Sheikh Hasan Alsaffar was born in 1958 in Qatif where he completed his primary studies. Then, he shifted between Najaf, Kuwait and Iran to study Islamic sciences. He returned from abroad to his homeland; Saudi Arabia, and stayed in it for several years practicing his religious and cultural activities.
Alsaffar said that he left Saudi Arabia in 1980 due to some revolutionary political activities in the Eastern Province for defending Shiite rights who were suffering from pressures and harassments. These events made him leave to another place that enables him from continuing his opposing political from abroad; Iran and Kuwait.
This situation continued till 1990, at then, Kuwait was occupied; accordingly, Saudi authorities sought dialogue with Shiites dissidents. Because Sheikh Alsaffar believes that opposition is to create solutions, therefore, he and many other Shiite religious leaders expressed their willingness to negotiate with the Saudi government. Alsaffar states that "at that time, a negotiation had occurred over improving the conditions of Saudi Shiite citizens, and so we returned to Saudi Arabia in 1994. Actually, a clear improvement had occurred in life aspects of Shiite citizens, but there are still some issues that have not been addressed and solved".
Sheikh Alsaffar has over a hundred published works; some of them are translated into foreign languages. Currently, he is culturally and religiously active in Qatif and in the Eastern Province in general.
He plays a significant role in promoting national unity and rapprochement between different sects. In this respect, he indicates that "if Shiite citizens are demanding their rights, this does mean that they should isolate themselves; they must integrate with the rest Saudi citizens". Moreover, he works on combating sectarian tension, and believes that "sectarian debates and disputes distract citizens from what serves their reality and future".
The Arab American News interviewed Alsaffar who is one of the most distinctive reformative Shiite leaders on the sideline of his visit to the Islamic Center in Dearborn, Michigan, Unites States. The interview goes as follows:
· Many improvements occurred upon relationships between the Shiite sect and the Saudi government since 1994, what is the type of those improvements?
Shiite opposition in Saudi Arabia began in 1980 due to negligence of Shiite regions especially in terms of the infrastructure; schools, hospitals, streets, etc. To be fair, Shiite regions were not the only ones who suffered from negligence, but our region is the region of oil wealth and we should benefit from oil revenues. As a result of dialogue and mutual understanding between Shiite citizens and the Saudi governments, the infrastructure was significantly improved.
In terms of religious aspects, building Shiite mosques was forbidden for four decades. However, after constant dialogue, a decree was issued that allows Shiites to build their mosques in their areas; Qatif and Alahssa, but it is still not allowed to build them in non Shiite-majority areas.
· What are the mechanisms for building mosques in Saudi Arabia?
In general, the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs holds the responsibility of building mosques and take care of their expenditures, but Shiites want to run their mosques by themselves; they want to appoint their Imams and Muezzins, and want to be independent in their political and religious activity. Therefore, the Ministry grants license to Shiites for building mosques in Shiite-majority areas, but the state does not hold the responsibility of financing and construction costs, so they depend on donations.
There is ignorance to establishing religious hawzas in Qatif and AlAhssa. Moreover, the entry of most of Shiites books to Saudi Arabia beside printing Shiite books inside the state are allowed now while they we highly censored before.
· How much is the Shiite population in Saudi Arabia?
There are no precise statistics because there is not any type of identity sorting, and the Shiite community does not promote sorting or classification. However, the Shiite population ranges between 1.5 and 1.8 millions of 18 million Saudis. Most of Shiites live in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and some of them live in Madinah as well as some Ismaili Shiites in Najran who are estimated with half a million.
· How does the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs deal with the Shiite doctrine, does it recognize it and does the Shiite doctrine have a representation?
There are no announced recognitions, but practically the recognition exists. The Ministry grants permissions for building Shiite mosques. In the Shura Council, there are five appointed Shiite members who implicitly represent the Shiite community. Furthermore, municipal elections were conducted before five years in all regions including the Shiite ones; half of members of municipal councils are elected and the other half is appointed. Accordingly, Shiites in their regions are appointed and elected in their municipal councils.
· Is there discrimination against Shiite in terms of employment?
In general, there is no discrimination, but in high-ranks jobs, obviously, there are no Shiites in the Council of Ministers; not a single Shiite minister or minister agents in the Saudi government neither in high positions of rank fourteen according to the local classification. Moreover, some ministries do not employ Shiites at all such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and only once we had a Shiite ambassador to Iran; Dr. Jameel Aljishi.
