Since the crusades in the Middle Ages, religious disputes rarely had such a massive impact on politics up until recently. Nowadays, they appear to have returned themselves a status of a highly popular topic for academic, media, and political discussions in the context of the continuous Middle East tensions in the form of a general concept of ‘sectarianism.’ Among other definitions, the term usually refers to the clashes and hatred between various confessions within a single religion.
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The events of the Arab Spring seem to have further escalated the unrest in the hearts and minds of Islamic people causing them to turn against their coreligionists. Disturbances have echoed through the Arab world bringing changes and leaving unresolved issues that still tear apart GCC countries and, especially, Bahrain. The dramatic events in the latter, which have changed the political and social agenda in the Gulf, have become the topic of the present study. It is going to prove the idea that the outbursts of violence there were mostly fueled by the Al Khalifa government, who demonized the image of the Shia community in Bahrain, using the effect to strengthen its position of power and divert citizens’ attention from fighting for their political and social freedoms. In addition, the paper will try to disprove the notion of Bahraini Shias attempting to hurl the country into chaos under the guidance of Iran, which is a common belief in the GCC. The look into the history of sectarianism in Bahrain may help to understand that the two denominations used to live peacefully under one roof and that it might be still possible.
The causes and outcomes of the key events in the world of Arab politics are covered in many aspects and by many researchers. However, there is a slight lack of focus on the government’s role in turning the country into a sectarian state and methods, which they seem to have used to draw the attention of the masses away from fighting for human rights. The current paper will try to fill that gap.
The Rebellion for Human Rights and Democracy
The tragic events of 2011 that claimed the lives of dozens of protesters in action and severed thousands more after that, bear the mark of long-tolerated suffering from all forms of human rights violation and underrepresentation. The state media seems to have distorted claims of justice, equality, and political freedom. What is now widely believed to be an Iran-backed Shia attempt to overthrow the legitimate government of Bahrain appears to be merely a desperate effort of Bahraini citizens to announce their ideas to the authorities. Nowadays, the streets of Bahrain, as well as the Internet, seem to be full of distrust, mutual accusations, and hatred, which may be convenient to the rulers: as long as their alleged enemies are divided, the power stays in their hands. However, before that, there appeared to be room for cooperation, as all Bahraini citizens alike share the problems of the state.
No Sunni no Shia, just Bahraini
This is one of the slogans that protesters had during their marches. The idea behind it has more than sentiments behind it. Back in the 1950-the 70s, according to Matthiesen (2013), Sunni and Shia fought alongside each other in the opposition forces for a noble cause to liberate Arabia and the GCC from colonial influence. Furthermore, during the uprising in the 1990s, two denominations also stood together demanding democratic freedoms.
Regarding social matters, Sunni and Shia also seem to find common ground. Kinninmont (2012) suggests that the marriages between Sunni and Shia, sometimes opposed by clerics, were not uncommon. The overcrowdedness of the country and associated availability of municipal services like hospitals, schools, and kindergartens is much likely to affect the whole population, not just the politically oppressed Shia. In the situation of overall scarcity of land and housing in the country with thousands of Bahraini families on the waiting list, the corruption in the sphere of real estate appears to be a pain sensed deeply by all citizens. The low-wage Asian labor force, which is extensively used in the private industry, seems to be depriving both Sunni and Shia of the jobs (Kinninmont, 2012).
The hardships of living appear to unite the two denominations in claims to the government to address the big problems as the Sunni were also present at the Pearl Roundabout. Moreover, a well-known Sunni opposition activist, Ibrahim Sharif, worked together with the Shia cleric and leader of Al-Wefaq during the events of February 2011 (Kinninmont, 2012). The exact numbers of Sunni protesters, however, are hard to assess due to the peculiarities of the movement itself underlining the unity of Bahraini people regardless of the denomination. Given such a history of shared views on domestic issues, it may be safe to assume that Bahraini Sunni and Shia were and still can coexist despite the religious differences in the absence of political propaganda.
Bahrain Politics before the Sectarian Era
Before 2011, the royal family appeared to use mostly non-sectarian measures to address the problems stated above. Ever since the British exodus, Al-Khalifa felt vulnerable to both external and internal threats (Colombo, 2012). Independence and the first constitution gave Bahrain a parliament, which, after bringing up unwanted questions, was dissolved by Emir. That decision seems to have led to 40 years of unrest, instability, and oppression. However, the rising cost of oil appeared to give the country a few years of economic growth and prosperity, which contributed to the political tranquility in Bahrain.
