(London, September 22, 2008) – The Saudi government should end its systematic discrimination against its Ismaili religious minority, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch called upon the government to set up a national institution empowered to recommend remedies for discriminatory policies and responding to individual claims.
“The Saudi government preaches religious tolerance abroad, but it has consistently penalized its Ismaili citizens for their religious beliefs,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop treating Ismailis as second-class in employment, the justice system, and education.”
At least several hundred thousand, and perhaps as many as 1 million, Ismailis live in Saudi Arabia, part of the Shia minority in the Sunni-dominated country of 28 million. Most Ismailis live in Najran province, on Saudi Arabia’s southwestern border with Yemen, where tensions have been growing in recent years.
Saudi Arabia conquered Najran following a brief war with Yemen in 1934, incorporating into the kingdom the local Sulaimani Ismailis, one strand of Ismaili belief. Najran has been home to the highest Sulaimani Ismaili cleric, the Absolute Guide, since the 17th century.
Despite more than 70 years of shared history, Saudi authorities at the highest levels continue to propagate hate speech against this religious minority. In April 2007, the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the body tasked with officially interpreting Islamic faith, ritual, and law, termed Ismailis “corrupt infidels, debauched atheists.” In August 2006, Saudi Arabia’s highest judge, Shaikh Salih al-Luhaidan, declared to an audience of hundreds that Ismailis “outwardly appear Islamic, but inwardly, they are infidels.” Other Saudi officials did not rebut or disown those statements.
Growing tension since the mid-1990s between Ismailis and Najran’s governor, Prince Mish’al bin Sa’ud bin Abd al-‘Aziz, led to clashes in April 2000, after the authorities arrested an Ismaili cleric they accused of “sorcery.” Security forces arrested hundreds of Ismailis, and tortured and secretly tried dozens of others. The authorities then purged some 400 Ismailis from the local bureaucracy.
Since then, local officials who have been sent to Najran from other parts of the country and reflecting the country’s dominant conservative Wahhabi Muslim ideology, have continued to discriminate against Ismailis in employment, education and the justice system, and interfered with their ability to practice their religion.
Only one of the 35 department heads of the Najran provincial government is an Ismaili. Almost no Ismailis work as senior security personnel or as religion teachers. Saudi textbooks teach that the Ismaili faith is a sin of “major polytheism,” tantamount to excommunication. Wahhabi teachers in Najran insult Ismaili pupils’ faith and try to convert them to Sunni Islam, even using threats of class failure and flogging.
Ismailis are not free to pass their religious teachings on to new generations. The authorities have at times exiled the Absolute Guide from Najran or placed him under house arrest. Saudi authorities also ban the import or production of Ismaili religious literature. Ismailis face obstacles in obtaining permits to build new mosques or expand existing ones, whereas the state funds and builds Sunni mosques in Najran, even in areas without a Sunni population.
The country’s Sharia judges, following Wahhabi beliefs, routinely discriminate against Ismailis on the basis of their faith. In March 2006, a judge annulled the marriage of an Ismaili man to a Sunni woman, saying that the man lacked religious qualification. In May 2006, another judge barred an Ismaili lawyer from representing his Sunni client.
“State-sponsored and officially tolerated discrimination against the Ismailis of Najran seriously threatens their identity and denies them basic rights,” Stork said. “The authorities are shutting them out from education, government employment, and professions.”
In July 2008, King Abdullah opened a well-publicized interfaith conference in Spain initiated by Saudi Arabia and attended by Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders.
“The measure of Saudi religious tolerance will be its practice at home, not only what it preaches abroad,” Stork said.