The execution of Sheikh Baqr al-Nimr, the top Arab Spring and pro-democracy Shia cleric, by the Saudi government has sparked intense condemnations and protests in many Muslim countries of the world. After this incident, the already-strained Riyadh-Tehran relations have further deteriorated. Soon after this incident, an angry mob in Tehran stormed and set ablaze the Saudi embassy in Iran. Reacting to this development, Saudi Arabia also formally severed its diplomatic relations with Iran asking Iranian ambassador to leave the country. The pro-Saudi Arabia countries like Sudan and Bahrain have also followed. As the confrontation between the two Middle Eastern arch rivals has escalated, the sectarian fault-line in this troubled region has become more visible.

The Human Rights Watch and many other campaign groups have severely condemned Sheikh Baqr al-Nimr execution as well. Calling on Riyadh to commute death sentence in the Kingdom, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that he was ‘deeply dismayed’ by the very act of Saudi Arabia. Iran’s supreme leader Ayotollah Ali Khamenei has also warned that Saudi Arabia would face ‘divine vengeance’ for this execution. Owing to obvious reasons, the Saudi Foreign Minister has also postponed his official visit to Pakistan. Now, in the face of recent political developments in the Middle East, the future of proposed Saudi-led 34-state Islamic military alliance also hangs in the balance.

Sheikh Baqr al-Nimr was the most popular and vocal Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia. He has proactively participated in mass anti-government protests that erupted in the Eastern Province in 2011. Earlier in 2009, he has also called for separating the Shia-populated Qatif and al-Ihsaa Governorates from Saudi Arabia. In 2012, he was arrested and charged with ‘sedition’, ‘disobedience’ and ‘instigating unrest’. In October last year, the Supreme Court in Saudi Arabia confirmed the death sentence against him. The Human Right Watch has already described the trial of Sheikh Baqr al-Nimr as ‘deeply unjust’. Similarly, having acknowledged Shia cleric’s right to free speech, Transparency International also pointing out various irregularities and legal defects in the court proceedings.

In a civilized society, the right to free speech is respected and adequately safeguarded. Similarly, capital punishment has almost been abolished in many western countries. It is extremely regrettable that Sheikh Baqr al-Nimr was beheaded primarily for exercising his right of free speech in the Kingdom. This is simply unprecedented in the civilized world. In fact, Islam also doesn’t allow inflicting a capital punishment to any individual on such flimsy grounds. Regrettably, Saudi Arabia didn’t bother at all about the possible negative repercussions of the incident on the volatile Middle Eastern region while executing the Shia cleric.

Shia Muslims constitute approximately 10-15% of Saudi Arabia’s total population. Presently it is believed that they are one of the most persecuted religious minorities in the world. Somehow resembling the racial segregation in the apartheid South Africa, a systematic policy of sectarian segregation vis-à-vis the Shia population is being deliberately pursued by the Saudi rulers. According to 2009 Human Right Watch report, Shia citizens in the Kingdom “face systematic discrimination in religion, education and employment”. Consequently, now the Shia population is socially segregated, economically deprived and politically marginalized. They are not offered any key government position in the kingdom. Therefore, presently there is no Shia Governor, cabinet minister, mayor, army officer, police chief, ambassador or judge in the country.

The religious freedom for Shias has also substantially been restricted in the Kingdom. Country’s education system is based on Wahhabi theological material which is utterly hostile to Shiism. Their faith is portrayed as a form of heresy worse than Christianity and Judaism. They are prohibited from becoming the teachers of religious education. In certain cases, they are also disqualified as witnesses in the courts. At times, the Kingdom’s leading clerics have also passed various Fatwas (religious edicts) denouncing the Shia as Murtadeen (apostates).

According to The Economist’s 2010 Democracy Index, the Saudi government was the seventh most authoritarian regime from among the 167 countries assessed in the world. Political dissident is hardly tolerated in the kingdom. Political parties and all sort of political activities are completely banned. Similarly, political demonstrations are also banned. According to UK-based Human Rights Commission and the BBC, presently there are some 30,000 political prisoners in various prisons across the kingdom. The freedom of speech of the subjects has significantly been curtailed. The press and other media, including television and radio broadcasting, are actively censored. The government also scrutinizes online social media. In 2001, publication of any criticism harming the reputation of government or religious leaders was declared to be a crime in the country.

Despite the fact various international human rights bodies, NGO’s and campaign groups have criticized the authoritarian and oppressive policies of Saudi government time and again, the so-called civilized countries of the West have constantly been extending unqualified support to successive Saudi regimes. As a matter of fact, the current state policies and religious and political institutions in the kingdom are by no means distinguishable from that of erstwhile Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Both regimes share almost common attitude towards the women and religious minorities in their respective territories. The religious police in both countries have been tasked to perform similar religious obligation- the ‘purgation of society’. But strangely, there is a visible discrepancy between diplomatic treatments rendered to both regimes by the international community.

The House of Saud chose Wahabism as the official religious ideology of the kingdom. Later, the Takfirists, a violent, rigid and more conservative splinter religious group of Wahhabism gave rise to so-called Takfiri school of thought in this region. The adherents of this ideology readily started declaring the Shia Muslims as apostates strictly in accordance with their self-devised theological touchstone. As apostasy is a capital offence according to their version of Islam, therefore they feel themselves quite justified in beheading Shia Muslims. In fact, this theological ideology has nothing to do with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in Holy Quran and Sunnah. Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) spent his entire life while making endeavors to convert infidels to Islam. Ironically, by reversing this order, the Takfirists are doing just the otherwise what exactly is the Muhammadanism.

Somehow combining the medieval doctrine of Divine Right of Kings, the Eighteenth Century religious ideology Wahhabism and the so-called Arab Nationalism, the House of Saud founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1930’s. Later, in order to secure a greater degree of legitimacy and acceptability from the masses, the Saudi king assumed the title of ‘Khadim-e-Harmain Sharifain’ (the servant of two holy places). Thus purely a hereditary monarchy was garnished with theological trimmings. In fact, under the guise of Islam, the medieval religious and totalitarian political ideologies are being employed to persecute the already-oppressed subjects of the so-called Islamic Kingdom. Ironically, today the ordinary citizens of the kingdom can be publicly beheaded for violating the injunctions of Islam but the Arab rulers hardly face any trouble in harmonizing their autocratic regimes with Islam.