Monday, July 25, 2011

The People of Najran: Condemned for Their Religious Beliefs

Tucked in a historically and agriculturally rich valley on the southernmost border of Saudi Arabia, Najran is Saudi Arabia’s first line of defense against Al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), drug and gun smugglers and the inevitable overflow of the Yemeni Uprising. Historically, Najran is an ancient and religiously revered region. It is the home of Al-Khadoud, a city said to have been built by Queen Sheba herself during her journey from Yemen to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem. The people of Al-Khadoud are even mentioned in the Quran, as Ashab Al-Khadoud. Some portions of their dwellings can still be seen within a fenced area of Najran proper. For fear of attributing the marvel of the historical underground city to Christians or Jews, both of whom used to dominate the Arabian Peninsula before the introduction of Islam in the seventh century, Saudi officials have restricted excavation of the site, especially to Christian and Jewish archeologists.

Known for their loyalty to the Saudi ruling family and for their fierce defense of their land, the estimated 500,000 people of Najran are condemned by their government, its religious establishment and sadly by most of their compatriots. Why? The people of Najran do not adhere to the state’s imposed, austere version of Sunni Islam, which the majority of the Saudi people practice. The people of Najran are of the Ismaeli religious orientation, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam. As a result, they are considered heretics by their government and its dangerous Wahhabi religious extremists. Like their counterparts in Eastern Saudi Arabia and the Medina region, the people of Najran are officially barred from holding most government positions, especially in the judicial system and the public schools. They cannot be teachers or judges.

Despite its vital strategic location and its people’s loyalty to country and government, Najran is among the least developed regions in Saudi Arabia. Its healthcare, educational, irrigational and economic infrastructures are inferior in quality and quantity to other regions of comparable size, even those which lack the strategic significance of Najran. Saudi officials and their Western allies are convinced that the immediate threat to Saudi stability is more likely to come from across the Yemeni border.

One would think that the threatened Saudi absolute monarchy would work tirelessly to modernize Najran, take special care of its residents, and grant them autonomy over their religious, educational and judicial affairs. This would be a pragmatic and prudent move that would help ensure a base of popular support in a country where the government is fast losing legitimacy. However, the Saudi regime shows no signs of changing its current course. On the contrary, it forces the people of Najran to seek support from others and then accuses them of being agents of foreign entities, such as Iran. One area which the Saudi government needs to repair is the court system in Najran. Like the rest of the country, Najrani courts are staffed by inflexible Sunni religious judges who consider the Ismaeli people of Najran heretical. Due to this prejudice, Najranis are often presumed guilty before they seek justice in the government’s courts.

One prime example of Sunni courts’ contempt for the people of Najran is the sentencing of an 18-year-old teenager, Hadi Al-Mutaif in 1994; he was accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed. When he appeared before a judge he was deemed a deviant nonbeliever and sentenced to death by beheading. His family traveled to the King to beg for mercy and ask him to halt the beheading, which he did. That was almost 20 years ago, but Hadi still languishes in a filthy Najrani dungeon for saying something less harmful and insulting than was said by at least two clerics, neither of whom was imprisoned or even lost their government job. Psychology Professor Tariq Al-Habib once said that the Prophet had an inferiority complex and the well-known cleric, Shaikh Yousef Al-Ahmed, called for the destruction of Islam's holiest mosque in Mecca because it encourages gender mingling.

It is reported that Hadi decided to go on a hunger strike because he "prefers death to life in prison." The people of Najran are organizing a protest before the Saudi governor of Najran—a man who happens to be one of King Abdullah's sons. The Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia is calling on all human rights advocates to expose the Saudi government’s unjust judicial system and its double standard of applying harsh punishments against law-abiding citizens simply because of their religious orientation.

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