Diplomatic Pouch / August 6, 2015
By Larry Luxner
More than 700 Shi’ite Muslims and their sympathizers descended on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington one recent Friday afternoon to protest what they call the country’s systematic destruction of holy sites.
Their outrage against the Saudi government comes amidst its fierce bombardment of neighboring Yemen, where Houthi rebels allied with Iran are fighting Saudi-backed forces in a civil war that has killed nearly 1,800 people and has devastated the country.
“Do you know how many mosques they’ve destroyed in Yemen?” demanded Sayed Mehboob Mehdi of the Chicago-based Islamic Education Center. “Saudi Arabia is the richest country in the Arab world, and Yemen is the poorest. They are going to Yemen to restore democracy, and they have no democracy themselves!”
The protest was organized by Al-Baqee, a Shi’ite group whose members also staged similar protests July 24 in Los Angeles, Houston, New York, London, Melbourne and the Pakistani cities of Karachi and Hyderabad. Their goal: to force the Saudi government to rebuild the Jannatul Baqee cemetery in Medina, a city in western Saudi Arabia that ranks second only to Mecca (and just ahead of Jerusalem) in its importance for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.
“We are here to protest their crimes, and to tell the Americans to be careful,” said Mehdi as he stood in front of the embassy, microphone in hand. “Point toward this evil building and say the truth. They are terrorists!”
Actually the main target of Al-Baqee’s wrath is not the Saudi people, but rather the Wahabi brand of Islam that the country’s rulers expound and teach in their schools.
“There are 72 sects of Islam. Wahabis are only one sect, but they dictate how the other 71 behave,” activist Zeynab Hussain told the Diplomatic Pouch amidst the crowd of placard-waving protesters. “They think that Shi’ites and Sufis pray to graves. However, our prayers are directed only to Allah.”
Wahabism, whose tenets are accepted as official doctrine in Saudi Arabia, forbids its followers from visiting shrines, tombs and religious historical sites on the grounds this amounts to idol-worship. But other Muslims disagree.
In fact, Hussain said 7,000 “companions of the Holy Prophet” are buried in Baqee, whose shrines were demolished by the Saudi royal family in 1925. Al-Baqee has been holding protests every year on the eighth day of the tenth month of the Islamic calendar to mark the anniversary of Baqee’s destruction.
Officials at the heavily guarded Saudi Embassy did not come out to speak, nor did they respond to media requests for comment. Police officers watched as demonstrators — many of them wearing “Rebuild Baqee” headbands — waved signs reading “Wahabism Sucks!” and passersby honked their horns in support.
“We were just over at the State Department, and we got a very good reception there,” Hussain told us. She lamented that 95 percent of Islamic heritage has been destroyed within Saudi Arabia itself as the government — flush with oil revenues — makes dramatic architectural additions, like the garish Mecca Royal Clock Tower Hotel, which ranks as the world’s fourth-tallest freestanding structure on Earth.
Yet building that $15 billion complex involved the destruction of an 18th century Ottoman citadel — just one of many examples of Saudi disregard for history, she said.
Hussain told a reporter from Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV that “we submit our memorandum to them every single year, and every year we do not get an official response from them — not even an acknowledgement that they received our memorandum.”
Meanwhile, Mehdi didn’t mince words when it came to his views on official Saudi policy towards Shi’ites.
“We are here to protest their crimes, and to tell the Americans to be careful,” he boomed. “There is no difference between the Saudis, ISIS, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram? They teach hatred in their schools. They say all infidels should be killed.”
He added: “They teach intolerance of other sects of Islam, which has given non-Muslims legal protection. But these people destroyed their churches and synagogues.”
Hussain, whose family is originally from India, said 80 percent of the Islamic schools are funded by the Wahabis, and that “within the United States, Wahabism is preading like wildfire among secular Muslims.”
She added: “Wahabism is just one head of the snake. But you must go after the entire serpent.”