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The cure for ignorance

| Wednesday, January 20, 2016

It’s a new year already redolent with familiar challenges.

Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 other prisoners on Jan. 2 started the year with familiar themes of violence and retribution. Saudi Arabia’s official charges against Nimr included the catch-all offenses of “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “inciting sectarian strife.” Nimr strongly supported the rights of the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, but he did not advocate violence.

In contrast, the actions of Saudi Arabia’s Sunni rulers undermined years of international efforts to reduce violence in the region, especially to combat the Islamic State and other terror groups. Recent negotiations headed by the U.S. and Russia, which included Saudi and Iranian representatives, appeared to be inching towards a framework for peace in Syria. After announcing the executions, the Saudis broke a precarious cease-fire in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has a miserable human rights record, strictly applying its version of Islamic law to repress women and religious minorities. In tandem, Saudi Arabia’s oil income has sharply declined (partly due to the country’s insistence on maintaining high production levels), resulting in cuts to the profligate welfare spending Saudis have long enjoyed. The rulers of the House of Saud have pragmatic reasons for the executions: The killings present an emotional sectarian crisis to deflect anger over the cutbacks and a graphic warning of the fate of critics.

Sunnis, Shiites, Saudis, Iranians — what does this all mean to me? Unless you have been actively following news from the region, I suppose not much, or else it means what pundits on cable news or Internet sources tell you it should mean. But simply because a situation is complicated, as admittedly this one is, you should not leave it to others to sort out the moral and political implications to us as Americans and residents of this planet. The whole mess is far away and inhabited by a cast of countries and cultures with which we may never be familiar, but that is the very reason why we need to step outside of our parochial comfort zone and assess the situation with an educated approach.

I suggest that a good way to achieve some measure of an informed overview is to take the position you are most comfortable with — the position where you just know you have all the facts, and then look at the matter from the opposite side to provide balance to your understanding. This process may be frustrating if you are seeking some sort of absolute truth, but it is necessary to place the facts in a realistic context and not just in an established narrative on one end or the other of the political spectrum.

The Nimr situation is a good place to start.

Here’s one view: a long-time U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, has taken action that may well obstruct our efforts at peace in the surrounding region. These executions followed abrupt legal actions and appear to be little more than efforts to remove political opposition to the Saudi regime. The U.S. should condemn such actions immediately as contrary to international established norms of justice and inconsistent with U.S. goals.

And another view: The animosity between Sunnis and Shiites is centuries old. The actions of the Saudi government can best be seen as an internal matter being exploited by religious factions to support instability and chaos, which is fertile breeding ground for radical Islamists. While Nimr may not have explicitly advocated violence, the Saudis should not be put in a position where they had to wait for deadly action in order to silence anti-government rhetoric.

You can readily find extensive support for each position in online news and commentary. In reviewing these sources, I urge you to focus on reporting and editorials that make you a little uneasy, a sure sign that you are stepping outside of your comfort zone. If you start to develop a concern that the more you examine a situation, the less you understand it, then you are well on the way to developing a healthy world view.

The world is a complicated place and it is hubris to smugly insist you always know who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is bad, which is the moral nation and which is the Great Satan. A religious leader is killed for the crime of sedition, accused of being a treasonous rabble-rouser who threatened the power of an intolerant government. The House of Saud called him Nimr; the Romans called him Jesus Christ. Uncomfortable? Excellent.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

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