"I don't like the name 'Saudi Arabia,'" Mohammed Nimr al-Nimr said with a smile. "It's actually called the Arabian Peninsula, not Saudi," he laughed, noting the country is named after its ruling dynasty.
The impeccably dressed and amiable 29-year-old Saudi activist and engineer was in Washington, D.C. for the 2016 Summit on Saudi Arabia, the first international conference to call into question the close U.S. relationship with the theocratic absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed's father, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was a prominent leader in the Shia Muslim religious community, a minority group in the Saudi kingdom, which is governed by a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism.
The Saudi regime imprisoned Sheikh al-Nimr in 2012 for leading protests against its authoritarianism and violent sectarianism, and sentenced him to death in 2014. On Jan. 2 of this year, Saudi Arabia killed Mohammed's father, along with 46 other people in a series of executions.
At the Summit on Saudi Arabia, Mohammed spoke of his father, and of the struggle for equality, justice and democracy in the Arabian Peninsula that he now carries on.
Salon, which reported on the summit, sat down with the young al-Nimr, who shared his remarkable story.
Like so many activists from the Middle East, Mohammed was born in exile — in Damascus in 1987. He lived in the Syrian capital until 1993, when his family moved back to Saudi Arabia. Throughout his youth, Mohammed and his family moved back and forth between Saudi Arabia and Syria.
That Mohammed spent part of his youth in Syria is fascinating to consider in contrast to his time in Saudi Arabia. In many ways, the two countries are on the polar ends of Arab politics. His experiences in the two, as a Shia Muslim, differed greatly.
Syria is known for its strict secularism and respect for religious minority rights; the Saudi monarchy, on the other hand, greatly discriminates against religious minority groups, and enforces an extreme interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law). In Syria's larger cities — before the catastrophic war that has since reduced much of the country to rubble broke out in 2011, at least — it was not strange to see bikini-clad women at the beach; in Saudi Arabia, women lack basic political rights, and cannot travel without being accompanied by a male guardian.
Muslims of different sects, along with Christians, Jews and even atheists lived together in Syria, Mohammed recalled, and people of any religion could pray practically anywhere. As a Shia Muslim in Saudi Arabia, however, Mohammed said he was afraid to pray in many mosques, and had to be careful not to anger authorities or extremist citizens.
At a very young age in Saudi Arabia, before he even entered school, Mohammed was made painfully aware of the fact that he faced discrimination for being raised in a different religious sect. When he later began studying in Saudi schools, he had to learn Wahhabi doctrine, which he described as "extremist ideas" that are nothing like the Islam he loves.
The two countries in which the young al-Nimr spent his youth exposed him to drastically different worlds. Yet there were some similarities. In both, Mohammed witnessed first-hand how authoritarianism manifests itself, even when it appears in different ways.
Saudi Arabia is a theocratic absolute monarchy which has been ruled by a royal family for more than 80 years. Syria is a secular dictatorship which has been ruled by the Assad family for over five decades. In Syria, Mohammed explained, people were not discriminated against based on their religion, but they faced repression based on their politics. If you belonged to the ruling Ba'ath Party, you were treated better. If you criticized the government, you would risk facing backlash, even imprisonment.
In Saudi Arabia, religious minorities lived in fear. "They would humiliate people intentionally; they would treat them with disrespect," he recollected. In Syria, you had religious freedoms that were unimaginable in the Wahhabi Saudi regime, but you still lacked political freedoms.
Growing up in these environments helped shaped Mohammed's view of justice. "The tyrant is the same everywhere," Mohammed said. Dictators may differ in their rule, but they are still dictators.
And tyranny is not just limited to dictatorships, Mohammed added. He condemned the apartheid-like conditions Palestinians live under in Israel. "Whether the tyrant is in Saudi or Israel, it is still a tyrant," he explained. "They are thinking the same way; they are creating an ideology that serves them."
The young activist's sense of justice is rooted in an internationalism that seeks liberation for all peoples.
"There is no more value for one person than any other," Mohammed stressed. "Your life is not worth more than other lives."
Repression and imprisonment
Given the autocratic milieux in which he came of age, Mohammed remained apolitical throughout his early life. It was not until much later, in the past few years, that he began speaking out about politics. But first, a few uprisings would take place.
