Iran stirring tensions in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province

In the restive city of Qatif in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, the older Shiites are quiet. They had once cheered the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and had hoped their time had come for greater equality in the kingdom. But that dream has faded.

The younger generation is just angry. And now they are picking up where the elders have left off.

Since the Arab Spring swept the Middle East in late 2010 and early 2011, pressure has been building in the Eastern Province where an estimated 2 million Shiites live. For decades Shiites faced employment and religious discrimination under the Sunni monarchy, but hope arrived when King Abdullah assumed the throne in 2005. The anticipation for better employment opportunities, participation in government and freedom to practice their form of Islam, such commemorating the Day of Ashura to remember the martyr Husayn bin Al, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, heightened as Shiite leaders traveled to Riyadh to greet the new king and pledge their loyalty.

“Nothing ever happened after that visit with the new king, and we are impatient,” said Saeed, a 24-year-old Shiite Saudi who says he never held a job after graduating from secondary school. “We looked to our fathers to solve the problems with the king, but it’s been too long. It is up to us now.”

As a result, the Eastern Province has been wracked with occasional, but more frequent outbursts of violence. Emboldened somewhat by the revolutions in neighboring Arab countries, but also largely fueled by social media campaigns on Twitter and Facebook, young people have taken to the streets. Their numbers since early 2011 have grown from a few dozens to hundreds earlier this summer.

Shiite street demonstrations in Saudi Arabia are not unprecedented and have resulted in numerous deaths since the 1979 Islamic revolution.  Few Saudis point to the Arab Spring as a catalyst for the recent demonstrations, but to Iran.

In 1979, Shiites generally supported the Ayatollah Khomeini invectives against the Saudi royal family. Khomeini claimed a hereditary monarchy was illegitimate. Street demonstrations numbered in the thousands and Saudi clashes between security forces and rioters in November 1979 left 24 dead and hundreds arrested.

More than 400 people died in rioting in July 1987, when Shia pilgrims demonstrated in Makkah during the Hajj and clashed with police and National Guardsmen. The next day, Khomeini urged Shiites to overthrow the Saudi government.

Since March 2011, Shiites have been staging demonstrations demanding that political prisoners be released from Saudi jails. Security forces fired upon demonstrators in separate incidents over the past year,  killing at least six people. Some activists have said that as many as 10 are dead due to security crackdowns.

Saudis in other regions of the kingdom have largely ignored the violence in the Eastern Province. Saudi media gives it scant attention and limits its coverage to officials Saudi Press Agency reports.

A Sunni Saudi journalist, who declined to give his name for publication, wrote that he does not dispute that Shiites have historically experienced institutionalized discrimination, but he supports the security forces’ tough crackdown on demonstrators.

“Yes, they have had a difficult time for no other reason than they are Shiite,” the writer said. “But they are demonstrating with signs that have slogans and pictures of their masters in Iran. If that is not sedition and a threat to our national security, I don’t know what is.”

The journalist’s attitude illustrates the apathy for Shiites who some Saudis say have taken a route that violates the Islamic principle that citizens do not rise against a Muslim ruler, especially one considered to be a positive force in society. Instead of airing grievances directly to the king or the Shoura Council—Saudi Arabia’s advisory quasi-legislative body—demonstrators prefer citing allegiance to rulers of Shiite-dominated countries, such as Iran, the journalist said.

“When I and my brothers are ignored our entire lives by the government we are supposed to love and respect, it’s only natural to look to someone else for answers,” said a 29-year-old Shiite woman, who lives in Dammam and says she does not participate in protests.

She also denied that Iran influences demonstrators. “We don’t need outsiders to tell us we are treated like dogs here,” she said.

A Saudi analyst, who said he did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about sectarian strife, said the Ministry of Interior is on high alert with all personnel on call due to the instability in the Eastern Province.

Yet an uprising on the scale of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors is virtually impossible, he said.

“Shiites only make up 10 or 12 percent of the population, so their numbers are insufficient to really pose a serious security threat,” he told The Media Line. “But the government also recognizes the protests for what they really are: an external security threat to the stability of our country. Young people may say it is about jobs and participation in Saudi society, but it’s Iran that is stirring things up.”

Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites further increased with the July 8 shooting and arrest of Shiite Sheikh Nimr Baqr Al-Nimr near his home in Al-Awamiyah. Al-Nimr is the spiritual leader of the Shiite community and a frequent critic of the royal family, especially against Prince Nayef, the minister of interior, who died on June 16. Security forces arrested Al-Nimr on previous occasions for his outspoken views. He remains in custody and is said to be on a hunger strike.

