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Hayder is a Researcher at the Centre for Academic Shi’a Studies. He is also a postgraduate student at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS. You can follow him on Twitter @Hayder_alKhoei

Sectarianism and the conflict in Bahrain

As riot police and military troops close in on demonstrators in Pearl Roundabout today, using tanks and helicopters to suppress their people, the mass uprising in Bahrain says a lot about the country, its people, its leaders and its neighbours.

But the world must pay careful attention to what the people are actually saying. My attention was drawn to one protester caught on video known to me only by his first name. Amir is a protester who bravely confronts the Bahraini security forces, challenging them to meet him, to talk to him, so that he can prove to them that he is no pawn of any country, regardless of his religious beliefs. Amir flies in the face of the sectarian stereotype that many scholars, western politicians and regional powers try to force on the situation in Bahrain. As he walks towards the police, Amir shouts, “my mother is Sunni, my father is Shia… this is my country!”

Amir challenges the status quo that has made it very easy to deal with the tragedy that is unfolding in Bahrain, and elsewhere in the Middle East, by explaining it through sectarian lenses. We have heard it a hundred times before and we will hear about it more as the bodies of victims pile up and the GCC Peninsula Shield forceshelp the Bahraini security forces suppress the uprising.

Bahrain has a majority Shia population that is run by a Sunni minority and this of course is not unique in the Middle East. For centuries Iraq was run by a Sunni minority. Any student of history who has been paying attention to the news for the last decade, would understand the tragic consequences of this anomaly.

In Iraq, however, it was not as simple as the Sunni vs Shia black and white narrative that has deceived many of us over the years. The truth is that many Shia were actively involved in the Ba’ath Party, forming the vast majority of the leadership during its early years. Even more crucially, the Sunnis, too, were oppressed in Iraq. The reason why the elite in Iraq was comprised mainly of Sunnis owes more to Saddam’s obsession with trust and security than any sectarian agenda. Saddam surrounded himself with members of his own tribe, and his inner circle with members of his own clan, because it was politically expedient to do so. The state was built on fear and cruelty, not sectarian confessionalism.

The mass media, and the politicians who went to war, have done Iraq a great disservice by making constant reference to the overt sectarian identity of the oppressor and the oppressed. It must not make this same mistake with Bahrain. As was the case with Iraq, the issue revolves around human rights, political freedom, justice, equality, and democracy. Of course it is futile to deny that the majority of protesters in Bahrain are Shia, or that those who are suppressing them are mainly Sunni, but Amir stands against everything that is going wrong with the way this crisis is being portrayed by the media, and especially the Arab media, spearheaded by Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.

Western governments must pressure Saudi Arabia to immediately withdraw its troops from Bahrain and help diffuse, not compound, a volatile situation. Saudi Arabia constantly complains about the Iranian support of political parties in Iraq, and the funding it provides to various militias, yet it sees absolutely no problem with sending 1,000 troops across the border to Bahrain. The move sends a strong signal to dissidents within the Saudi kingdom; if Saudi forces are willing to cross borders to quell uprisings, they will have no problem dealing with unrest on their own soil.

The sectarian identity of the oppressor and the oppressed should make absolutely no difference to the way human rights abuses are perceived, and dealt with, but unfortunately, and tragically, it does. Libyans, Bahrainis, Iraqis, Iranians, Saudis, and before them, Tunisians and Egyptians, all want the same thing. They all want to live as dignified human beings who have a voice.

Meanwhile, people should ask themselves – why does Iran, a Shia state, support Hamas, a Sunni entity, whilst Saudi Arabia does not?  Sectarianism is an element that is a reality on the ground, and plays a role in the wider Saudi-Iranian proxy war that is being fought across the Middle East. But it is only a part of the story, and to pretend otherwise can only exacerbate the problem.

Originally published in openDemocracy.

5 Comments on “Sectarianism and the conflict in Bahrain”

  1. Tuga March 18, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    Well said.

    It is important that people take this in to account when declaring their support for the protestors in Bahrain. Big pro-Shia statements and drawing comparisons to Kerbala, which I have seen come up in forums and social networks (not exactly the heart of the policy arena I realise, but still important in shaping people’s perceptions) are only going to aggravate the fears of everyone else in the region. Just as people fought for their rights in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, the supressed population in Bahrain are fighting for theirs. It is important we recognise that this is a human rights issue above all else, otherwise we will be playing into the hands of the likes of Saudi Arabia, by reducing this to nothing more than a sectarian struggle over power.

  2. LionOfBabylone March 20, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    Thank you for this post.

    As you said Bahrain’s issue as well as it was Iraq’s issue is simply about democracy: The majority in Bahrain does not have a voice (in Iraq the majority as well as many minorities didn’t).

    The Saudi as well as the Iranian intervention hurts one thing and nothing else: Bahrain’s cause of demanding for freedom and rights. And by Bahrain I mean the Sunnis and the Shiites there.

    It is strange how the world allows Saudi Arabia and Iran to resolve their “issues” in Bahrain who have seized the opportunity given that the world is busy with Libya.

    In my opinion the same thing was happening in Iraq. America was letting others intervene and resolve their problems in Iraq until a kind of equilibrium was achieved that made everybody satisfied at some degree.

    All that on the expense of the Iraqi people.

  3. Hayder al-Khoei March 23, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    I agree Tuga, although for them it is the prime example of standing up to justice, and there is no reason to believe they have any other intention when they bring it up, the others do not see it that way.

    p.s Lion, the Bahrainis have failed to produce any evidence that Iran has been funding any of the parties in Bahrain since at least the mid-90s. The US has consistently asked them to do so and the government of Bahrain has consistently failed to bring anything credible to the table.

    My view is that Iran will fight its enemies to the last Iraqi, Lebanese and Palestinian man, women and child. When they use proxies, lives become cheaper and its easier to fight, but not even the US believes Iran is behind the protests in Bahrain.

  4. Ali April 5, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    Hayder, great post. The problem in Bahrain is fundamentally a human rights issue, and the fact the majority of the protesters are Shia in a Shia majority country is of little consequence. We should all support the Bahrainis in seeking their full rights, and we should leave the sectarian nonsense out of it.

  5. MN April 17, 2011 at 1:14 am #

    We can’t leave ”the sectarian issue out of it” when they’re now arresting Bahraini people according to their shia names or shia towns they were born in according to their IDs makes it very much a sectarian issue, whtether we like it or not.

    Yes it is a human rights issue, but there are reasons behind it, ever since Bahrainis been oppressed from decades, wasnt it because they are shia? isnt the Bahraini goverment been giving bahraini nationality to non bahrainis to increase the number of sunnis compared to the shia majority so its no longer a majority?

    This is just like saying ignore that black people were oppressed because they were black. we can’t keep denying this fact, or if we pretend its not sectarian,doesnt make it go away. the bitter reality is that it is very much a sectarian issue in Bahrain. come one this is the wahabis dream come true! shoot hussaini matam, shout out when beating people ”where is khomeini and sistani now to help you!” they’ve been dreaming for such a chance to crush shias freely like that ever since wahabism existed.

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