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A green light to oppression
A green light to oppression
In a move supposedly intended to counter Iranian influence, the US has announced a series of arms deals with Middle Eastern countries.
Wednesday, August 8,2007 00:00
by Brian Whitaker Guardian

In a move supposedly intended to counter Iranian influence, the US has announced a series of arms deals with Middle Eastern countries.

Apart from Israel, which will receive $30bn in military aid, Egypt will get $13bn. Five Gulf states - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE - will also be sold weaponry to the tune of $20bn, with the lion"s share going to the Wahhabi regime in Riyadh.

Thus, in the name of "working with these states to fight back extremism" (as secretary of state Condoleezza Rice put it), the US is arming two of the Arab world"s leading human rights abusers: Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The reaction from Tehran was predictable. US policy "is creating fear and concerns in the countries of the region and trying to harm the good relations between these countries", foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told reporters in Tehran. And he"s absolutely right.

If the Bush administration"s goal was to inflame Sunni-Shia tensions across the region and to spread the sectarian strife in Iraq to neighbouring countries, it would be hard to imagine a more effective way of going about it.

Although Iran is the worldwide centre of Shia Islam, there"s an important distinction to be made between Shia Muslims and the Iranian regime. The question is how many people will actually make it. Marginalised Shia communities in the Gulf states and Egypt will undoubtedly feel more threatened, while others will interpret the American move as a green light to oppress them further.

In Egypt, the tiny Shia population is already harassed by the authorities and treated with suspicion. Some of this has been documented by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Its report talks of Shia Muslims being arrested - ostensibly for security reasons - but then being subjected to torrents of abuse by state security officers for their religious beliefs.

One officer is quoted as telling a suspect: "I"m going to keep tabs on you. If you try anything, I"ll make you regret it. I"m prepared to forgive the members of the Gamaa"a Islamiyya [the armed Sunni Islamist group], although they murder us, but I wouldn"t forgive you, because at least the Gamaa"a Islamiyya shares my creed."

In Saudi Arabia, where Shia account for 20% of the population (and, more critically, 75% in the oil-rich region), the official policy, as Matthew Mainen of the Institute for Gulf Affairs noted recently, is to treat them as polytheists, idol worshippers, and as part of a vast Jewish conspiracy against Islam.

"Matching the indoctrination of Saudi Arabia"s public education system, governmental practices and policies reinforce the notion that Shia Muslims are subhuman. Shia books, education, music, and art are banned in Saudi Arabia. Shias are further barred from playing any political, social, or religious role in Saudi society, and are not even allowed to provide testimony in courts of law ...

"As long as Saudi Arabia continues to promote and practise an ideology holding that it is the obligation of Sunni Muslims to purge Islam of Shias in the great jihad, hundreds of Saudi insurgents will continue to cross the Iraqi border to further the sectarian violence without hindrance from the Saudi security forces."

As the US state department itself has observed in a report on religious freedom in the kingdom:

"Members of the Shia minority are subject to officially sanctioned political and economic discrimination ...

"Members of the Shia minority are discriminated against in government employment, especially in national security-related positions, such as in the military or Ministry of Interior. While there are some Shia who occupy high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies, many Shia believe that openly identifying themselves as Shia would have a negative impact on career advancement ... While there is no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shia, anecdotal evidence suggests that in some companies -including companies in the oil and petrochemical industries - well-qualified Shia are passed over for less-qualified Sunni compatriots ...

"The Government also discriminates against Shia in higher education through unofficial restrictions on the number of Shia admitted to universities."

Viewed from Washington, bolstering tyrannical Sunni regimes against Iran might seem like pragmatism - a convergence of interests. But it"s a dangerous sort of pragmatism because the American and Saudi interests are ultimately different. The Saudi government isn"t really worried about Tehran; it"s worried about keeping the lid on its Shia population in the oil-rich eastern province - and in the long term that can only rebound negatively on the US.

Just as there is a need to recognise that Jews in general are not responsible for the actions of the Israeli government, nor ordinary Muslims for the actions of al-Qaida, Arab states must be careful not to automatically treat their Shia communities as tools of the Iranian government, or encourage the public to think that they are.

What the region needs most right now is not more arms but a concerted effort to promote religious tolerance, to combat religious discrimination and prejudice, and to draw the Arab Shia communities into the political processes of their home countries before it is too late.

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