First was the execution of Shaykh al-Nimr. Then, there was shock. Then anger.
While much of the world was still hungover from holiday spirit, the Saudi regime took a man whose lean frame and piercing gaze symbolised the stoic determination of its oppressed Shi’a minority, and they butchered him in cold blood.
Anger was the predictable reaction. It was also probably the reaction the Saudis intended, as they have long thrived on exacerbating sectarian tensions throughout the Muslim world. The looting of their embassy in Tehran must have felt like a late Christmas gift for the faltering monarchy; not only was it precisely the kind of knee-jerk response they had wanted to provoke, but it served to undermine everything Shaykh al-Nimr had worked for. I cannot think of a less fitting tribute to the life of a scholar who advocated resisting the brute force of the Saudi regime through protest than ransacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran with cries of “Ya Zahra!” and “Ya Zainab!” (And what an affront it is that their names should be associated with such behaviour).
But the attack on the embassy in Tehran is merely an extreme case of a much more widespread problem. In situations like this, the visceral imperative to take action and “do something” can be so strong that it overrides all other considerations – including whether or not “something” is actually helpful (recall last year, when the image of a child’s body washed-up on a beach in Turkey meant that everyone rushed to Calais with vans full of supplies).
More than that, when we are confronted by the cruelty of a brutal and despotic regime, it is easy to feel that there is nothing we cannot do and no red lines we cannot cross. Our righteous indignation knows no bounds: Nothing is Sacred and there are no holds barred. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Standing with the oppressed is a moral duty. It is something we do for the sake of God. This duty is Sacred. Therefore, when we stand with the oppressed we must do it in a way that is pleasing to God rather than to our own egos. There is no point in railing against tyranny if we adopt the morals of a tyrant.
Consider that it was Mu’awiya who instituted the slander of Imam ‘Ali (as) from the pulpits of Damascus, while it was Imam ‘Ali (as) who told his soldiers when he heard them reviling Mu’awiya’s soldiers at the battle of Siffin: ‘I dislike that you abuse them. A better form of speech and more effective method of disputation would be to describe their actions and mention their states…’ In other words, the injustices perpetrated by the tyrants are themselves already the most eloquent denunciation of them. There is no need for us to lower ourselves by reviling them with foul language; we need only call attention to their crimes.
If there is anything Shaykh al-Nimr taught us through his life it is that in all things, and in times of crisis most of all, it is essential that we are led by intellect rather than raw emotion. It is when we allow our emotions to govern our behaviour – when we act first and think later – that we risk undertaking unwise or counter-productive actions. More than that, it leaves us vulnerable to being manipulated and led astray by empty slogans and mob-mentality. Allah admonishes us in the Qur’an: ‘ill-feeling for a people should never lead you to be unjust.’ (Q5:8) Our emotions, our anger, and our righteous indignation at injustice must ever be channelled and guided by the light of reason into effective and above-all moral responses, or else we risk ourselves becoming like those whom we rail against.