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Sectarianism and conflict in Bahrain

The media and politicians have done Iraq a great disservice by highlighting the overt sectarian identity of the oppressor and the oppressed. It must not make this same mistake with 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 forces help 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. 

About the author

Hayder al-Khoei is a researcher at the London-based Centre for Academic Shi'a Studies. He is also a research fellow at Forward Thinking, a contributing writer at the British Iraqi Forum and maintains his own blog  


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