Al-Nimr’s arrest was recorded on YouTube showing him bloodied from his wounds and laying in the backseat of a car as he was rushed to the hospital.

One Twitterer wrote after Al-Nimr’s arrest: “People of alqatif are cancel there widdings and partys Grief because the martyrs and because the goverment arrested shikh nimr al nimr.”

Another tweeted, “He is the moderate cleric who reasonably, bravely, religiously and loudly criticize the #Saudi government.”

King Abdullah has made efforts to soothe Saudi Arabia’s rocky relationship with Iran by inviting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the recent Islamic Solidarity Conference in Makkah. The king perhaps spent more time with Ahmadinejad than with other Muslim leaders. The king later sent his condolences to the Iranian leader following the recent earthquake that cost the lives of more than 300 people.

“I think the Saudi government truly wants Ahmadinejad as a friend of Saudi Arabia so Iran stops its meddling with the people in the Eastern Province,” said the Saudi analyst. “So it’s Iran’s move now.”

Islamic school loses right to use building over anti-Semitic teachings

A Toronto Islamic school has lost the right to use a public school for its classes after anti-Semitic teachings were discovered in its curriculum and posted on its website.

One of the lessons taught at the East End Madrassah referred to Jews as “crafty” and “treacherous,” contrasted Islam with “the Jews and the Nazis,” and alleged ancient Jews conspired to kill the Prophet Muhammad.

The curriculum was available on the school’s website, which was later taken down.

This week, the Toronto District School Board announced the Islamic school could no longer rent space for its Sunday classes until police finish their investigation of the anti-Jewish teachings.

Police are probing the madrassah based on Canada’s Criminal Code, which makes it unlawful to publicly and “willfully” promote hatred against any identifiable group.

The public school board “[needs] to be satisfied with the outcome of the investigation and that [the madrassah was] in compliance with our policies and procedures” before they can use school board property, board spokesman Jim Spyropoulos told the Toronto Star.

The board has asked for a meeting “to have a deeper discussion so we can have a clear understanding of their programming and curriculum, and how and why some of the statements that appeared on their website were there,” Spyropoulos added.

Avi Benlolo of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, who alerted police to the offensive material, was pleased with the board’s move but said the permit should have been revoked immediately. He called on Canadian school boards to “put a plan in place to ensure no group is ever targeted as the Jewish community has been.”

French Islamic militants planned to kidnap Jewish judge

Suspected Islamic militants arrested throughout France were planning terrorist attacks including kidnapping a Jewish judge.

The 13 members of the extremist group Forsane Alizza, or Knights of Pride, were among 19 suspected Islamic militants arrested last week in France. They are currently under investigation for alleged terrorist activities, Paris public prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters Tuesday. Preliminary charges are being filed against the 13, and nine will remain in police custody, he said.

The men reportedly planned to kidnap a Jewish judge in Lyon, in southeast France.

Molins said that there is no tie between this group and gunman Mohamed Merah, who killed children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulose on March 21, as well as three French military personnel the previous week. Merah told French police that he killed the Jewish students at the school in revenge for Palestinian children killed in Gaza, and had killed three French soldiers the previous week for serving in Afghanistan. He also claimed links to al-Qaida, as does Forsane Alizza.

The terrorists’ arrests were part of a French crackdown in the wake of Merah’s attack in Toulouse. France on Monday also expelled five radical Islamic ministers.

Iranian Colored Band Report Discredited

When the renowned exiled Iranian journalist Amir Taheri reported in a Canadian newspaper last week that Iran had just passed a law requiring Jews to wear yellow bands on their clothing, the world reacted with shock. The story, which also outlined required colored bands for Christians and Zoroastrians, was immediately picked up by major newspapers in Israel, and the word spread quickly. The purpose of the law according to Taheri’s article, was to set a standard dress code for Muslims and also for Iranian Muslims “to easily recognize non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake and thus becoming najis [unclean]”.

The story seemed credible, given that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been making anti-Semitic and anti-Israel proclamations for months. But, as it turned out, Taheri was wrong. No such law had been passed.

Nevertheless, Taheri’s report set in motion a media frenzy, with checks and balances of rumor control that illustrate how on edge — and careful — the Iranian exile community is these days. Local Iranian Jewish leaders were bombarded with requests for comments from the international media on the reported legislation, but they held back from responding until they had received solid confirmation from their sources in Iran.

“To the best of my knowledge the final version of the law does not demand any identifying marks by the religious minority groups,” Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation said in a press release. “I am not aware of what was said by whom, but it is possible that some ideas might have been thrown around.”