When the internal matters became pressing again in the 1990s, the solution was found by a new emir, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. He offered various reforms and restoration of the parliament as well as amnesty for the arrested. Except for the amnesty, the actions seem to have failed to satisfy the citizens because the parliament had no actual power and the reforms were rolled back. Both Wimmen (2014) and Kinninmont (2012) argue that the royal family preferred to have allies on both sides, rejecting the idea of sectarianism as a measure to remain in control, as it would provoke chaos.
The parliamentary elections in autumn 2010 were followed by the arrests of political activists, which, among other causes, may have triggered the protests of 2011. As summarized by Wimmen (2014), the history of Al Khalifa’s attempts to retain the power before the Arab Spring was a constant game of half-measures, false offerings, and violent suppression, which always gave temporary effect and had to be repeated. Despite the hypothesis that some government actions may be called discriminative towards one sect, they do not appear to turn the Sunni against the Shia, who seems to be the driving force of most of the uprisings. The reason for that may be that the claims of the protesters were mostly related to the issues of underrepresentation and oppression of the latter giving no suspicion of uniting Bahrain against the rulers.
Protests For not Against
The primary reasons for protests do not appear to be sectarian-led. The demands of the Shia protesters have almost always been aimed at the democratization of the Bahrain government and restoration of human rights. The Shia, although being the majority of the population in the country, seem to suffer from deprivations in many spheres of life starting from job denial to constant accusations from the government of treason and representation of Iran’s interests.
The historical demand for parliament reinstatement appears to represent the need for the mechanisms of voicing their interests and defending their rights. Economic and social oppression raises the question of equal job opportunities and the availability of municipal services. The alleged involvement of Iran in stirring up Shia protests trying to implicate them in the attempt to overthrow the Sunni rulers are disproved by the Shia themselves. Their rhetoric is primarily nationalist, and they seem to value their Arabic roots more than theosophical ties with the Iranian clerics (Kinninmont, 2012). The events of February 2011 appear to be different from the protests that the Shia usually organized. This time, the agenda seemed to be emphatically national with the demands voicing the issues concerning all citizens of Bahrain. The demonstration was supposed to be strictly peaceful with a symbolic place choice – the Pearl Square, which is the neutral ground for both sects (Wimmen, 2014). The aftermath of the events has made it clear for the Shia audience on the Internet that King Hamad cannot be trusted anymore, as the phrase “down with Hamad” started occurring more frequently (Al-Rawi, 2015).
From Human Rights to Sectarianism
By aggravating tensions between the people of Bahrain, Al-Khalifa ensured their rule to be unchallenged by the united front. The divide and Rule strategy has proven itself one of the most effective policies in the history of conflicts. Although, its implementation may not be called gradual, as the measures of the ruling family aimed at the suppression of the discontent with their policy have been mostly reactive. With each subsequent series of protests and demands for equal rights together with political representation, the government’s fear of revolution was growing stronger. Punitive measures began after the revolution in Iran in 1979 and the subsequent coup attempt in 1981 when Al Khalifa started pressuring Shia people denying them defense-related jobs and political freedoms. That appears to have led to further grievances among the oppressed, adding economic issues to their protesting agenda.
Learning from the experience of other countries swept by the Arab Spring, where police refused to attack the protesters, the Bahrain regime decided to replace the Shia staff in the defense-related and law-enforcement agencies with more loyal employees (Strobl, 2011). According to the data collected by Louër (2013), the ruling family started to fill the Bahraini police and army with pro-monarchy immigrants of Syrian and Pakistani origin. That became known for a fact due to the ID cards, torn from the clothes of the police officers, participating in dispersing the protests (Louër, 2013).
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One of the first conflicts in the ranks of protesters happened after the reinstatement of the parliament. After King Hamad has reassured his position of power, he reduced its authority to the minimum, which caused the split among the opposition. The radicalized groups boycotted such parliament, while the moderate ones preferred to have as much representation as possible (Wimmen, 2014). It may be argued that it was the split that Al Khalifa hoped to achieve undermining the powers of opposition as limited as they already are. After the protests of 2011 were led promoting the idea of national unity, Al-Khalifa definitively turned towards sectarianism as a final measure to remain powerful. Kinninmont (2012) states that after the events of the Arab Spring the regime started targeting the Shia’s holy places, destroying about 30 of their mosques throughout Bahrain, which brought them enormous suffering and caused new outbreaks of sectarian violence.
