A Preliminary Report over the State of Tolerance in Saudi Arabia
Saudishia.com - 29 / 7 / 2009 - 1:24 am

One of the most distinctive outcomes of September 11th attacks in 2001, on the Saudi society, is reexamining its social reality thoroughly. This resulted because many Saudi intellectual elites believe that the dominance of a unilateral ideological approach made the society stagnated and forced to follow that approach in all forms of activities whether cultural, social and in media. Moreover, it clearly influenced the social relationships between citizens in negative ways.

This condition urged social and political leaders to take the initiative of setting programs and projects that contribute to easing social tensions which obviously resulted from the absence of tolerance in the society. This report seeks presenting the state of tolerance in Saudi Arabia generally through examining the social structure as well as the political situation and prominent issues related to tolerance. It, also, presents some recommendations which can be the basis for promoting the state of tolerance in the Saudi society.

Saudi Arabia is known for the regional, tribal, sectarian and cultural varieties. The establishment of the Saudi state in 1932 was through uniting several regions of peculiar cultures, tribes, and sects together.
Residents of Hejaz region; most of them Sunnis of Shafi'ei and Maliki trends, refer to Arab tribes and migrants from different Islamic states. Their communication with pilgrims contributed in prevailing a state of understanding and acceptance to different cultural and social diversities.

As for the Southern Province of Saudi Arabia; most of its residents are Sunnis; Shafi'ei trend, and Shiites; Ismaili and Zaidi trends, it is still in a state that lacks intellectual openness and adopts tribalism until today. On the other hand, Najd region, the central region of Saudi Arabia, is known for centuries that it embraces the Wahabi ideology and adopts extreme tribalism.

The inhabitants of the Northern Province of Saudi Arabia are originally tribes who are extended across the borders with Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait. They follow different religious sects which positively influenced the state of tolerance among them.

The majority of the Eastern Province inhabitants are followers of the Shiite sect. However, it has an obvious religious variety as well as a civilized social situation due to the trade movement. It, also, considered historically as one of the most attractive Saudi regions because of the diversity of its natural wealth and job opportunities.

Obviously, Saudi Arabia embraces various cultures and religious sects which could be considered a source of intellectual wealth that might positively affect the development of the society.

The State of Tolerance in Saudi Arabia:
Although there were cases of sectarian, tribal and regional intolerance in some stages of the Saudi history, they were temporary practices that occurred by certain circumstances. Generally, tolerance, recognition of other, balance in social relationships and harmony between people were prevalent in different Saudi regions; especially the ones that embrace diversities like Hejaz and the Eastern Province.

Since the sixties, a state of religious extremism prevailed in Saudi Arabia which led to classifying the different cultural and social powers; then, marginalizing some of them through tribal, regional or sectarian discrimination whether in educational curricula, media or legislations. Hence, a unilateral and radical ideological approach was promoted and established.  It significantly contributed in the absence of public rights of whoever opposes it culturally, socially or politically.

Reviewing the state of tolerance in Saudi Arabia reveals the following findings:

First: Regulations and Legislations
In 1992, the Basic System (Law) whom its decrees are considered constitutional in Saudi Arabia, issued a provision that confirms equality between citizens in rights and duties. Article 8 provided that "the government of Saudi Arabia must adopt justice, consultation and equality in accordance with Islamic Sharia". Moreover, Saudi Arabia is one of the states that signed on the significant international human rights conventions; the most prominent of which is the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

However, most of the local regulations and legislations do not include any explicit provisions that emphasize tolerance and equality between citizens or criminalize cases of intolerance, extremism, discrimination and incitement. Moreover, procedures of legal protection to tolerance principles are still weak and restricted, and do not match with the increasing practices of discrimination, extremism, and religious and tribal intolerance.

Examples of gaps and defects show the regulations' weakness in enforcing the principles of tolerance and promoting civil peace:
- Some personal laws require equality in descent and belief; religion and sect, to complete the procedures of marriage. That is clear in making marriage contracts in Islamic Saudi courts where judges, sometimes, issue arbitrary divorce provisions against marriages because of tribal or sectarian differences.
- Sometimes, judges refuse the testimonies of some witnesses because they adopt different religious sects; for example, radical Hanbali Sunnis refuse the testimonies of Shiite citizens in courts.
- There are no courts that accept considering the cases of discrimination practices whether in color, religious sect or sex, and usually they do not take such cases seriously. Furthermore, there is not any explicit law that promotes equality between citizens in job opportunities, education and public services.
- There are no equality for women in courts because  it is not allowed for women to be in courts without the escort of an immediate unmarriageable relative companion; (Mahram), such as a husband, a son, a brother, a father, etc. This made it difficult for women to defend their rights.
- Some international human rights organizations believe that local Saudi legislations lack for explicit guarantees to the freedom of religion, belief and expression, equality, and equal protection of law.
- Saudi regulations do not allow granting the Saudi nationality to those who deserve it unless they were Muslims.

