September 22, 2008

VI. Official Attacks on Ismaili Ethnic and Religious Identity

Following Najran's incorporation into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a result of a 1934 treaty with Yemen, King Abd al-'Aziz made an undertaking to the Yam tribe of Najran to respect their religious and ethnic rights.[126] However, as the central state became more active in Najran by expanding public schooling, improving infrastructure, and enlarging the state bureaucracy, these promises eroded. Teachers, engineers, and bureaucrats from outside the region came to Najran to administer local affairs, bringing with them Wahhabi-inspired curricula and Sunni-influenced welfare programs, and building Sunni mosques.

The king appoints the governors of Saudi Arabia's 13 provinces based on nominations from the minister of interior. From the early 1960s until 1996, Najran was governed by members of the Sudairy family.[127] In 1996, Prince Mish'al bin Sa'ud bin Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud was appointed governor.

Ismailis from Najran complain that under Prince Mish'al, their identity as Ismailis came under threat and that they suffered increased discrimination and interference in their affairs. They give examples of officials disparaging the Shia faith, and the Ismaili faith in particular; of increased missionary and discriminatory charitable activity by Sunnis from outside, including in schools; of increased restrictions on Ismaili religious practices; and of a perceived plan to reduce the demographic weight of Ismailis by naturalizing Sunni Yemenis. These factors provide the background for the Holiday Inn hotel events of April 2000.

Ismailis' most acute concern at present is the naturalization of tens of thousands of Yemenis who have migrated into the Najran area at various times as refugees from southern Yemen, fleeing political persecution under the authoritarian leftist government of the former People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. These refugees often share the Wahhabi religious thought that prevails in Saudi Arabia and have found jobs as teachers and judges in Najran. Their naturalization affects the demographic composition of the region, where Ismailis presently constitute a large majority.[128] Viewed alongside existing discrimination and the forced transfers of Ismaili officials out of the province, the influx and perceived favored treatment of naturalized Yemenis lead Ismailis to fear that continued naturalizations threaten their ethnic and religious identity and the future of the spiritual capital of Sulaimani Ismailism.

Coupled with the issue of naturalization of Yemeni tribes is the battle over land in Najran. Many Ismailis have waited for a decade or more to receive land grants from the state. Meanwhile, Ismailis have seen the government build cities with free housing and municipal services and distribute land plots to these Yemenis, whether they have become Saudi citizens or not. One satellite township erected around 2000 and since expanded, called Mish'aliyya after the governor, provides housing and city services for thousands of Yemenis.[129] Many Ismailis see Prince Mish'al as the force behind a policy of restricting Ismaili access to land and jobs and suppressing their religious freedom.

Saudi officials regularly malign the Ismaili faith, which under the Fatimids of Egypt in the 10th and 11th centuries was the faith of the leading power in the Islamic world. In a fatwa (religious edict) issued on April 8, 2007, the Permanent Committee for Religious Research and Opinion, a subsidiary body to the Council of Senior Religious Scholars tasked with officially interpreting Islamic faith, ritual, and law, declared that "to call that state Fatimid [after the Prophet Muhammad's daughter, Fatima] is a false label," because "its founder was a magician," and "he and his followers are corrupt infidels, debauched atheists."[130] Statements like this by government-appointed clerics put an official stamp of approval on an interpretation of Islamic history that disparages the Ismaili Fatimids.

The statement and its implications go beyond a characterization of a historical period by proclaiming that the Fatimid state wrought havoc on Muslims "which suffices to repel anyone who raises its flag and who advocates for it." The Ismailis of Saudi Arabia feel historically connected and religiously bound to the Fatimid state, while not advocating for a return to it, but by the April 2007 fatwa state clerics declared that historical and religious allegiance impermissible: "[I]t is not allowed …  for us to call on people to adhere to that deviant state of 'Ubaid" (referring to the founder of the Fatimid caliphate, 'Ubaid Allah al-Mahdi).[131] The Ismailis of Najran considered this statement a grave insult aimed at delegitimizing their religious identity as Ismailis and as Muslims. Ismaili leaders, on April 24, 2007, presented a complaint to the governmental Human Rights Commission decrying "expressions of doubt and declarations [of Ismailis] as infidels" in the Committee's statement.[132] The government took no known steps to revise or clarify the fatwa.