The Bahraini Shia Arrests in Connection with the Protests
After the police and later the army have dispersed the protests, there was a period of continuous arrests of real and alleged leaders of the protests and their associates accompanied by tortures. Among the arrested were popular political and human rights activists, namely: Abdulwahab Hussain, the representative of Al Wafa’ Islamic Movement, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, well-known human rights activist, Ibrahim Sharif, General Secretary of Al Wafa’, Abduljalil Al-Singace, popular blogger and human rights activist, and many others. According to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), many of these arrests were accompanied by the excessive use of force. Apart from that, the repressions continued in the Shia neighborhoods with villagers reporting numerous arrests for assumed participation in demonstrations and beatings instigated by the police forces (Kinninmont, 2012). The report issued by the BICI confirmed these claims documenting many cases of violence, power abuse, and unfair trials (Matthiesen, 2013).
The Shia Workers Excluded from Bahrain Economy
Along with political underrepresentation and human rights violation, the Shia seemed to face economic oppression being dismissed from their jobs and denied employment in certain spheres. Presumably instigated by the fear of the revolutionary frames among the Shia coming from the events in Iran, the government initiated the purges in its ranks. Thousands of people have lost their jobs in state ministries and the force. According to the data presented in the research by Strobl (2011), only 3 of 112 surveyed police officers were Shia.
Above that, before the parliamentary elections in 2006, political parties, journalists, and activists claimed that the newly-naturalized Sunni Asians and Arabs were given jobs in the force and elsewhere in the private sector. By their estimates, the number of naturalized immigrants amounted to over 60.000 (Strobl, 2011). Given the traditional working-class culture in Bahrain, the foreign labor force was preferred in almost every sphere as they were eager to work for lower wages. After the events of 2011, there was another wave of dismissals under the suspected participation in demonstrations. Despite the claims of the state media about restitution of the falsely accused Shia, the positions they were reinstated in were less paid (Kinninmont, 2012). University students also suffered their share of misfortunes, as they had also been brought into custody and tried with their scholarships recalled. According to official sources, the innocent were returned these scholarships, but the payments have dwindled significantly, and the grades given by the instructors became lower (Kinninmont, 2012). As a result of such actions, many professionals, presumably, would have to find work elsewhere abroad ushering the skilled workforce exodus undermining the country’s economy.
Pro-government Politicians and Officials Fueling the Sectarian Tensions
To divide their opponents, the royal family also used verbal instruments. When it became evident that half-measures like the promises they did not intend to keep and the image of democracy they tried to uphold do not give the desired effect, the government switched to the policies they rejected as counter-productive. In 2006, Dr. Salah Al-Bandar, the former advisor to the royal family, published the documents describing secret agencies tasked with spreading sectarian ideas through the official media. The fact that Al Khalifa did not properly disprove them, made many believe in their authenticity (Kinninmont, 2012).
In the interview with Spiegel in 2012, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the Prime Minister of Bahrain, in response to a question about the opposition protesters calls them a “terrorist group” (Mekhennet, 2012, para. 2). He claims that the opposition Shia cleric leader Isa Qassim is “taking direct orders from Iran” and “is responsible for everything that is going on in this country” (Mekhennet, 2012, para. 3). When the interviewer asks about the Shiite majority claiming more rights, he responds with “…they put this nation in jeopardy” (Mekhennet, 2012, para. 4). Such rhetoric seems to be a clear sign of sectarianism. Demonizing Shia, who constitute the majority in the country, and blaming them for all the violence that happens throughout Bahrain, would most likely cause Sunni negativity dividing the opposition and diverting attention from the struggle for human rights.
Furthermore, Deputy Head of Bahrain’s Public Security, Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Khalifa heavily insulted Shia citizens through his social media account, calling them, among other things, “polytheist bastards and worshippers of graves” (Bahrain Mirror, 2016, para. 1). This is not an isolated occurrence as the other members of the royal family also allow themselves such statements. In 2014, Dr. Lualua Al Khalifa in a local Bahraini newspaper spoke ill of the Shia community, referring to them as “a bunch that sells Bahrain for dirhams and dinars” (Bahrain Mirror, 2016, para. 2). Finally, Mohammad Al Khalifa, a member of the royal family, also showed an example of unsettling behavior. He fired a gun multiple times at the unarmed protesters from his car shouting, “Come here you sons of pleasure,” which is a serious insult in the Arabic language (Bahrain Mirror, 2016, para. 10). The incident was also documented on video.
Al-Khalifa has the full support of The Gathering of National Unity (GNU), which represents a movement of Sunni politicians. King Hamad personally commended their efforts in criticizing the opposition and organizing public meetings accusing Shia protesters and their leaders of destabilizing the country (Kinninmont, 2012). All these actions and words seem to lead only to continuous mutual violence and hatred preventing peaceful dialog and finding consensus.
