Monday, April 29, 2013

Religious toleration in Saudi Arabia – The dangers of text-messaging while Shiite

A report that may have originated with an Iranian news service, Mehr News, picked up here.  I don't know how reliable Mehr News is, but this story sounds entirely plausible and unsurprising:
A Saudi woman has been sentenced to eight lashes by a court in Qatif for mistakenly sending a text message allegedly promoting the Shiite branch of Islam.

The 30-year-old woman, identified only as YH, has been pronounced guilty for sending an SMS to another Saudi woman, containing a group of telephone numbers under the name 'Shiite Islamic religious services'.

One phone number apparently led to Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric who is renowned throughout the Gulf for his learned counsel on Islamic law.

The Saudi Arabian state is a staunch adherent to the Sunni branch of Islam, and publicly disparages the Shia sect. Shia Muslims are not allowed to practice their faith, or even profess their sectarian beliefs in private.
That's slightly overstated, though only slightly.  The public manifestations of any non-Muslim religion are strictly prohibited, of course, and although private prayers by non-Saudi workers or visitors may be tolerated, from time to time non-Muslims get arrested for the crime of praying in groups in private homes.  But the situation of the Shiite minority, estimated at 10-15% and mostly concentrated in the eastern part of the country, is a bit more complicated.  Shiites are subject to systematic discrimination and intermittent persecution, but in practice Shiite religious observance is usually tolerated as long as it is private and inconspicuous, and some Shiite mosques are even allowed in the Eastern Province—though at other times they get closed or demolished in periodic crackdowns.

It seems fair to describe the Saudi toleration of Shiite Islam as limited, grudging, and precarious. YH apparently went over the line, in the judgment of the authorities, by electronically propagating her heretical beliefs.
The act of calling people for Shiism, or openly advocating the Shia faith, has been pronounced as haram (forbidden and despicable in Arabic) by the Attorney General, who publicly demanded that YH be severely punished.
The sentence was eventually conferred by judge Davoud Mohammad al-Davoud, who, according to local sources, is an extremist sectarian with a history of harsh judgements.

The defendant, from the district of Awamiyya, vigorously contested the judgement.

"According to claims by the Attorney General, I have sent the SMS wrongly to an unknown number, and this might happen for anyone else, so, I do not accept the accusations," YH told the court, according to a report in Mehr News.

However, despite her vehement protestation YH has been unable to win a reprieve against her sentence.
Of course, the Islamic Republic of Iran doesn't have a sterling record of its own when it comes to freedom of conscience in general or freedom of religion in particular.  There is not even the pretense of granting non-Muslim religions legal or cultural equality; certain religious minorities, like the Baha'i, are persecuted with special ferocity; Muslims who convert to Christianity may be charged with apostasy and face possible execution; and so on.  But there is no question that, overall, there is much more religious toleration in Iran than in Saudi Arabia (a country routinely described as our "ally" and as a quintessentially "moderate" Arab power).  Everything is relative.

—Jeff Weintraub