QATIF, Saudi Arabia—The sounds of chanting and drumming rose from underground salons along the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia this week as Shiite Muslim families celebrated a religious festival that symbolizes the kingdom's religious division: Everywhere else in the staunchly Sunni Muslim country, the festival is banned.
A few years back, such public observances were so forbidden that authorities prohibited Shiites from building large basements, to prevent them from creating illegal husseiniyas, as Shiites call prayer halls. The Saudi government has long regarded Shiites, who make up 10 to 15 percent of the kingdom's 16 million citizens, as a security threat, particularly since they dominate the Eastern Province, home to the world's largest concentration of oil assets.
But Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest shrines, had been easing restrictions on Shiites gradually since 2004, when, emboldened by the American-led ouster of Saddam Hussein, Shiites petitioned for equal rights in politics, religion and the workplace. The Saudi government agreed to allow Shiites in the Eastern Province to open husseiniyas and to mark their religious festivals publicly.
Now, however, leaders of the kingdom's Shiite minority are fearful of losing their hard-won religious freedoms as sectarian violence sweeps Iraq and worries grow that Sunni-Shiite warfare will spill throughout the Middle East.
In a room adorned with a portrait of Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late archenemy of the Saudi ruling family, grandmothers smoked water pipes and recited the Quran. At another husseiniya, women sang as they splashed rosewater on their faces and scented their veils with sandalwood in rituals that many Saudis consider blasphemous.
"It's not completely halted, but it's stalled," Sheik Hassan al-Saffar, the kingdom's leading Shiite cleric, said of the Saudi government's movement toward greater religious flexibility. Fear of attack by Sunni fundamentalists, who consider Shiites blasphemers, is so great that security cameras monitor the community center where Saffar was interviewed.
Shiites still are barred from high-ranking military or political posts. Shiites say they frequently are passed over for job promotions, must abide by Sunni family laws that are at odds with their own beliefs and see few development benefits from the oil industry based in their lands. Teachers in the Eastern Province say Saudi textbooks contain little or no mention of the role of Shiites in Islamic or Saudi history.
"At school, the children learn the Salafist ideology, and then they come home and their mothers have to help them unlearn it," said Salma al-Ali, a Shiite from Qatif, referring to a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam. "One of the books calls Shiites a `confused, lost group.'"
In the heady days after the Saudi government began liberalizing its anti-Shiite laws, a Shiite publishing house sprang up in Qatif, the de facto Shiite capital, and religious authorities turned a blind eye to a thriving black market of theological texts smuggled in from Iraq and Iran. Enrollment of Shiite students in public universities rose and the bylines of Shiite journalists began appearing in Saudi newspapers.
"People were so optimistic," recalled Aliya al-Farid, a Shiite and human rights activist who was imprisoned briefly in the 1980s. "There was an atmosphere of happiness and excitement and change."
Then came a series of devastating Sunni insurgent attacks on Shiites in Iraq, chief among them the bombing last year of a revered golden-domed mosque in the northern city of Samarra. The sectarian bloodbath that ensued was reflected in Saudi Arabia, with Sunni and Shiite extremists unleashing a fresh torrent of sermons, religious rulings and Internet smear campaigns targeting each other.
Saffar, the Shiite cleric, said enraged Shiite youths now came to his office with stories of harassment and discrimination. Some Shiite families wake to find pamphlets on their doorsteps accusing them of heresy. Shiite extremists, Saffar added, have responded by becoming overzealous in their rituals and "showing extreme sympathy with Iran and Hezbollah" to spite the kingdom's religious establishment.
"Sectarianism is increasing," Saffar concluded with a deep sigh, "especially through the events in Iraq."
In Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, sectarianism is as old as the religion itself. A bitter succession dispute emerged after the Prophet Muhammad died in the 7th century, resulting in a split among his followers. Sunnis triumphed politically and remain the dominant sect, with Shiite enclaves sprinkled across the Middle East and Asia.
But the war in Iraq and the growing influence of the Shiite theocracy in Iran have made sectarianism in the region worse than at any time in a generation.
In recent months, prominent state-backed clerics angered by the war in Iraq have issued scathing fatwas that label Shiites infidels and call on Arab nations to expel their Shiite citizens. While Saudi security officials say they've cracked down on such radicalism, Shiite activists said they'd seen signs of a new campaign of intimidation to prevent them from expressing their beliefs or organizing against the government.
Plainclothes Saudi authorities openly trailed visiting journalists for eight hours during a tour of the Eastern Province ahead of a religious celebration Thursday. When a Shiite activist asked an apparent officer why the group was being followed, the unidentified man in sunglasses replied only that he was a bodyguard.
"With the starting of the national dialogue, there was a feeling that the government started a completely new path that will finally lead to a plural society," said Tawfik al-Saif, a Shiite political analyst who was banned in recent months from appearing on Saudi television. "I think many of these hopes were wishful thinking."
Huda al-Nasser is a Shiite teacher from Qatif whom a Sunni school in the provincial capital of Dammam hired last year. Despite their differences in faith, Nasser said, she and her Sunni co-workers took tea breaks together and were "closer than friends, like sisters."
The camaraderie ended abruptly in January with the Shiite-led Iraqi government's execution of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, on the morning of a Sunni holiday. Nasser said she couldn't conceal her joy at the former dictator's death; her colleagues didn't hide their fury.
"I showed up to school and found everyone was grieving, sad," said Nasser, who resigned from her job after the execution. "They completely changed their personalities and then the hatred developed. I had the feeling that whatever was coming was going to be worse than what was before."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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