Alternative Views on the Reasons of the Protests
On the other hand, there are some supporters of the theory that the Shia protesters may have other motives than equal rights and political representation. For objectivity, it would be reasonable to discuss them. A few researchers claim that due to the weakness of Al-Khalifa’s position as a Sunni ruling family with the majority of the population being the Shia, neighboring states might want to take advantage of that. For example, Mikail (2014) is supporting the notion that Al Khalifa has a reason to believe that Iran and its revolution-minded Shia leaders pose a threat to the GCC monarchies and their reaction to protesters is logical. Moreover, Warnaar, Zaccara, and Aarts (2016) argue that the rivalry between The Gulf countries and Iran has intensified and, given the territorial claims of Iran to Bahrain, the fears of Al Khalifa may be deemed justifiable. Finally, their religious closeness with Iran should not be ruled out as a factor speaking for the two Shia communities’ alleged connection regarding the protests.
Nevertheless, the allegations of Iran fueling the Shia majority to overthrow the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain seem to have little ground beneath it. Firstly, most of the Shia in Bahrain are Arabian and speak Arabic while Iranians are Persian and speak Farsi, which presupposes some cultural differences. Secondly, the opposition often talks of the group of the indigenous Arabian Shia, who inhabited these lands before the rule of Al Khalifa reacting harshly to the claims of their Iranian legacy. Iranian MP once stated that Bahraini Shia would prefer the Iranian government to their own and received a proposition from Al-Wefaq representative to read some history books before making such claims (Kinninmont, 2012). This incident speaks even further to the neutral or sometimes tense relationships between the Iranian and Bahraini Shia. As to the religious ties, Kinninmont (2012) suggests that Iranian wilayat-e-faqih (rule of the jurists) is inorganic to the Shia community in Bahrain.
Alternative Views on the Sectarian Conflict Instigators
The question of who started and escalated the conflict has more than one answer. According to Wimmen (2014), despite the positioning of the Pearl Roundabout demonstration as a peaceful meeting, the rebels attacked police forces with Molotov cocktails and even pipe bombs, which may contradict the idea of a nonviolent protest. Additionally, the voiced-out proposition to free the arrested politicians were accepted negatively by the crowd. Since there were Sunni politicians in custody too, this might have affected the image of the protesters as claiming rights only for Shia. Moreover, there were documented cases of violence both during the protest and after it. The barbaric means of rebelling and refusing proposals for dialogue, in turn, provoke police to use force, which may continue the vicious circle of atrocities denying the Shia opposition national support.
Although the use of violence generally may not be justified, sometimes it is the only way to defend freedom. There is a strong belief among researchers that protesters started using force only after their peaceful demonstration was repeatedly dispersed with rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons. After the first police assault on 14 February, there was one dead protester record (Al-Rawi, 2015). According to the data from the BICI report, in the events of February and March, there were 19 civilians killed by the police and three police officers killed by protesters. That may indicate that it was not the opposition who used the force first and, judging from the death toll, they did not have the means to mount a resistance, as there were mostly unarmed civil citizens present.
As to the turning down proposals from the government and the Prince personally, the reasons for doing so may be justified. The age of oppression, false promises, and half-measures continued for 30 years before and continues still, which may explain the lack of trust in the monarchy. The use of bombs and Molotov’s can understandably be judged, but after the police have beaten to death and tortured many people without being punished by the law even after the official investigation was carried out, some hot-tempered individuals would want to settle the score.
The evidence examined in the present paper gives a strong reason to believe that it was the government that instrumentalized the sectarian conflict in Bahrain. The fact that they demonized the Shia, accusing them of all the problems in the country, denied them employment and political representation on an allegation of treason, and connections to Iran might have antagonized them into protests. These protests were violently suppressed by mostly Sunni, immigrant police, and the GCC forces causing the deaths of many civilians unanswered even after the investigation. Mass arrests and tortures of real and alleged opposition leaders accompanied by sectarian insults from the Royal family, their loyal Sunni politicians, and media only added to the grievances of the Shia people. That, presumably, led to the emergence of harsh response advocates who fought back with the means they had because they saw no other way. The latter left the Shia hated and feared by the Sunni population with no means to claim national support, thus ensuring the firm rule of the Al Khalifa family.
The sectarian conflict that appears to have been instigated by the government ruins the country plunging it into chaos, which continues to claim lives and cause misfortunes to the present day. Moreover, it seems to discredit the Bahraini Shia turning their legitimate demands for protection of their human rights, fair employment, and means to influence the fate of their country. According to the facts presented in this study, it may be suggested that Al Khalifa made everything in their powers to turn the peaceful movement for better life conditions into sectarian conflict while trying to present themselves to the GCC and the world as wise and righteous leaders. However, the rulers destroying the country from inside should not be considered wise and righteous.
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