Friday, January 30, 2015

Toby Matthiesen's "The Other Saudis"

Toby Matthiesen is a Research Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. He was previously a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Matthiesen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism, and reported the following:
Excerpt from page 99:
Discussion sessions held in private raised the importance of intellectual change in the Islamic umma and criticised the traditional Shia trends. The taped sermons and pamphlets of Muhammad al-Shirazi were widely circulated. Young clerics such as Hasan al-Saffar increasingly preached to larger audiences in hussainiyyat and at Shia religious festivities. Recruitment focussed on high school and university students but some teachers and graduates were also brought into the Saudi movement soon after its inception. The presence of young preachers was a novelty and resonated well with the youth. One later member of the movement from Awwamiyya recalls that his father, who was an Akhbari, would not take him to the hussainiyya and if he went himself he would be sent home because of his age. In contrast, the teenagers felt taken more seriously by the young preachers such as the al-Sayf brothers and al-Saffar.

While virtually all the clerical OIRAP leadership passed through the hawza in Kuwait, some of the later lay cadres, who were called the effendiyya within the movement, stayed in Saudi Arabia. Hamza al-Hasan, who became a key figure in the movement later on, was recruited in 1976/77. Until the intifada, however, he did not join the hawza in Kuwait and just met and discussed movement literature with his supervisor from his hometown, Safwa. Until 1979 al-Hasan did not know how many members the movement had and only during the intifada did he become aware of the full extent of mobilisation.

Young unmarried women between fifteen and twenty were also recruited. One female activist recalls how her relative returned from Kuwait around 1977 and told her about the Islamic awakening. He said that time was ripe for change and gave her books and articles to distribute to her cousins and friends and she started to gather with them.
Copyright © 2015 Toby Matthiesen. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.
On page 99 of The Other Saudis, I outline how in the mid-1970s a new social movement altered the political landscape of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. The province is the centre of the oil industry, and in the 1950s and 1960s, political protest had taken the form of labour mobilisations and Arab nationalist activism. Shia Muslims, who are a discriminated minority in Saudi Arabia but make up roughly half of the inhabitants of the Eastern Province, had until the 1970s either joined leftist and Arab nationalist movements, or had tried to secure more rights through petitioning the Al Saud ruling family (and The Other Saudis devotes one chapter each to the petitions by the notable families as well as the leftist movements). But in the 1970s, a grass-roots Islamist social movement, called the Shirazi movement after its founder Muhammad Mahdi al-Shirazi, spread from Iraq down the Gulf coast to Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.

I have made dozens of interviews with Shirazi activists and cadres, and they explained to me how in the 1970s they started to preach amongst young Shia men and women, mainly amongst teenagers, and encouraged them to revolt against their own political elite, the Shia urban notable families, as well as against the state dominated by the ruling family. The networks of the movement concentrated on a religious school in Kuwait, a hawza, where young Saudis went for indoctrination courses in the holidays and some stayed on to become full-time religious students and members of the movement.

This mobilisation eventually culminated in the 1979 uprising in the Eastern Province, during which young Shia militants took over the city of Qatif and surrounding villages, and fought off the National Guard for days. But the uprising was eventually crushed, dozens were killed, and hundreds of Shirazi activists went into exile to Iran and Syria, initiating a decade of confrontation between the Saudi Shia and the Saudi state that was to last until the Gulf War of 1990/91. Facing a fresh challenge by Sunni Islamists, who saw the deployment of American troops on Saudi soil to prepare the "liberation" of Kuwait as sacrilege, the ruling family started to see the Shia as temporary allies and negotiated an amnesty agreement with the Shia opposition, leading to their return in 1993.
Visit Toby Matthiesen's website.

Writers Read: Toby Matthiesen.

--Marshal Zeringue