Second: Religious Fatwas
Fatwas; religious verdicts, in Saudi Arabia are considered the most significant means in influencing the public opinion due to the society's religious commitment. Because of the multiplicity of authorities that issue such fatwas which are sometimes sharp, absolute and provocative against people who are different; whether in ideology, religious sect or politics. Such fatwas subject certain individuals or groups to physical, moral or verbal abuse without having any kind of legal protection. Moreover, public media owned by the state as well as religious websites broadcast those fatwas.

Issuing such discriminative fatwas against certain groups in the society contradicts with the essential principles of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding. There are no legal constraints that limit their issuance, and the government did not enforce compensations for those who were harmed physically, psychologically or financially.

Some examples of fatwas and radical statements made by some religious leaders may include the following:
- Sheikh Abdullah Alsa’ad Almutairi released a fatwa in which he prohibited selling real estates to Shiite citizens in Saudi Arabia. He stated that “Every Muslim is disallowed to sell real estates; whether lands or houses, to Shiites because that helps them in showing their corrupted religion”. He, also, claimed that selling lands and houses to Shiites would enable them of “establishing their state from which they seek eliminating Islam”, and called upon notaries in Saudi courts to disapprove any such transaction.
- Sheikh Salih Alluhaidan, the former President of the Supreme Judicial Court in Saudi Arabia, released a fatwa through "A Light on the Path" in Qur'an radio station in which he permitted killing the owners of the "dissipated" satellite channels. He declared that those owners have two choices; either they repent or they would be killed.
- Sheikh Abdullah Aljibreen issued a fatwa in which he demanded flogging and imprisoning Saudi journalists who criticize religious leaders. Furthermore, he stated, in a book released by Alber Charitable Society in the Eastern Province, that it is allowed to collect donations and charities from followers of other sects than the Sunni one like Shiite and Sufi sects, but it is not allowed to help them by any means in any circumstances; even in disasters.
- Sheikh AbdulRahman bin Nasir AlBarak released a fatwa in which he permitted killing two Saudi writers; Abdullah AlOtaibi and Yousif Aba AlKail, because they have talked about the rights of Christians and Jews.
- In 2008, a statement signed by twenty-two prominent Salafi figures caused serious reactions because they accused Saudi Shiite citizens with the aim of provoking unrests and sedition among Sunnis. This action led resulted in the issuance of adverse statements by various prominent Shiite social and religious figures.

Although the Ministry of Islamic Affairs orders religious public speakers and Imams of mosques to seek the true Islamic principles like justice, tolerance, equality and rejecting discrimination, many of them still discuss issues that promote animosity and discrimination. Moreover, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), which has about 500 offices in all over the Kingdom, terribly control the acts of individuals and groups which resulted in many violations to individuals' personal and public rights.

Third: Educational Curricula
After the attacks of September eleventh, it was claimed that educational curricula have a major role in promoting violence and religious extremism through permitting killing non-Muslims to purify the state of Islam. Therefore, the Saudi government worked hard to adjust them despite the religious leaders' strong opposition which would cause tardiness in the adjustment of those curricula because of the control of the religious institutions.

King Abdullah bin AbdulAziz Al Saud appointed a new leadership for the Ministry of Education in order to restructure the Saudi educational system. He launched a project in 2005 that cost about $4,2 billion to improve the educational curricula; however, in 2007, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom visited Saudi Arabia and issued a report in which it expressed its concern towards the narrow understanding of Islam which encourages intolerance. In spite of the improvements that were made, the Office is still believes that the used tone is still sharp which obvious the intense interpretations of some Qur'anic verse about Jihad, and teachers were not trained to adapt with such changes.

Despite the attempts that were made to improve the educational curricula, they still need to be drastically changed to coincide with principles of tolerance and contribute in accepting others. For instance, religious curricula that are taught in schools can not be depicted as moderate because they urge believing in their definition to Islamic faith and deprive questioning it. They, also, refer to the Sunni sect; Salafi, as it is the only sect that represents and follows the true Islam. Moreover, those curricula explain how to deal with non-Muslims by not celebrating, consoling, congratulating or sympathizing with them even in the permissible matters.

