SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi religious police pick on Shiite women

A video posted on the Internet has aroused the wrath of Saudi Arabia's Shiite community. In the footage, a member of the religious police, a mutawa, can be seen filming women on a pilgrimage in Medina - an insulting gesture that has sparked demos and riots in several cities.

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"Hidden from Mutawa". Posted on Flickr by Moaksey.

A video posted on the Internet has aroused the wrath of Saudi Arabia's Shiite community. In the footage, a member of the religious police, a mutawa, can be seen filming women on a pilgrimage in Medina - an insulting gesture that has sparked demos and riots in several cities.

On February 20, about a thousand Shiite pilgrims were heading for the tombs of the prophets and the Sahabas (the Prophet's companions) in Medina when they were harassed by members of Saudi Arabia's religious police. The officers of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice went so far as to film the veiled women. The gesture, interpreted as a grave provocation by the country's Shia community, prompted a series of protests in the eastern Qatif province, in which 17 demonstrators were arrested and several others were injured (watch the video).

The incidents come at a time of rising tension between the country's two main communities. On February 13, an institutional reform decreed by King Abdullah had already aroused the ire of Saudi Shiites. For the first time, the Council of Senior Ulema will be open to Sunni Muslims as well as Wahhabis, while Shiites remain excluded from the country's religious authorities.

In a country where fundamentalist Wahhabis - Islam's self-proclaimed "saved group" - make up the majority of the population, Shiite Muslims, roughly a fifth of the population, say they are the target of systematic discrimination. Our Observers on the ground describe the strained relations between the different Saudi communities.

"What I sense is that they don't want to mingle with us"

Hani Wafa is a Sunni journalist and political analyst in the capital Riyadh.

I don't think there is a real conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. It's merely a difference in the interpretation of religion, and no more than that. I know several Shiites, and I even knew one who was a colleague at university.

What I sense is that they don't want to mingle with us. They tend to stay among themselves. But this doesn't mean that we're in conflict. We are all Muslims; we believe in the same Prophet and in the same God. Besides, without our religious clothing it is very difficult to tell a Sunni from a Shiite. Having said that, there can be a handful of fanatics in the religious police, just as there are among the Shiites - which explains why this kind of incident can happen."

Riots in Medina

These images posted on YouTube by rbkmmeng were brought to our attention by Mohammad Al-Saeedi. He says the incident took place during violent protests in the area of the Prophet's Mosque in Medina on February 23. Mutawas (recognizable by their red headscarves), backed by riot police, can be seen pursuing and beating Shiite pilgrims.

"Every day we are the targets of discrimination"

Mohammed Al-Seedi lives in Quadif, a mainly Shiite city in the country's east. A former journalist, he is currently out of work.

The mutawa who filmed the scene should be in jail for all the trouble he caused. But this is just one provocation among many. Every month, Shiites are jailed for no reason other than the fact that they are Shiites. The government doesn't consider us Muslims. They think we support Iran because we belong to the same religious current ["Twelver" Shiites who recognise twelve Imams]. Every day we are the targets of discrimination, and though our condition has improved a little since the end of the war between Iraq and Iran [in 1988], we still don't have the same chances of success as Sunnis. It's much more difficult for us to find a job in an oil company, in government, or to find a place in a university for our children.

Some people form my village went to see the king to tell him about the recent events, but he only agreed to meet them on the third day. With violence on the rise he agreed to release the jailed demonstrators; but we want a real dialogue."

The video that aroused Shiite wrath

The video that sparked the riots was posted on YouTube by Injubail. The women, Shiite Muslims, gather to mourn on the tomb of their second Imam, Hassan Ben Ali. When they spot a mutawa filming them, they react by throwing their shoes at him and filming the scene with their mobile phones.

The same scene filmed from another angle. The women can be heard chanting religious slogans.