Saudi Arabia Pulls the Curtain on Religious Freedom Ahead of the Hajj
“Human rights, of course, must include the right to religious freedom, understood as the expression of a dimension that is at once individual and communitarian – a vision that brings out the unity of the person while clearly distinguishing between the dimension of the citizen and that of the believer.” Pope Benedict XVI
If many find the idea of religious oppression a crime that they would like to see relegated to the pages of history – a sign surely of the ignorance and bigotry of men, millions across the world still suffer under its dark and vengeful hand … none more than Shia Muslims [including Sufis] under the diktat of Saudi Arabia.
While Islam is one and whole, its communities are many and diverse – a reflection of humanity’s many colors.
If not for the folly of a dogmatic clergy whose understanding of the Scriptures remains divorced from the message they carry: that “in religion there shall be no compulsion” and that if not brothers in faith, men sit equal in their humanity, the world may have learnt NOT to reject a faith on account of the terrorism of a few.
Shia Islam knows only too well what such dogmatism entails, as for well over 14 centuries its people have lived under the blade of leaders’ tyrannical self-righteous rejectionism. Labeled as apostates, pursued in their person and their properties, rejected and tortured, driven to the edges of the Islamic world for they dare hold views different from that of the majority, Shia Muslims know only too well what hardship intolerance brings a people.
Today … under the convenient cover political pragmatism offers its allies, yet another brick was raised in rejection of a community’s religious right.
In service of Saudi Arabia’s reactionary Wahhabist/Salafist clergy, yet another violence was committed against Shia Muslims by cutting them off from a site they hold most sacred, ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage.
What the flesh may survive, the heart cannot so easily overcome, especially when the affront means to deny one’s belief by sullying what one community holds most holy – the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad, the last prophet of Islam.
The self-proclaimed custodian of Islam’s holiest of sites, Saudi Arabia’s propensity to defile … yes defile, Islam’s heritage is one affront too many for any of us to turn away from. Beyond the blind hatred lies a systematic will to disappear our collective religious heritage.
Before Islam was spoken to Arabia, Judaism and Christianity echoed across its plains and mountains. Before Mosques ever rang of the calls for prayers, Temples and Churches towered under its skies.
Such memories have long been claimed by the kings of Saudi Arabia, so that their subjects would only remember of their rule and their designated beliefs.
How long before all past is forgotten, and for a region which once spoke religious pluralism to be swallowed by the unforgiving radicalism of Salafism’ blade?
Al Baqee Cemetery has been completely walled out from pilgrims ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage – July 2018
If Saudi Arabia’s royals may have claimed ownership of Islam’s heritage on account of geography, thus drawing wealth from Islam’s pilgrimages, it stands to reason surely to reject religious intolerance when it translates in the loss of our collective patrimoine. After all, we are the sum of our experiences, thoughts and beliefs.
Without those memories held in stone, how will we ever measure the depth and beauty of our humanity?
With the Hajj pilgrimage only a few weeks away the kingdom thought best to shield the Al Baqee cemetery with cement and iron, preventing all to lay eyes on the sacred site. The last resting place of some of Islam’s most prominent and revered personalities, Al Baqee sits out of reach – a forbidden place on account of the memories and principles its stones speak.
For generations of men, Al Baqee has spoken hope, wisdom, tradition …
For millions, Al Baqee remains a tangible link to the progeny of the Prophet Muhammad – those extraordinary men and women, who, by the strength of their faith spoke Truth and Liberation where Lies and Repression dwelled.
It is customary for Shia Muslims to visit the graves of those they hold most dear. I would argue that such custom is in fact natural since shared across continents.
This right has been denied to placate Saudi Arabia’s clergy’s sense of religious self-righteousness.
Remembrance has been labeled a sin in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
A detail many will argue … what’s a cemetery in the face of those threats we have to contend with?
I would say quite a lot since it is Saudi Arabia’s love affair with Wahhabism/Salafism – an acetic and violent interpretation of Islam espoused by the likes of Al Qaeda and Daesh/ISIS, that allowed for Terror to sprung forth in the first place.
To stand for religious freedom requires that we do so on principle. To stand for religious pluralism and the right of a community to practice their beliefs away from harm or fear demands that we do so systematically and tirelessly.
To allow one infraction is to deny our own right – our prerogatives as people.
A report published by CASS (The Centre for Academic Shia Studies) in 2015 summarises best Saudi Arabia’s policy towards religious sites. It reads: “The culture of destroying historical sites in Saudi Arabia indeed dates back to the 18th century through the doctrine of Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahab, which is approved and adopted by the Saudi authorities. Although the justification given today for legitimizing the destructions differ to that of ibn Abd al-Wahab’s, the ideology is rooted within the existing mentality, where thereby, the sanctity of these sacred sites are not upheld. This has resulted in great offense to much of the wider Muslim world, specifically the Shi’ites and Sufi Sunnis who revere these sites as holy places and not merely history.”
There is danger in allowing Saudi Arabia’s custodianship to translate into religious oppression against minorities. In light of the horrors committed in the name of dogmatism in places like Iraq and Syria, it would be wise to heed the cries of pilgrims as sticks will fall upon their back for they are Shia.
By Catherine Shakdam – A political analyst and commentator for the Middle East, Catherine is a researcher at Al Bayan Centre for Planning and Studies, and the author of A Tale of Grand Resistance – Yemen, the Wahhabi, and the House of Saud.
Catherine is also the Director of Communication for the Journalist Support Committee, a former consultant on Yemen for the United Nations Security Council, and PhD candidate.