In 2006, the Saudi regime, incensed at Sheikh al-Nimr's activism, forced Mohammed's father to sign a pledge not to speak in public. He agreed to stop speaking, and instead started writing.
"If they don't want us to speak, we're gonna write" was his father's philosophy, Mohammed said.
Two years passed, and Sheikh al-Nimr held his tongue about the multitudinous injustices in the Wahhabi kingdom. In 2008, however, a series of violent incidents took place at al-Baqi, a cemetery in the important city of Medina, and a site of religious significance.
The Saudi monarchy's fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam opposes the preservation of many ancient religious sites, which it considers to be a form of idolatry. Like ISIS, Saudi Arabia has destroyed millennium-old heritage sites and artifacts; unlike ISIS, the close U.S. ally has replaced these sites with lavish Hilton hotels and gender-segregated shopping malls.
Shia graves at al-Baqi have been demolished by the Saudi regime, setting off further state-sanctioned sectarian tensions. In 2008, Mohammed recalled, Sunni extremists attacked Shia worshipers at the religious site, stabbing several.
After the attack, virtually no one was punished. Some Shia Saudis subsequently began protesting the impunity the regime effectively guarantees for sectarian violence. Sheikh al-Nimr broke his silence, and gave a public speech in 2008 harshly criticizing the monarchy.
In his speech, the senior al-Nimr raised the possibility that, if the Saudi regime did not treat its Shia citizens — many of whom live in the eastern part of the country — justly, there could be a possibility of secession. Saudi authorities took the statements of the sheikh, who always always preached nonviolence, out of context, and claimed he was calling for violent secession.
The regime clamped down harshly on Sheikh al-Nimr — and not just on him, but also on his family. In 2009, four months after his father's speech, 14 police cars showed up at Mohammed's house, armed to the teeth with Kalashnikovs. The young al-Nimr, who was not involved in politics in any way, and was guilty only of being the son of a political activist, was arrested.
Saudi Arabia's feared secret police, the Mabahith — a brutal force notorious for, in the words of Human Rights Watch, "a wide range of human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention and torture" — interrogated the 22-year-old, and threw him in prison.
After several months locked up, Mohammed was eventually released. He said the fear he felt during this time still haunts him.
Mohammed then decided to move to the U.S. to study mechanical engineering. In 2010, he began studies at Indiana University — Purdue University Indianapolis, where he remains today. Less than a year after he arrived, however, one of the biggest uprisings in Saudi history would take place.
From protests to executions
The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, often romanticized as the "shot heard around the world," has its parallel in the contemporary history of the Middle East: the December 2010 self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose tragic death prefaced a wave of protests that shook the Middle East as a whole.
Saudi Arabia was by no means immune to the 2011 uprisings. The draconian regime ultimately rests on an extremely repressive but precarious and feudal system — what one might refer to as a "paper tiger."
Thousands of Saudis, especially the youth and those from minority communities, flooded the streets in 2011. They had a variety of demands, including democratic reforms, the release of political prisoners and more.
Mohammed recalled how the regime targeted minority groups in its clampdown on the protests, arresting, for instance, prominent Shia Saudi figures, whom it accused of spying for Iran — the Saudi monarchy's nemesis.
"They are just creating a situation to oppress us more and more. And they know they can get away with it," Mohammed said.
The regime cracked down on the uprising. Sheikh al-Nimr remained somewhat silent; he was not yet speaking publicly, and was essentially still in hiding, after the 2008 suppression.
When the regime began arresting people at protests and getting more violent, Sheikh al-Nimr decided to speak up. He encouraged protesters to remain peaceful, "exposing the tricks that the government was trying to use to drive people to violence," Mohammed explained.
Saudi Arabia was by no means the only site of such protests. Eventually, the Saudi monarchy even sent a thousand troops into neighboring Bahrain, to quash the pro-democracy uprising there. The Saudi regime was "trying to crush the uprisings throughout the region," he said.
Sheikh al-Nimr was shot in the leg by Saudi authorities and arrested in July 2012. The senior al-Nimr was placed in solitary confinement, and Mohammed said the regime did not treat his father's wound property, "so he would suffer from his injury while in prison. That's the kind of torture they use."