This fatwa is not an isolated incidence. In August 2006, on the date Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from Jerusalem, Shaikh Salih al-Luhaidan, a cleric and Saudi Arabia's supreme judge, gave a lecture in the Holy Mosque of Mekka. That night (lailat isra' wal-mi'raj) is of particular religious significance to Ismailis, and they were present in large numbers in the Holy Mosque. In his lecture, al-Luhaidan said the Ismailis, "came from Morocco, Tunis, and Egypt, and they are Fatimids, and they are here [in Saudi Arabia] and there [in Egypt]. Outwardly they appear Islamic, but inwardly, they are infidels, infidels, infidels."[133]

These incidents contradict the 2003 claim of a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official who told the UN committee evaluating Saudi Arabia's report on its anti-discrimination measures that Saudi Arabia

made use of all available educational and cultural means and the media to promote tolerance and eliminate discrimination. Religious and other academic curricula emphasized the firmly established Islamic principles prohibiting discrimination.[134]

A former teacher told Human Rights Watch that only in the 2004-05 (1425-26) editions of the history curricula did the Ministry of Education remove references to "deviant sects" (tuyur munharifa), which included the Ismailis by name.[135]

This stigmatization of Ismailis at the national level by leading government officials tasked with interpreting religion, and (by extension in Saudi Arabia) the law, contradicts King Abdullah's professed goal of treating all subjects equally.[136] In his April 2007 speech to the Shura Council, an appointed body, King Abdullah said that his goal was to preserve

national unity and strengthen its guarantees … Kindling sectarian disputes, reviving regional feuds, and one group in society seeking to dominate another group stands in contrast to the guarantees of Islam and its liberality and constitutes a threat to the national unity and the security of the society and the state.[137]

           

"Kindling sectarian disputes" was the effect of an interview Najran's governor Prince Mish'al gave to the Saudi-owned pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper on January 4, 2005. Nearly two years later, several Ismailis told Human Rights Watch how upset they were over the governor's choice of words.[138] Prince Mish'al, responding to a question about the extent of religious freedom that the Ismai'lis and Zaidis enjoy in Najran, said that he "invite[s the reporter] personally to visit the existing temples in Najran, and that [he] call[s on the reporter] to visit the person that they consider the number one in Ismailism, that is Shaikh al-Makrami," to ask about freedom of religious practice.[139] The Ismailis in Najran expressed their dismay at having the governor refer to their mosques as "temples,"[140] a term Muslims generally use to indicate religious practices of non-Muslims, whereas Ismailis consider themselves to be nothing other than Muslims.

Only a few years earlier Ismaili leaders complained, in a petition to then-Crown Prince Abdullah, that "[t]he Minister of Interior described the people of the [Najran] region in the media as deviant and [practicing] sorcery and at one time the governor of Najran Prince Mish'al described Najran in the newspaper Okaz as the pit of corruption, ignorant [people]."[141] In an undated letter written after 2005, Ismaili elders complained that Prince Mish'al insulted Ismailis in his majlis and via the press.[142] In the wake of the Holiday Inn events in April 2000, Prince Mish'al described Ismaili cleric Muhammad al-Khayyat as a "sorcerer" illegally residing in Saudi Arabia whom the government had arrested "after obtaining incontrovertible evidence that he had been persistently practicing and teaching sorcery."[143]

In November 2006 King Abdullah visited the region as part of his first tour of the provinces after acceding to the throne in August 2005. This was the first visit of a Saudi king to Najran in decades, and King Abdullah brought with him promises of a university and a technical college, a new hospital and other healthcare facilities, and other infrastructure projects with a total value of SAR 3.3 Billion [$893 million].[144] He also pardoned a number of prisoners (see above).[145]

