Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the Struggle for Social Justice

On 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric and outspoken peaceful social justice activist. Sheikh al-Nimr was an influential cleric in the Eastern Province town of Awamiyah, where he advocated for political freedom, human rights, and an end to oppression for all Saudis. He rose to prominence in 2009, when he spoke out against sectarian violence against Shia worshipers in Medina. He continued to preach against anti-Shia violence and discrimination, becoming an icon for Saudi Shia Muslims’ struggle for more political and religious freedom. He did not confine his rhetoric to Saudi Arabia. Sheikh al-Nimr spoke out against oppression and in support of social justice around the world.

Saudi security forces arrested Sheikh al-Nimr on 8 July 2012 on charges of ‘sedition’ after he rose to prominence as a spokesperson calling for reforms that would provide more freedoms for Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority. During Sheikh al-Nimr’s arrest, authorities shot him in the leg and seriously wounded him. After his arrest, authorities held him in solitary confinement in prison and in a military hospital and allegedly tortured him. Beginning on 25 March 2013, 265 days after his arrest, courts heard Sheikh al-Nimr’s case in 13 hearings over the course of a year-and-a-half, almost all of which were marred by judicial irregularities. On 15 October 2014, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC)—the kingdom’s counter-terror court which is known for its lack of due process and its use of coerced confessions extracted under torture as primary evidence —sentenced Sheikh al-Nimr to death.

On 2 January 2016, the Saudi government executed Sheikh al-Nimr and 47 others, most of whom were members of al-Qaeda. By executing him alongside convicted terrorists, Saudi authorities attempted to imply that Sheikh al-Nimr was a terrorist. Advisers to the Minister of Defense claim that “the al-Nimr family members pursued violence and attacks on security forces and government facilities besides terrorizing civilians.” The charges brought against him were largely a response to the content of his sermons, which were peaceful and promoted non-violence.

Sheikh al-Nimr’s struggle for justice and peace came with a firm belief in the power of non-violence. “Our main and general approach to get our rights is the roar of the word,” rather than “the oppressive authorities’ approach of bullets and intimidation. The more excessive force they use, the more we insist on the roar of the word, because the weapon of the word is mightier than the weapon of bullets.” Sheikh al-Nimr continuously preached non-violence, telling demonstrators that, “Weapons are forbidden. When we see an armed person in a demonstration, we will tell him this is forbidden. Go home, we don’t need you. We are stronger with words and weaker with arms.”

Sheikh al-Nimr became a preacher in a small mosque in his hometown of Awamiyah in the Eastern Province in the early 2000s. Over the next several years, he became a vocal leader in the community, where he used his position to call for social justice and more religious freedoms for the country’s oppressed Shia minority. Due to his speeches, and for leading public prayers, security forces detained him twice, in 2003 and 2006. After releasing him in 2006, officials forced him to sign a pledge not to speak in public. He responded by continuing to write saying, “if they don’t want us to speak, we’re going to write.”

Sheikh al-Nimr continued to advocate and call for social justice. In 2007, he requested the government more fairly distribute the Eastern Province’s oil wealth, including to the region’s Shia residents who do not receive the benefits from the revenue. Later that year, Sheikh al-Nimr petitioned the Eastern Province’s governor for greater religious freedoms that would promote religious equality for Shia. In the text entitled, “A Petition for Honor and Dignity,” Sheikh al-Nimr assured the government of the peaceful nature of Shia religious beliefs and their desire for peaceful reform:

The Shia belief is a rejectionist one, which rejects injustice, oppression and persecution. It is a belief that seeks reform, peace and communal harmony, even in the face of injustice and oppression at the expense of its own believers’ rights, and because it is a belief that rejects chaos, violence, warring and turmoil. We did [not], do not, and will not demand anything threatening the security of the country or its people, nor that which would undermine the pillars of the state, shorten its age, or weaken its institutions.

However, the government continued to discriminate against the Shia minority, leading Sheikh al-Nimr to again begin speaking out vocally about oppression of the Shia minority in the region.

Much of Sheikh al-Nimr’s advocacy for reform came in the practice of sermons that addressed issues of injustice and oppression in a broad sense. Sheikh al-Nimr’s main call was to end religious discrimination and grant greater religious freedoms. However, he also sought to bring fairness for Shia in the Saudi justice system and education systems and called for building schools for girls, establishing local governing committees, and more access for Shia to prestigious and influential jobs.

In 2009, Sheikh al-Nimr spoke out against the sectarian violence that erupted in Medina, Saudi Arabia. On 20 February 2009, Shia worshipers gathered in the al-Baqi cemetery in Medina to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. However, the planned celebration turned into sectarian violence when members of the religious police and some Sunni residents assaulted, beat, and attacked the Shia worshipers, resulting in dozens injured. The government’s response to the incident seemed to vindicate those responsible for the violence, as few of the perpetrators were punished. Saudi Minister of Interior Prince Nayef seemed to blame the violence on the Shia worshipers. The government’s leniency in sentencing those responsible for incitement of violence led to protests in the Eastern Province that authorities subsequently suppressed.

In response to the events in Medina, Sheikh al-Nimr delivered a sermon on 13 March 2009, which became known as the “dignity speech.” In his speech, Sheikh al-Nimr blamed the Saudi leadership for the recent violence in Medina in addition to the poor, long-standing situation of Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia. He spoke about the inalienable right to dignity saying, “Our dignity has been pawned away, and if it is not restored, we will call for secession. Our dignity is more precious than the unity of this land.” While the government interpreted this literally, others interpreted his speech as recognizing the primacy of human dignity in the face of oppression over the importance of imposed political borders.

After delivering his “dignity speech,” Sheikh al-Nimr was forced to go into hiding to avoid arrest. But he continued to deliver sermons in which he expressed his opposition to repression and injustice, regardless of religious sect:

For the past 100 years, we have been subjected to oppression, injustice, fear, and intimidation. From the moment you are born, you are surrounded by fear, intimidation, persecution, and abuse. Who among us is not familiar with the intimidation and injustice to which we have been subjected in this country? I am 55 years old, more than half a century. From the day I was born and to this day, I’ve never felt safe or secure in this country.

His rhetoric extended beyond Saudi Arabia and the Arab world: “In any place he rules—Bahrain, here, in Yemen, in Egypt, or in any place—the unjust ruler is hated.”

Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr was an ardent advocate of justice for all, including Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority population. He called for an end to state repression and violence, and he urged the Saudi government to grant equal rights to all, Sunni and Shia alike. He did not tolerate violence and based his principles on the power of non-violence and peaceful demonstrations. Sheikh al-Nimr was an icon of Saudi Shia’s calls for freedom. Even after his execution, Sheikh al-Nimr remains a powerful symbol of the struggle for social justice and peaceful resistance to state violence and injustice in Saudi Arabia.

Tyler Pry is the Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr Advocacy Fellow at ADHRB