Kermanian also said that while Iran’s Islamic officials have in the past put out ideas in the media to gauge international reaction, there was no specific information about this instance.

The report stemmed from new legislation geared to making women in Iran dress more conservatively and avoid Western fashions, Iranian legislator Emad Afroogh Afroogh who sponsored the Islamic Dress Code bill told the Associated Press on Friday. Allegations that new rules affecting religious minorities were not part of the new regulations, he said.

“It’s a sheer lie. The rumors about this are worthless,” Afroogh said. “There is no mention of religious minorities and their clothing in the bill.”

Morris Motamed, the Jewish representative in the Iranian Parliament also denied the existence of any bills designed to segregate Jews in the country with special insignia on their clothes.

“Such a plan has never been proposed or discussed in the parliament,” Motamed said. “Such news, which appeared abroad, is an insult to religious minorities here.”

Rumors of anti-Semitic laws in Iran have disturbed local Iranian Jews who have been increasingly concerned for the safety of roughly 25,000 Jews still living in Iran since Ahmadinejad denied the existence of the Holocaust and called for Israel to “wiped off the map” late last year.

“The mere fact that such possibilities are considered to be plausible is a reflection of the sad state of affairs of the religious minority groups in Iran,” Kermanian said in his press release.

According to a 2004 report prepared by Frank Nikbakht, a local Iranian Jewish activist who tracks anti-Semitism in Iran, the Jewish community lives in constant fear for its security amid threats from militant Islamic factions in the country. Since 1979, at least 14 Jews were murdered or assassinated by the regime’s agents, 11 Jews have disappeared after being arrested, at least two Jews died while in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime. In 1999, Feizollah Mekhoubad, a 78-year-old cantor of the popular Yousefabad synagogue in Tehran, was the last Jew to be officially executed by the regime, stated the report.

In 2000, the local Iranian Jewish community was at the forefront of an international human rights campaign to save the lives of 13 Jews in Shiraz. They were facing imminent execution after being arrested on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Ultimately, the Shiraz Jews were not executed but sentenced to prison terms and have since been released.

Both Jews and Muslims of Iranian origins living in Southern California have been closely collaborating to raise public awareness of Ahmadinejad’s comments. Nearly 2,000 Iranians of various faiths gathered at a pro-Israel rally in Westwood last November to condemn Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel’s destruction.

“We wanted to show the world that we are against such comments made by Mr. Ahmadinejad and that his comments are not representative of the Iranian people,” said Assadollah Morovati, owner of KRSI “Radio Sedaye Iran,” a Persian language satellite radio station based in Beverly Hills that broadcasts news around the world. “Iranians are not the type to want the destruction of another people. We respect the Jewish people and only wish success for the State of Israel.”


Homeland Insecurity

"American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us," by Steven Emerson. (Simon and Schuster, $26).

In November of 1994, PBS aired nationwide an unforgettable documentary titled, "Jihad in America." Recognizing as it did — a year after the first attack on the World Trade Center — the concrete dangers posed by the radical Islam network beginning to burgeon in the United States, the film caused an upheaval in the perceptions of many viewers — just the reaction Steven Emerson wanted.

Emerson, an expert on terrorism and national security who serves as NBC’s terrorism analyst, has now followed up his 1994 film with a book that picks up where the film leaves off. "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us" describes how a network of organizations and radical Islamic institutions operate under the guise of cultural, welfare and charitable institutions, and describes the way these elements penetrate the heart of American society, taking advantage of its liberal democratic values. Delving through layers of camouflage, Emerson returns with a clear and frightening message about the spread of Islamic fundamentalist terror activists and their supporters throughout the United States.

"American Jihad" is more like two books than one. It is, first, a narrative detailing the personal anguish that Emerson experienced throughout his nonstop effort to expose a radical Islamic terror network in the United States. He relates, with the suspense of a Hollywood thriller, the initial research and reporting he did in preparation for his film. But it is also a textbook detailing Islamic institutions, figures and connections — a lexicon of Islamic fundamentalism in the United States that should be included in the library of every researcher, academic and security official interested in radical Islam. In fact, it is saturated with so many names, dates, facts and events that it leaves a reader wondering how to absorb the scope of the phenomenon and whether it is not, in fact, too late to fight it and win.

The West "deluded itself into the belief that militant Islamic fundamentalism could be contained," Emerson writes. But the events of Sept. 11 demonstrated how deadly wrong our preconceptions were and that those who described the activities of the radical Islam network as legitimate, quiet, religious and educational were mistaken — and misleading. According to Emerson, radical Islam fundamentalists see only one way to interpret the term "jihad." In the words of Osama bin Laden’s ideological mentor, Abdullah Azzam: "Whenever jihad is mentioned in the Holy Book it means the obligation to fight. It does not mean to fight with a pen or to write books or articles in the press or to fight by holding lectures."