The authorities prohibited an exclusively Ismaili reception for the king. On October 12, 2006, Ahmad al-'Ajalan, the office director of Prince Mish'al, made three local shaikhs, Ahmad Al Sa'b, Mas'ud Al Haidar, and Zaid Shuyul, pledge not to host a reception for the king, who had already agreed to come to such an event, lest it overshadow the official reception by the governor.[146] Ismaili leaders alerted human rights organizations on October 28 that the minister of interior had given instructions to ban the reception on security grounds.[147] Najranis later learned that Prince Mish'al had also restricted access to the official celebrations to those with identification badges distributed by the governorate. According to Najrani elders, only members of the Sai'ar and Karab tribes, from the largely Sunni town of Shurura, obtained such badges.[148]

To detract from this evidence of continuing discord between the governor and local Ismaili shaikhs, unknown persons placed a full-page advertisement in Al-Watan newspaper that falsely presented shaikhs Mas'ud Haidar and Ahmad Al Sa'b as thanking Prince Mish'al, King Abdullah, and Crown Prince Sultan for the "renaissance and development"  of Najran. Neither of the shaikhs had placed the advertisement, and strongly disagreed with the message. After the shaikhs complained in court, the king ordered a committee to investigate the matter, which persuaded the shaikhs to drop the dispute.[149]

The king's visit was overshadowed by an apparent mistake in the pardoning of one prisoner. A Sunni judge had sentenced Hadi Al Mutif to death in 1994 for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Al Mutif was beaten in the court room, his Ismaili religion insulted by the judge, and he never received a copy of the court's verdict to file an appeal. His case had attracted international attention around the time of the king's visit, and authorities at Najran prison were processing him for release following the king's pardon. A last minute phone call sent him back to prison after officials realized that his death sentence was for a crime against God (hadd), which is not subject to royal pardons.[150] (The case is discussed further in Chapter VIII.)

2007 saw signs of rapprochement. The Da'i, Abdullah al-Makrami, who assumed his functions upon the death of Husain bin Isma'il al-Makrami in June 2005, invited Prince Mish'al to visit Khushaiwa. In November 2007 the Ministry of Interior in Riyadh directed officials in Najran "not to interfere in affairs pertaining to the creed or jurisprudence of the followers of the Ismaili school of thought."[151] Najranis writing on local websites welcomed these instructions. In January 2008 Shaikh Mas'ud al-Haidar, an elected member of the city council and a critic of the governor's earlier policies, invited Prince Mish'al to his house, congratulating him for his recent efforts on behalf of the region.[152]

[126] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with an Ismaili, Najran, IN1, February 12, 2008. He said that it was a verbal undertaking given to the head of the al-Saq tribe.

[127]  The Sudairy family is extremely close to the Al Sa'ud. King Abd al-Aziz took several wives from the Sudairys. The sons of one of these marriages hold senior government positions.

[128] Human Rights Watch is in possession of numerous documents detailing the naturalization of these Yemeni refugees and governmental service provision for them. We are, however, unable to assess the procedural irregularity Ismailis claim occurred in granting citizenship, and, while we were able to verify the governmental provision of housing and services to these Yemenis, we were unable to determine conclusively that these Yemenis received preferential treatment not based on need.

[129] Human Rights Watch visit to Mish'aliyya, Najran, December 15, 2006.

[130] "The Permanent Committee for Religious Research and Opinion Issues an Explanatory Statement: Calling 'Ubaid's State 'Fatimid' Is False and Forged", Al-Riyadh, April 9, 2007, http://www.alriyadh.com/2007/04/09/article240297.html (accessed January 17, 2008).

[131] Ibid. See also Andrew Hammond, "Arab History Spat Highlights Sunni-Shi'ite Rift," Reuters, May 14, 2007.

[132] Complaint by 66 Ismailis from Najran to Shaikh Turki al-Sudairy, Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, April 24, 2007, and Human Rights Watch interview with two Ismailis, IR2, IR3 Riyadh, May 20 and 22, 2007.

[133] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with an Ismaili present at al-Luhaidan's lecture in the Holy Mosque on August 21, 2006, IEP1,  Eastern Province, February 2007.

[134] Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Sixty-second session, Summary Record of the 1558th Meeting, March 5, 2003, CERD/C/SR.1558, March 10, 2003.