Al-Nimr said he was tortured in prison, and went on hunger strike in protest of the horrible conditions.
After languishing in prison for more than two years, in October 2014, Mohammed's father was sentenced to death.
"It was painful news," Mohammed remembered. "You want to deny, you don't want to accept that it happened — but it's reality."
When his father was killed on Jan. 2, 2016, Mohammed and his family only heard about it from the media. The Saudi regime did not notify him.
Nor did the Saudi monarchy give Sheikh al-Nimr's body back to his family. Mohammed says this was a political decision, because there would have been an enormous funeral, one a size never before seen in the country, had his family been able to give him one.
The sheikh was renowned throughout the Middle East — popular among not just Shia, but also among Sunnis, and even among Christians, Druze and more — for his brave struggle against autocracy, and for his equally firm opposition to sectarianism.
Mohammed let no tears fall from his eyes, however. He seemed incredibly strong, resolute, determined to seek justice.
"As a family we are proud of what my father did," he said. "We cannot be more proud."
"My father called for freedom; he called for dignity; he called for justice for everyone," Mohammed added. "He stood for everyone."
The Saudi regime "spreads terrorism throughout the region," Mohammed emphasized.
His statement is corroborated by both the U.S. government and the European Union. A classified 2009 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks admitted that "donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide." A 2013 European Parliament report likewise acknowledged that "Saudi Arabia has been a major source of financing to rebel and terrorist organisations since the 1970s."
For decades, Mohammed noted, the Wahhabi Saudi monarchy has sent proselytizers throughout the world, spending tens of billions of dollars funding madrasas (Islamic schools), mosques and hospitals, in order to spread its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
This religious fundamentalism ultimately leads to violent sectarianism. Wahhabis begin to attack Shia Muslims, and even other Sunnis who disagree.
"The U.S. and U.K. know about all of this information — how oppressive they are against us, against the Bahrainis, their oppressive ideology," Mohammed said. "But the problem is money talks. The Saudis are buying parliaments, governors; they're buying them with money."
In the past several years, the U.S., U.K., France and other countries have done tens of billions of dollars of arms deals with the Saudi regime, which sits on the world's second-largest oil reserves, in the most oil-dense region of the planet.
“Wherever there is tyranny, there is sectarianism," Mohammed explained. "You can see sectarianism with Donald Trump, because he's a tyrant."
"They are spreading sectarianism among us," he added. "It's like cancer. If you wait, it spreads."
Today, Mohammed calls for people around to the world to stand up and resist tyranny. He urged Americans in particular "to work both inside and outside of the country," and to "stigmatize any politician who would support Saudi Arabia, and any country that terrorizes and uses lethal force against its own people."
He is devoting himself to informing Americans, and encouraging them to take political action. "The American people should be educated about this situation," Mohammed said.
"I'm just trying to make people aware of what is going on," he explained. "If they want a safer place for themselves, and for their family and children, they should act now."
Mohammed was also careful to mention the ongoing Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war in Yemen, a bloody and destructive bombing campaign that has dragged on for almost a year, one which he forcefully condemned.
Saudi Arabia is "the cause of the deaths of thousands of Yemeni civilians," he emphasized. "They already destroyed most of the hospitals, most of the schools, most of the infrastructure; they've bombed everything."
Meanwhile, the U.S., U.K. and France and profiting from selling the Saudi regime the weapons it uses to kill them, Mohammed noted.
He also insisted Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi "is a puppet for Saudi Arabia; it's so obvious. Which means he's also a puppet for the United States." When rebels in Yemen took over in March 2015, President Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia. "It was a puppet government," Mohammed said.
The war in Yemen, he stressed, is simply yet another egregious example of the extreme oppression the Saudi regime is carrying out.
Despite these enormous political obstacles and problems, nevertheless, Mohammed remains optimistic.
"There's a saying that says, 'As much as it gets narrow, at the end it's going to open,'" he said. "All of these problems are just revealing to the whole world what's going on. There are people who are starting to be aware and want to do something about that."
"Tyranny will fall," Mohammed added. "No matter what they do, no matter how much money they have, at the end the truth is going to prevail, because you have to have money to make people accept you as a tyrant, but you don't have to have money to show people the truth."