SWM 2014: Hate speech and Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority
Case study by Glenn Payot
From religious freedom and education to justice and employment, Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority has for decades suffered discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives. A key element in their marginalization, however, is the dissemination of negative stereotypes and misinformation about the group, as well as the failure of authorities to effectively address these representations. Faced with the challenge of uprisings across the region since 2011, the regime has been accused of exploiting sectarian politics to maintain its control over the population.
Hate speech and inflammatory language feature regularly in schools, mosques, national media and on the internet. In 2013, in the wake of ongoing sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq, religious leaders in Saudi Arabia have demonized Shi’a and even issued calls for indiscriminate violence against them. Extremist clerics have also exploited platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to disseminate their message to hundreds of thousands of online followers. The spread of this material occurs against a backdrop of anti-Shi’a rhetoric, with hate speech featuring even in official Saudi schoolbooks.
While the state has in the past committed to removing inflammatory content from educational material, in practice hostile or misinformed representations of Shi’a and other religious groups remain in place. However, faced with mounting international pressure, Saudi Arabia responded by establishing the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna in 2012. Furthermore, the government financed a UNESCO initiative to develop a toolkit to support the development of stereotype-free textbooks.
Nevertheless, these initiatives are based outside Saudi Arabia and do not directly address the domestic situation. And while the authorities took action during the year against the posting of comments and articles critical of the regime on Facebook and Twitter, anti-Shi’a content is still commonplace. Critics have suggested that this ambivalence is due in part to the regime’s use of social division between Shi’a and Sunnis to prevent cross-sectarian demands for political change. Instead of taking comprehensive steps to address the issues affecting its minorities, Saudi Arabia has been accused of presenting Shi’a political claims as linked covertly to foreign powers.
In the long term, the only sustainable way for authorities to achieve stability in the country is to allow the Shi’a minority to participate more fully in public life. However, this will depend on whether the state is willing to commit fully to anti-discrimination not only in its international statements, but in practice.
This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014. View the full report.
Photo: Shi'a Muslim women in Saudi Arabia. Credit: Samira