Yesterday I randomly stumbled across the "In Depth" programme that broadcasts weekly on the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel and it just so happened to be a special episode on the "Shia in the Gulf" and problems associated with citizenship and equality.
Generally one does not expect very honest journalism from the Arab world, let alone Al-Jazeera, but even by their very low standards this was one horrific episode. The actual discussion was pretty decent because it was led by two Shia Arabs, the Bahraini politician Sheikh Ali Salman and the Saudi intellectual Tawfiq al-Saif. The two guests dispelled many myths that some Arabs (unfortunately) still believe about the Shia - their fellow countrymen - but by then Al-Jazeera had already won.
The short documentary that preceded the discussion was filled with anti-Shia rhetoric and the video footage shown portrayed the Shia as a self-flaggelating cult obsessed with cutting open their heads and the footage came with an equally dramatic dose of Khomeini and Saddam during and after the Iranian revolution to invoke the Arab/Persian divide.
The Shia who practice the ritual of tatbir are a minority but the constant repetition (from every angle imaginable) of footage made me wonder if the producers of the programme deliberately wanted to portray the Shia as alien revolutionary creatures who have no purpose in life besides self-harm and
devotion to Khomeini.
The accusations made in the documentary revolved around the assertion that the Shia in the Gulf are both a threat and liability to their countries because they are secretly more loyal to Iran. A particularly colourful contributor to the documentary was the Kuwaiti Wahhabi MP Walid al-Tabatabai. He argued that Gulf states question the loyalty of Shia Arabs because their religious leaders live elsewhere [Iran].
During the discussion that followed, al-Saif chuckled and responded that Tabatabai questions the loyalty of Kuwaiti Shia because of the location of their leaders, but his own religious leader is the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, so does anyone accuse him of being more loyal to Saudi than Kuwait?
Tabatabai, who respectfully refers to Bin Laden as 'Sheikh', is also obviously annoyed by the fact that Saddam has given way to a democracy. He claims the US "served the Shia" by invading Iraq but he does not mention the fact that it was the US who served Kuwait by liberating their country. What is okay for the al-Sabah family is somehow not okay for Iraq?
He argues that the removal of Saddam emboldened the Shia Arabs and the spillover effect has led them to demand their rights (how dare they) throughout the Arab Gulf.
Ali Salman was arguing many hold misconceptions due to a lack of dialogue and lack of interest in researching individually and a lot of this is combined with a lack of tolerance and the emergence of a more aggressive and clo
se-minded Arab mindset (both Shia and Sunni). There is a danger of generalising statements of specific individuals and attributing them to an entire sect (I think this was in reference to a previous statement by Usama al-Mnawir, a Kuwaiti activist, who said a Shia cleric who represents a Grand Ayatollah praised the terrorist attacks in the 80s as a service to the nation).
Salman was asked why there is a need for Shia Arabs to follow non-Arab scholars and why they couldn't have their own religious heads, he responded by saying it's because the Shia are not given the freedom and space needed to produce such leaders in the first place.
Al-Saif also called on Gulf countries to give more freedom to
their Shia citizens and provide them with the same opportunities and rights that Sunnis enjoy and that by doing so they will make them a lot less susceptible to outside influence.
The discussion was decent, but the highlight for me remains the shameful portrayal of Shia Arabs in the opening short documentary. Millions of
Iraqis march to Kerbala to mourn the death of Imam Hussain and yet Al-Jazeera chose to focus on a tiny minority instead. They may lack journalistic professionalism, but they certainly do well on other fronts.
Left to Right: Presenter Ali al-Dhafiri, Sheikh Ali Salman and Tawfiq al-Saif