[135] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ismaili teacher, IN4, Najran, April 29, 2008. The "deviant" sects were the Sabaiya, the Batiniya, the Khawarij, and the Ismailis.

[136] King Abdullah to the Citizens: I Pledge that I Take the Quran as a Constitution and Islam as an Approach. My Job is to Realize Right, Establish Justice and Serve the Citizens Without Differentiation. Speech on the occasion of acceding to the throne, Ash-Shura Magazine (vol.7, no. 70),

 August, 3, 2005, http://www.shura.gov.sa//ArabicSite/majalat/majalah70/malaf.HTM  (accessed July, 24, 2008).

[137] Muhammad al-Ghanim, Bandar al-Nasir, and Muhammad al-Shishani, "King Abdullah: You Have the Right to Expect Me to Beat the Pests of Tyranny and Oppression with Justice", Al-Riaydh, April 15, 2007, http://www.alriyadh.com/2007/04/15/article242026.html (accessed February 12, 2008).

[138] Human Rights Watch interviews with several Ismailis , IN5, IN6, IN2, Najran, December 13, 2006.

[139] "Interview with Prince Mish'al bin Sa'ud," Al-Hayat, January 4, 2005 (23/11/1425).

[140] Human Rights Watch interview with Ismailis in Najran, IN5, IN6 December 13, 2006.

[141] "First Petition to Deputy Prime Minister and Crown Prince Abdullah, 13 Ismaili Shaikhs," point 7.

[142] Mas'ud Al Haidar and Shaikh Ahmed Al Sa'b, "Justice is the Foundation of Rule", Letter to King Abdullah, undated (c. post-August 2005), p. 4.

[143] "Ismaili Unrest in Saudi Arabia: Isolated Incident or Serious Trouble?" Mideast Mirror, April 25, 2000, quoting an official statement issued by the Saudi Press Agency.

[144] "King Abdullah launches development projects in Najran," Saudi Embassy, Washington, DC, November 1, 2006, http://www.saudiembassy.net/2006News/News/GovDetail.asp?cIndex=6624 (accessed January 17, 2008).

[145] "On the other hand an official source of the Ministry of Interior said today that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz has pardoned a number of those convicted in Najran incidents and those sentenced to serve terms in prison of the remaining periods of their verdicts and ordered their release, except those who were convicted to be killed for carrying arms, reducing their convicts to life imprisonment." Ain al-Yaqeen (official news website), November 3, 2006, http://www.ain-al-yaqeen.com/issues/20061103/feat1en.htm (accessed May 17, 2008).

[146] Human Rights Watch interviews with Ismaili tribal elders (names withheld), Najran, December 12, 2006; and "Najran: The Governorate Summons Regional Leaders to Make them Abort Popular Celebration of the King's Visit", Al-RasidNews Network, October 16, 2006, http://www.rasid.net/artc.php?id=13138  (accessed November 9, 2007).

[147] Email communication from an Ismaili, IN7, to Human Rights Watch, October 28, 2006.

[148] Human Rights Watch interview with Ismaili tribal elders, IN5, IN6, Najran, December 12, 2006.

[149] Ibid.

[150] He remains in prison, and attempted suicide several times. Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with prisoners present during the processing of Al Mutif, November 1, 2006, and with Ismailis in Najran (names withheld), December 12, 2006. "Saudi Arabia: Mentally Ill Prisoner Put in Solitary," Human Rights Watch news release, February 2, 2007, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/02/02/saudia15243.htm; and Letter from Human Rights Watch letter to King Abdullah, "Saudi Arabia: Pardon Isma'ili Sentenced to Death," October 10, 2006, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/10/10/saudia14372.htm.

[151] "Instruction from 'Interior' to Respect Ismaili School of Thought and the Special Characteristics of Its Supporters". Al-Rasid News Network, November 7, 2007, http://www.rasid.com/artc.php?id=19051 (accessed November 9, 2007).

[152] Ali 'Awn al-Yami, "Prince Mish'al bin Sa'ud Honors Celebration of the Deputy President of Najran's Municipal Council", Al-Riyadh, January 17, 2008, http://www.alriyadh.com/2008/01/17/article309625.html (accessed February 12, 2008).