Furthermore, followers to other Islamic sects are not allowed to teach their children according their beliefs, and educational curricula, in general, do not reflect the existing diversity in Saudi Arabia, and consequently, this results in the ignorance of other social parties.

Forth: Media
Major mass media are owned by the state, and are under its strict control; therefore, they do not freely express the various viewpoints that are different than the official one. They, also, do not present cultural and sectarian diversity in Saudi Arabia.

Mass media are confined to what is produced by the official religious and political institutions. However, there are many private local satellite channels which are broadcasted from outside Saudi Arabia because it is difficult to attain local licenses. Those channels are concerned with expressing and presenting cultural and religious issues and viewpoints of certain social groups freely. Although the official system controls all different mass media, the revolution of communications alleviated the intensity in such situation, and hundreds of satellite channels of diverse orientations were launched.

On the other hand, internet was used to open several news and cultural websites through which people were able of communicating with the world without any restrictions. On October 15th, 2000, a regulation was issued over using the internet in which it was prohibited to use the web for calling to division, incitement, slander or attack of others by any way.

Both the Ministry of Culture and Information and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs control the possession of religious books and materials, and determine the production and distribution of different religious and cultural publications. They, also, promote for the official religious trend, and the government permits publishing and selling books that doubt and refute the beliefs of other Islamic sects like Shiites, Ismaili and Sufi; however, it prohibits publishing anything in respond to those doubting claims. On the other hand, Riyadh Book Fair, which was initiated lately, is a proof for a better condition in openness to other. This Fair attracted publishing houses which produce many books of diverse viewpoints, but it faces some problems that are caused by radical groups.

Fifth: Diverse Religious Minorities
It was mentioned previously that Saudi Arabia has several social and religious minorities. Muslims of different Islamic sects as well as non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, all of them, face different kinds of discrimination because of the dominance of one official religious trend.

Although there is an official denial for all kinds of discrimination against religious minorities, followers of other Islamic sects and other religions state that they suffer from discrimination in different fields. Moreover, many international human rights organizations issue reports about the repeated discrimination cases and lack of tolerance.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty indicates that non-Muslims and Muslims of other sects, other than the government's, suffer from political, economic, legal, social and religious discrimination. Furthermore, they have limited occupational and educational opportunities, and subject to restrictions in practicing their beliefs and in establishing their worship places. In 2008, the Jubilee Campaign, also, declared in its report that religious and ethnic minorities in Saudi Arabia suffer from severe oppression, and Shiites had never occupied a major position in the government.

The report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in 2009, indicated that there are events of violence occurred in Madinah between the religious police (Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice; CPVPV) and Shiite pilgrims in February 2009 because of the CPVPV elements' attacks against them, which resulted in many injuries and arrests. It, also, pointed that there are no Shiite ministers in the government, and there are only three out of one hundred and fifty members in the Shura Council. Moreover, it mentioned that the government had closed several Shiite mosques and religious centers.

It is noted that all religious institutions in Saudi Arabia constitute of Salafi religious leaders, but, in February, King Abdullah bin AbdulAziz Al Saud made administrative, judicial and ministerial changes through including some religious leaders of other Sunni sects in the Supreme Ulama Council; however, Shiite religious leaders were not included.

Nevertheless, Shiites are not allowed to establish their mosques, and supervisors of some mosques and religious centers are arrested and threatened. Moreover, the Human Rights Commission, for a long time, called for an official license that allows Shiite citizens in Dammam, in the Eastern Province, to establish a cemetery for burying their deceased instead of burying them in Alahssa which is about 150km from their residence.

Positive Initiatives:
The government took several positive initiatives during the current period that could contribute in promoting tolerance and limiting social and religious extremism. Although those steps are significant for the local situation, religious extremism which is deeply rooted in the society, system and culture hampers the positive interaction of such initiatives.

Here are the most prominent examples of those initiatives in this field:

First: National dialogue Draft
King AbdulAziz Center for National Dialogue was established in 2003 in order to enable public contribution and exchange of ideas and viewpoints between different social groups, and in which intellectual and religious leaderships from various Saudi regions participate. Although National Dialogue was able of gathering effective national elites of diverse cultures and religious sects in a short time besides creating suitable atmosphere for discussing national issues openly like sectarian diversity, national unity, political reform, religious extremism, education, etc, it began to reflect a sense of inability to offer a real and effective improvement in applying the recommendations which have been reached in these frequent meetings. National Dialogue project seeks achieving a state of coexistence between all citizens of different affiliations. This issue was significantly discussed in this project, and that resulted in eliminating the psychological barriers between the participating parties.

