Protesters took to the streets of Melbourne on August 16 to condemn human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia and to call for the release of Shia cleric Ayatollah Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, who has been sentenced to death by crucifixion and beheading for calling for religious freedom in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is both an absolute monarchy and a theocracy. The regime promotes a Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, notorious for narrowly defining Islam and intolerance toward other beliefs.
The oil-rich kingdom, created with Western support in the early 20th century, claims ideological legitimacy from possession of the holy cities Mecca and Medina. Less than a quarter of the population are Wahhabi.
Paradoxically, while Saudi Arabia is the closest ally of the US in the Arab world, its brutally repressive, misogynist and theocratic system provides much of the evidence for Islamaphobic Western propagandists making the case that Islam is violently anti-democratic.
Western reporting of the wave of unrest in the Arab countries since the beginning of 2011 ignored large protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where most of the country’s fossil fuel industry is based. The Eastern Province is home to most of the Shia minority, who form 10 to 15% of the Saudi population but are viewed as heretics by the Wahhabi establishment.
Nimr was condemned to death for speaking out in support of protesters and calling for freedom of religious belief. Speakers at the rally said that Nimr’s message was that Sunni and Shia Muslims, and non-Muslims, should all be free and equal, not just in Saudi Arabia, but throughout the Middle East.
Speakers condemned Saudi and Western support for religious sectarian forces in Iraq, Syria, and other countries of the region, and condemned the IS (Islamic State) terrorist group for its brutality and genocide of religious minorities such as the Yazidi and Christian communities.
Speakers also drew attention to Saudi Arabia’s de facto alliance with Israel and pledged solidarity with the Palestinians.
Marching to the Human Rights Commission, protesters’ chants and signs called for democracy, peace, religious freedom and independence for Palestine and condemned the Saudi regime, the US, Israel and IS.