Summary of an Interview with Dr. Tawfiq AlSaif about the Experience of Shiite Dissents in Saudi Arabia
ALHURRA TV - 10 / 12 / 2007 - 2:26 am

The Shiite Dissent Experience in Saudi Arabia
In the seventies, Shiite political dissent groups emerged in the Saudi political sphere as a result of cultural and social developments striving for cultural and religious reform. At that time, getting involved in politics was uncommon due to the dominance of conservative forces but after the Islamic revolution in Iran, people started discussing politics freely and openly. The movement called for certain demands especially the doctrinal and civil rights of the Shiite sect in Saudi Arabia as well as reforming the political system and respecting human rights principles.

Because of political restrictions, Shiite dissents had to work from outside the Kingdom to attain their main demands, one of which is freedom of belief and worship that has been severely violated. Civil rights were another concern such as discrimination in jobs and education. Those demands were developed as a mission for political activists who in turn held several meetings with Saudi senior officials in late 80s. Eventually, the government consented to the most of those demands such as releasing political prisoners and allowing dissents to return without any accusations. 

Dr. AlSaif mentioned that Shiite dissents depended on Khums (religious tax) and donations as financial support and stated that they had never accepted conditional funding from any source. However, some of the Shiite dissents retrieved their jobs when they turned back home but most of senior leaders have not occupied any governmental position in order to maintain their freedom of activity.

In 2001, Dr. AlSaif believed that the government was too slow in executing what was concerted, therefore, he returned to London where he finished his graduate studies and attained his doctorate. Then, he turned back to Saudi Arabia in 2006.

Dr. AlSaif does think that there is a serious Shiite dissents outside the Kingdom because after 1993, Saudi Shiites included their demands within the public context as national issues like civil rights, equality and freedom of belief and worship. Moreover, Saudi Shiites are trying to attain these demands through available venues of the system itself.

The Impacts of International Events on Saudi Shiites
After September eleventh attacks, Saudis felt that they were accused and they had to question themselves before they had been questioned by others which made the Saudis think with more rationality of common grounds with others. All of this offered the Shiites a good opportunity to discuss local issues and look for real solutions.

Dr. AlSaif confirmed that there is a mutual mistrust between the Iranian government and the governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. The Iranian government suspects that the United States may use the GCC states as a base for attacking it or for non-military destruction while the GCC’s suspect that Iran plans for political rebellion and espionage. Moreover, there are political and sectarian groups trying to make this situation more worse, therefore, he believes that communications between governments could highly reduce that state of mistrust and sectarian tension.

The Allegiance of Saudi Shiites
He stressed the point that Shiites in the GCC states have no political allegiance with Iran and that there has not been any reasonable evidence proved that Shiites were allied to Iran since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. He indicated that this misbelief resulted from connecting between the Shiites’ religious authorities and home base of those religious figures whether Iran or Iraq. In fact, the relationship of Shiites with their religious authorities separates religious matters from public and political ones because religious authorities can not and do not interfere in another country’s public and internal matters.

Furthermore, Sheikh Hasan AlSaffar, who has a widely accepted opinion among Shiites, along with his proponents declared that their allegiance would be to their government and they would defend and fight for their country against any external invasion or attack.

The Sunni-Shiite relations
 Dr. AlSaif believes that the Sunni-Shiite relations has changed positively and mentioned the three levels of sectarian disputes. The first and most serious one is in which governmental bodies and large social segments are involved, which existed for a period of time but, now, it almost gone. The second level represents the conflicts between many Sunni and Shiite political forces and parties; while the normal level represents the controversy in jurisprudential and doctrinal issues and this has been reoccurring since hundreds of years.

According to Dr. AlSaif’s point of view, the Kingdom won’t confront any kind of sectarian strives in the near future but contrariwise it will face more stability and harmony among the Saudi society. This is because Saudi Arabia used to represent its society as dominated by one sect and denied the diversity in it which resulted in many problems such as marginalization and discrimination against other sects. Fortunately, the Saudis dealt and addressed these problems by recognizing diversity and accepting coexistence in order to reach national unity and to eliminate those violations.

The Shiite Trends and Approaches in Saudi Arabia
Dr. AlSaif referred to the most political trends among Shiites and indicated that there have been a religious approach and another liberal trend which does not adhere to traditions and customs and it includes a strong leftists, socialists and nationalist ideas. However, the religious approach is adhered to traditions and includes moderates, extremists and traditionalists, beside all of that there are, also, different trends on the basis of doctrine and jurisprudence, like the twelvers and Shaykhism.

Saudi society as well as many other Muslim societies encounter the controversial issue of modernization versus traditionalization; an issue that requires finding solutions. It had been constituted throughout the Muslim history, however, we can not move forward if we did not address this issues; i.e. our religious culture is attached to the past and we need to modernize it to coincide with our contemporary time.

Dr. AlSaif mentioned the viewpoint of Jean Jacques Rousseau over civil religion which exists nowadays and aims for justifying current situation and legitimizing political as well as social system. However, we need a religious, spiritual life that adopts openness and modernity, and that is attached to Allah.

“Democracy in an Islamic State” is one of Dr. AlSaif’s books in which he stated that there is not any ideal democratic example throughout history; even the ancient democracies can not be depicted as ideal. Nevertheless, he believes in the significance of freedom of belief and worship besides the freedom of expression to every society in achieving any progress