudi’s citizens dwell. There has even be a revival of Sufi mysticism in the Hejaz, despite the hatred for that broadminded form of Islam among the Wahhabi clergy. Saudi Arabia is thus more religiously diverse than usually realized, and it is also therefore vulnerable to sectarian fracturing.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Wahhabis viewed Shiite Muslims as idolaters, and in 1803 Wahhabi tribes raided up into Iraq to loot the shrine of Imam Husayn, the martyred grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Wahhabis are like iconoclastic Protestants, objecting to saints, shrines, and visual icons. Theirs is an austere religion wherein there can be no intercession, no intermediary between God and human beings. The Saudis conquered the Eastern Province in 1913 and for decades imposed severe restrictions on the Shiites there, who were persecuted.

The late King Abdallah appears to have tried to reach out to the Shiites. He appointed two to his Shura Council, the embryonic Saudi parliament. And he let some Shiite areas have un-gerrrymandered municipal elections. Since 2011 there has been a distinct downturn in Shiite relations with the Saudi monarchy, of which Daesh is now trying to take advantage.

One thing King Salman should do right now is pardon Nimr al-Nimr.


Related video:

AJ+: “ISIS Claims Responsibility For Deadly Mosque Attack In Saudi Arabia”

19 Responses

  1. But to release Nimr Al Nimr, or even to tolerate the Shia protests that will inevitably happen, will make them appear weak within the international Wahhabist movement. The Saudi strategy over the last 9 months or so has been to regain their position at the head of that movement after losing it first to Al Qaida and then ISIS/ Daesh.
    I can’t see them moderating their position without a serious division

  2. The article appears confused about the correct relationship between Wahhabism and Sunnism, and instead of identifying their “distinctive practices and beliefs” has listed a number of tendencies that are not in fact peculiar to Wahhabis in current or past Muslim history.

    Wahhabism does not denote a distinction from other contemporary Sunnis in the understanding and application of Islamic law and jurisprudence (i.e. applied Islam) for they follow the Hanbali Sunni school for the most part, and nobody denies it being a core Sunni school. Hence many of their opinions in this matter are quite within the line of historical Sunni opinions.

    Wahhabism is Salafism rendered Saudi. The distinction it does denote from other contemporary Sunnis is its emphasis on Unitarianism and its rejection of practices that it believes undermines such a concept. In particular, things like what it views as exaggerated veneration of the dead and/or powers other than God, as you have correctly mentioned.

    The reason there is an impression that they are more willing to excommunicate people from Islam is because they classify the above mentioned practices as contradictory to Islam. And many Muslims do in fact practice one of them or the other. However what the article overlooks is that, nevertheless, Wahhabis do not give a blanket ruling of excommunication on these other Muslims. That is because they believe the vast majority to be insufficiently aware and cannot, thus, be held accountable until such an ignorance is lifted. Hence, in practice, it is only in a case by case basis that excommunication does happen, and that is not all too common, despite impressions otherwise.

    Finally, “whipping” people to prayer has long been abandoned in Saudi, what is left is only the closure of shops during prayer times.

    Please do allow this point of view to reach your audience.

    • And in Central Asia, the group or person being referred to as ‘Wahhabi’ doesnt need to be from Saudi Arabia or even a follower of Wahhabi ideas, it’s a synonym for jihadi or extremist. The village I worked in Central Asia would be visited by guys driving through the porous borders from other countries, often further south like Uzbekistan or Afghanistan, to pass out leaflets and propaganda they would come and liberate everyone. People in my village would derisively call them ‘Wahhabis’. There’s a difference at times between a textbook or classical definition, and how people on the ground view the same phenomenon

  3. Thanks for this information. This is the first time I’ve read about the distinction between Wahhabis and Sunnis. That reflects my lack of knowledge, but that in turn may reflect the superficial news coverage we get from most sources in the U.S. I wonder if what is going on in Yemen is another complicating factor.

  4. “Sectarian conflict”: I never heard much of that up till some 30 years ago. I wander how much of the so called (Islam) “Sectarian conflict” is manufactured and cultivated by the West to divide and conquer. I wander how much the West works to prevent Islamic unity. I wish Dr. Cole would write about it.

