The four men were accused of carrying out attacks in Qatif region, where Shia groups have clashed with security forces.
A report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled, They are not our brothers: Hate Speech by Saudi Officials, released on Tuesday, says Saudi Arabia has permitted government-appointed religious scholars to refer to religious minorities in “derogatory terms or demonise them in official documents and religious rulings” that influence government decision-making.
“Saudi Arabia has relentlessly promoted a reform narrative in recent years, yet it allows government-affiliated Muslim leaders and textbooks to openly demonise religious minorities such as Shia,” Sarah Leah Whitson, a Middle East director at HRW, said.
HRW cautions that this hate speech prolongs the systematic discrimination against the Shia minority and is employed by violent groups who attack them.
HRW recently documented derogatory references to other religious affiliations, including Judaism, Christianity, and Sufi Islam in the country’s religious education curriculum.
Often referred to Shia as “rafidha” or “rawafidh” (rejectionists), the government religious scholars, all of whom are Sunni, also condemned mixing and intermarriage.
The report highlights one incident where a member of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the country’s highest religious body, replied in a public meeting to a question about Shia Muslims by saying that “they are not our brothers … rather they are brothers of Satan …”.
Some religious scholars use language that suggests Shia are part of a conspiracy against the state and disloyal by nature. The government tolerates other religious scholars with enormous social media followings, the report found.
The religion curriculum in Saudi Arabia for the 2016-17 school year does not mention Shia by name, but that it “uses veiled language to stigmatise Shia religious practices”.
For example, Saudi religious education textbooks criticise visiting graves and shrines to venerate important people, which are common practices among Shia. The books describe these practices as a form of polytheism.
The textbooks also include similar language towards non-Muslim practices, the report said. Experts critiquing this curriculum have suggested that religious textbooks should instead draw from multiple lines in the Quran that emphasise coexistence, compassion and tolerance.
The Saudi government has responded to such criticisms in the past by establishing a $2.4bn programme in 2007 responsible for curriculum reform, including the training abroad of tens of thousands of Saudi teachers in order to open young Saudi minds.
Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, has said that one of the initiatives of the Saudi-based Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology is to publish new textbooks in Saudi Arabia and in mosques around the world to replace current books that “advocate extreme Wahhabism viewpoints around the justification for violence”.
“Despite Saudi Arabia’s poor record on religious freedom, the US has shielded Saudi Arabia from possible sanctions under US law,” HRW’s Whitson said.
“The US government should apply its own laws to hold its Saudi ally accountable.”