· What about other institutions?
Some institutions do not employ Shiites at all although the basic law in Saudi Arabia seeks equality between all citizens. Political leaderships including the King, the Crown Prince and the Minister of Interior say that they believe in equality between citizens and do not accept sectarian discrimination, but, actually, there are sectarian discrimination practiced against Shiites in various fields. However, we hope to overcome such situation through communications with the state, openness and national dialogue.
· At intellectual and practical levels, is there any dialogue established with other sects; particularly with the radical Sunnis "the Wahabis", and what are the principles that you adopt in such dialogues, if they existed?
King Abdullah bin AbdulAziz, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, made a great initiative through launching and an institution for national dialogue called King AbdulAziz Center for National Dialogue (KACND). He, also, called before for establishing dialogue between different sects, and a meeting was held in Riyadh where representatives of different religious trends had gathered. This meeting was the first national dialogue, and resulted in eliminating many barriers and ending the state of alienation between sects.
After the success of this dialogue meeting, the institution was established. This institution holds dialogue meetings once or twice every year for gathering many leaders of different sects and trends in order to bridge gaps. Later on, those dialogue meetings turned into discussions of general issues; however, they are good discussions and give all parties the opportunity of meeting.
Dialogue, also, established through visits between Shiite and Sunni religious leaders; I had a meeting with the late Sunni religious leader Sheikh AbdulAziz bin Baz, Sheikh AbdulAziz Al AlSheikh and many others, and I was invited by some Sunni religious leaders. The situation, now, is much better than before, although there are some radical groups and individuals who still refuse communicating with Shiites and even Sunnis of different views.
· What is your impression about your visit to the United States, and do you view the activity of Islamic institutions in Michigan?
This my second visit to the United States. I have already visited it in 1996 and, during it, I went to Michigan, but it was a short visit. Now, I see a large Muslim community with many effective institutions and activities, and I have met clerics and scholars with advanced level of awareness like Sheikh AbdulLatif Bari, Sayyed Hasan AlQazweeni and others. I have visited mosques and institutions that provide programs which seek spreading religious awareness as well as the culture of tolerance. I have, also, heard that there are meetings for interfaith dialogue which I am really proud of because Islam encourages openness.
· How do you depict Muslims status in the light of sectarian division particularly between Sunnis and Shiites in Muslims World?
I am really concerned about the state of sectarian tension, but I believe that it is restrained by political resolutions in Muslim states. I really believe that political resolutions are the agitator and the extinguisher of sectarian disputes.
It is true that Sunni-Shiite disagreement and hatred already exist in history, but activating this history refers to the political resolution and that was marked in Lebanon and Iraq for example. In Lebanon, tension was so extreme but after Doha agreement, the situation calmed down. As for Iraq, there were heated disputes, but the tension reduced when all parties were involved in the political process.
· What is the role of Muslims in the West, and through your observation to the work of some institutions in Detroit, are they doing the right and are they capable of changing the distorted view of Islam in the west?
In general, I believe that the Islamic presence in the West is still busier by itself than with its surrounding, and that is a huge mistake. We live with that surrounding so we have to communicate with it in order to draw our image by ourselves. Due to the existing political conflicts in the Middle East and the Issue of Israel, there are sides seek distorting the image of Islam; therefore, we had to hold responsibility of providing other the right principle of Islam.
Most of Islamic centers that I have seen in the west are busy with Muslims communities, and spend too limited efforts in improving their relations with others. Fortunately, some institutions like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) got recently interested in this field, and other Islamic centers should work on communicating with their surrounding in order to maintain their interests and provide the right view of their religion.
· In the west, Islam is connected with terrorism, who is responsible of creating this negative view; is it the west alone or some Muslims, as well, contribute in such matter?
I believe that there is a sort of misunderstanding to the religion which results in extremism. Islam does not support extremism; it calls to piece, coexistence and tolerance. The existence of some parties that misinterpreted Islam, the influence of a bad social reality which include poverty, deprivation, decline of human development, and tyrannical political systems in Muslims and Arab states as well as the oppressive Israeli presence; all of which made some parties adopt extremism and work in a terroristic way in the name of Islam.
I believe that extremism can be addressed through spreading the culture of tolerance, taking care of human development in Muslims and Arab states and finding a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli issue. We hope that Obama's Administration would be serious in fulfilling its promise of solving that issue which extremists benefit from.