Second: Dialogue between Followers of Religion and Civilizations
During the past three years, the government held a number of International and Islamic conferences and meetings for reaching rapprochement between followers of various Islamic sects.

Principles of dialogue and tolerance were emphasized in several meetings in Saudi Arabia like the urgent Islamic Summit which was held in Makkah in December 2005, in which the conferees confirmed that Islam is a moderate religion that rejects extremism. They, also, stressed on the importance of confronting the radical ideology by all available means as well as the significance of improving educational curricula in a way that consolidates the principles of understanding, tolerance, dialogue and diversity.

Moreover, the International Islamic Conference for dialogue in Makkah was held in June 4th-6th, 2008, which resulted in a document that stressed the importance of concentrating on the commons between all people disregarding all differences whether religious, sectarian or cultural. Many scholars, researchers and presidents of Islamic centers and societies from various Islamic states who are concerned in dialogue participated in the conference. The participants asserted that they must work together in order to spread the culture of tolerance and dialogue, promote cooperation and mutual understanding , and achieve peaceful coexistence, justice and social security.

The World Conference on Dialogue between the Followers of Religions and Civilizations in Madrid was held on July 16th-18th, 2008, and about two hundreds prominent religious and political figures of different religions and sects participated in it. The conferees agreed upon issuing an international document that contribute in spreading the culture of respecting worship places, religions and their figures, as well as organizing joint meetings and programs between the followers of different religions and cultures, making researches and using the internet and other mass media to prevail the culture of dialogue and peaceful coexistence.

Furthermore, the Kingdom invited the United Nations General Assembly to hold a private meeting about dialogue in November 12th-13th, 2008, in order to promote tolerance. This conference resulted in a joint statement to confirm that the participants, who are from eighty countries, are adhered to showing respect to all religions, and rejecting violence and terrorism.

Although those initiatives and their effective role are important in promoting tolerance and dialogue, they are still in need to be activated in order to practically recognize sectarian diversity and coexistence through resetting the regulations and panels in a more objective way. This is can not be reached under the dominion of one religious or ideological trend over the society. Many observers believe that the real outcomes of such initiatives in Saudi Arabia are still limited and unclear in regard of applying those principles and concepts in the real world.

Third: Ministerial and Administrative Shuffles
On February 14th, 2009, a set of significant amendments was carried out in leading governmental and administrative systems. These amendments showed a serious orientation in improving the administration system with more openness and moderation through carrying out transformations in the judicial system, Ministries of Education, Culture and Information, Islamic Affairs, Justice, Shura Council, the Supreme Ulama Council and the Supreme Judicial Council.

It is hoped that these transformations would result in positive outcomes at different levels; especially in regard to openness, dialogue and recognition of diversity. However, it is too early to judge on the outcomes of those transformations under the light of the dominion of an extreme state of intellectual obscurantism and lack of political moderation.

Although those  transformations were made, minorities in Saudi Arabia were not included in the state's institutions; citizens who follows different religious trends or who belong to marginalized regions were not involved clearly in any governmental institution. Religious institutions, also, did not include any followers of other Islamic trends other than the official one which means that these amendments have insignificant influence in promoting tolerance in the Saudi society.

Although Saudi Arabia is socially and religiously diversified, and the government has, lately, carried out several initiatives for handling the existent social, political and ideological problems, those procedures are still ineffective because they are limited and temporary; therefore, their outcomes were not noted in the real life. Thus, distinctive steps within an integral national strategy must be taken in order to create a state of social peace, alleviate racial and sectarian discrimination, and promote principles of tolerance, dialogue and human rights through making citizenship a principle for dealing with all individuals and groups.

This strategy must include a set of steps which are signing and abiding by the international human rights conventions, spreading the culture of tolerance, criminating violence and incitement on hatred, controlling religious fatwas, reviewing regulations and legislations, editing educational and involving the multi minorities in the composition of the political system.

The Most Significant Sources:

-Islam Web
-Elaph Website
-Muslim World League Website
-The Second Annual Report of the National Society for Human Rights
-Amnesty International Report
-Report of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
-Human Rights Watch
-Alkarama for Human Rights Report
-Report of Jubilee Campaign
-Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
-Website of Human Rights Commission in Saudi Arabia


A Paper Presented to the Meeting of Arab Network for Tolerance in Beirut, Lebanon, April 30th- June 1st, 2009