    • It’s more like blowback than intent. The key to your question is what happened at the end of the ’70s in Iran and Saudi Arabia, both tyrannical monarchies backed by the US. Due perhaps to the Shia belief (I guess specific to the Twelvers) that they are only to be governed by the Imams, and none currently exist on Earth, they have rarely been rulers of their own countries. Thus the Shah was a Sunni descended from foreign conquerers. Khomeini’s movement provided a theological breakthrough to make a Shia theocracy feasible, and it exploded to power alongside a coalition of anti-Shah forces in 1979. You can imagine from the above article how the Saudis felt about this, but at this same moment the Saudis chose to get involved in nearby Afghanistan alongside the CIA.

      Generally, this is the story of how anti-Soviet paranoia made the US leadership paralyzed in dealing with the Shah and his successor, who at least had the virtue of being anti-Marxist, while at the same time it chose whatever allies it could to win in Afghanistan.

      Thus Iran produced Shia militancy, and Afghanistan produced the jihadi network that turned like Frankenstein’s monster on its creators… or at least that’s what we are led to believe. The Arab and Persian oil giants might not have pitted their proxies against each other in “sectarian conflict” if Saddam Hussein had not gotten US/Saudi backing in his war of aggression on Iran the next year. Maybe that was the last moment when all of this could have been avoided.

  5. Thomas Pierret

    Imv they’re rather seeking govt repression upon themselves then accuse gov of protecting Shia. Like with US nationals in 2003

  6. The chickens are coming home to roost. There is no doubt in my mind that Saudi Arabia will eventually succumb to the religious bigotry that it actively exported all over the world.

    • Yep. What they will do to themselves to maintain security will do far more damage than simply giving their citizens what they want. The problem is, before they give up they will try to repatriate all their US $ investments to pay for this war, which will flood the world economy with falling dollars. The chickens coming home to roost here have green backs.

  7. How could the Shiites prevail ….certainly not in the Arab world…then Iran would have to fight their fight…it’s crazy and utterly stupid…all of it…

  8. For some reason the story of Ben Franklin emerging from the constitutional convention in Philadelphia and his reportedly being asked, “What have you wrought?” came to mind. A good question to pose to Dubya, Darth Cheney and their warmongering cohorts.

    • Supposedly, Chou En-Lai was asked, “Was the French Revolution a good thing or a bad thing?”

      His answer: “It is too soon to tell.”

  9. The date of the attack was also deliberately chosen. It wasn’t just a Friday prayer gathering but also suppose to be the day of celebrating Imam Hussain’s birthday.

    I think ISIL’s simply thinking to cleanse Saudi Shias, (like other Sunni extremist groups frequently do in sectarian attacks in Pakistan) while undermining Saudi govt’s authority. This is new to KSA, but not unexpected given ISIL’s earlier threats that they would attack Shiites. Elsewhere its been a normal occurrence like in Iraq, way before ISIL, targeting a Shiite majority by AQI who earlier instigated the sectarian war.

    With a small Shiite minority population that’s already oppressed, it’ll hardly be a civil war and there’s no way the Saudi kingdom will pardon al-Nimr, to maintain an image that they still religiously adhere to their hardline Wahhabi beliefs and not soft on the Shias despite the recent attack in which they are condemning.

    link to bbc.com

  10. The alliance of the Saudi monarchs with the Wahhabi religious leaders has lasted since the 1700’s — along with the United States, one of the few political-cultural arrangements that has lasted uninterrupted in that time period. Yet for the first two centuries and more of that alliance, it was just the relatively isolated Bedouin of central Arabia; the conquest of the East Coast came only in 1913 (i.e., .long after European penetration of that region) and the conquest of the western mountains and coast, with the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, only in 1924 — an episode that I strongly feel the need to read up on, again.

    The Saudis have had a few decades now to construct an internal police-surveillance apparatus with oil money, so maybe they’ve been able to construct something that can keep a lid on ordinary dissension.

    This could possibly mark the beginning of much stronger Saudi action against Daesh, or perhaps it will come to be seen as the first match in the conflagration that takes down the Saudi state? Much depends on the psychological/religious inner thoughts of the Saudi elite: is their hatred of the Shi’a really their worst itch, or can they see that an ostensibly ultra-Islamic “caliphate” — which must have a goal itself of taking the holy cities if it is to fulfill that label — can be an even more serious threat to Saudi power?

  11. Please have a read to get some more facts about the bombing:
    link to dawn.com

    The most notable is the last para … quote “A video posted online by local activists showed a policeman standing over the limbs of the bomber inside the stricken mosque and apparently saying “God rest his soul”, only to get screamed at by residents whose white robes were smeared with blood.”..unquote

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