But the threat from radical Islam is not the territory of only one man, bin Laden, or even of one organization, Al Qaeda. As Emerson makes clear, it is a worldwide network of fanatical Muslim terrorists who share a frightening ideology, the fundamental nature of which is to impose radical Islam on the world. (Emerson not only describes the phenomenon but also examines the motives of radical Islam and claims that "poverty and lack of opportunity have little or nothing to do with it.") The severe danger arising from these terrorists and their supporters is not limited to the extremity of their viewpoint — the belief that with terror attacks, they are fulfilling Allah’s commandments. There are more pragmatic dangers.

Most of the radical Islamic fighters are alumni of the Afghanistan War (1979-1989), during which they acquired fighting experience against what was, at the time, one of the world’s superpowers. They make use of the highly dangerous method of suicide attacks and have not concealed their readiness to use biological weapons and other unconventional substances. Moreover, they have a vast array of personal connections and relations, which not only inhibits penetration into their organizations, but also facilitates the perpetration of coordinated terror attacks worldwide. And this network is dispersed all over the world — in the Arab states but also in the West, and particularly in the United States.

Emerson focuses on penetration and activities in the United States today of the three most dangerous terror organizations — Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda. As it turns out, the United States serves as a convenient platform for the enlistment and training of activists, for fundraising and, as we’ve so tragically seen, as a stage for terror attacks.

It would appear that U.S. citizenship, or even exposure to Western liberal values, is no guarantee of moderation. In fact the opposite is true. Emerson confirms that among the radical Muslims who today shout "Death to America" are "highly sophisticated Westernized intellectuals." Those who did not heed Emerson’s last warning, offered in his 1994 film, should heed his new one, that radical Islam is enlisting members from the ranks of U.S. citizens. This phenomenon was revalidated this spring when an American citizen, Jose Padilla, was exposed as allegedly planning a radiological attack with a "dirty bomb."

Similarly, Emerson points to the disturbing phenomenon of radical Islamic elements penetrating the ranks of American institutions of higher education. As an example, he contends that the University of South Florida (USF) is in danger of becoming a bastion of the terror organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group that perpetrates suicide bombings and other terror attacks in Israel. At USF, academic sponsorship has served as a convenient background for the enlistment of activists and supporters, for the raising of funds and the brainwashing of many young Americans. It has become, according to Emerson, a potential hothouse for the cultivation of the organization’s leadership.

A case in point is Ramadan Shallah, who in his capacity as adjunct professor of Middle Eastern studies at USF, was invited to brief military commanders at the U.S. Air Force base at MacDill near Tampa. Today, Shallah is head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad — only one example of how these radical factions have been invited, in their academic guise, to lecture to policymakers and the U.S. security establishment, thereby trying to spread their doctrine to important places.

As Emerson makes clear, Hamas and Jihad activists have used the United States as a haven for the initiation, planning and organization of attacks in Israel. Still, many American citizens approach the idea of Palestinian Islamic terror elements in the United States with the false assumption that they are solely an Israeli problem — an internal threat only to the people of Israel. By exposing just how Palestinian organizations such as Hamas use their infrastructure in the United States to plan attacks against American targets, Emerson shows the folly of such a view.

The last chapter in Emerson’s book is devoted to the fight against radical Islamic terrorism in the United States, stressing the commitment of moderate Islam to fight fanaticism. Emerson applauds those exceptional Muslims in the United States — such as Sheikh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, or Muslim scholar Khalid Duran — who do not ignore the severity of the threat, and who do their best to draw the attention of U.S. decisionmakers to the dangers posed by radical Islamic groups.

Emerson’s book illustrates how hard this fight is, and how helpless and unmotivated the U.S. security establishment was in understanding the scope of the threat before it was able to take root in American society. He criticizes the American security establishment, particularly the FBI, for its inability to identify the enormity of the danger in advance, a failure partially explained by the absence of appropriate legislation to enable American security forces to penetrate these organizations and institutions, and to keep a close eye on their modus operandi.

As the book makes clear, lessons must be learned from the lethargy that characterized American policy after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, and we must memorize Emerson’s contention about the second one: "Since Sept. 11, 2001, everything has changed and yet nothing has changed. The only difference between Feb. 26, 1993, and Sept. 11, 2001, is that there are 3,500-odd more people dead. We are still vulnerable. We have only a short time to prevent the next chapter from unfolding."