Radicalism, Reform and Migration: The transformations of Shaykh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr

By Robert J. Riggs
Submitted to Session P4841 (Social, Political, and Ideological Activism in the Shi'i World, 2017 Annual Meeting
Saudi Arabia;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper posits that the late Shi‘i clerical activist Shaykh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr of Saudi Arabia represented a culmination of the nexus of regional political competitions, transnational religious knowledge networks, inter-generational tensions in contemporary Shi‘ism, and radical post-revolutionary Shi‘i politics. As both a receptor of these trends and an innovator, Nimr underwent significant transformations in his ideology and activities that ultimately culminated in his 2 January 2016 execution by the Saudi authorities. He spent earlier periods of his life on educational migrations to Iran and Syria, grappling with changing theories on the roles of religious leadership within political regimes and how that connected with International Human Rights principles. In doing so, Nimr located himself within the ever-changing Shi‘i religious and educational pilgrimage networks that triangulate between Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf states. Returning to his homeland in eastern Saudi Arabia, his influence grew in proportion to his advocacy for greater religious freedoms for his Shi‘i compatriots. Nimr underwent a complex process of sectarian identity formation, which played a significant role in a widening gap between himself, his Sunni compatriots, and even different constituencies within the Shi‘i community in Saudi’s Eastern Province. Thus, a more rigorous examination of his life holds relevance as a corrective to monolithic historiographies of the Saudi Shi‘a as a united community. Applying social movement theory and framing him within the processes of Globalization shows the complex intersection of religion and politics within a marginalized religio-political community. In doing so, this paper constructs a more complete picture of a community experiencing internal and external dynamic processes of evolution and conflict. The paper uses primary source material from the speeches and writings of Nimr and secondary literature drawn from the growing body of work by scholars such as Corboz, Matthiesen, and Louer on contemporary Shi‘i socio-political movements and religious authority in the Arab world post-1979 and theoretical literature on social movements and globalization.