Bahrain: A New Sectarian Conflict?
by Joost Hiltermann
NYR Books (The New York Review of Books)
Until 2011, the tiny island nation of Bahrain was mainly known to the outside world for one thing: an annual Formula One car race, the first of its kind in the Middle East, that signified the country’s arrival among the community of stable advanced nations. But then came last spring’s popular uprising and brutal government crackdown, and a different side of this Gulf monarchy came to light: the longstanding grievances held by many Bahrainis, including above all members of the island’s Shia majority, against its Sunni ruling family, who in turn seem prepared to use force to hold onto power. The regime prevailed, and after inviting an investigation of human rights abuses last fall, it suggested it was bringing the country back to normal; this spring’s Grand Prix would show the world it had succeeded.
But as I discovered during a five-day visit shortly before the race, nothing could be further from the truth. Talking to dozens of people both in Manama and in smaller communities outside the capital, I was told again and again that the situation was becoming worse, not better: police forces have been using large quantities of tear gas against protesters, repeatedly causing deaths; police brutality had not ended but moved from police stations to alleyways and undeclared detention centers; young activists are increasingly resorting to Molotov cocktails, subverting the peaceful nature of the protests; and the government has not opened any dialogue with the opposition or offered hope for political reform. Protests occurred nightly in Shiite villages and neighborhoods during my stay, and a veritable battle of graffiti took place on the walls of shops and houses, with protesters writing slogans calling for the end of the regime, police erasing them with a quick coat of paint, and activists scribbling new ones seemingly before the paint had dried.
And so while the Grand Prix, Bahrain’s single prestige event, did take place in late April, it happened amid clouds of tear gas and wafts of smoke from firebombs, as well as an outcry over the death of a protester apparently as a result of shotgun pellets fired by riot police. On the day of the event, a political activist, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, was into his eleventh week of a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment on allegations of plotting to overthrow the state during last year’s protests. (As of this writing, the hunger strike is now in its ninetieth day.)
Part of what makes the current situation in Bahrain so disturbing is that the regime has succeeded in replacing the narrative of a peaceful movement for reform with an altogether different one: that the country’s majority Shia are intent on driving the Sunnis off the island and handing the country over to Iran. Although last year’s protests were led by predominantly Shia opposition groups, Bahrain’s urban populations have long been mixed and the uprising also drew Sunnis dissatisfied with how the country was run. But now, by mobilizing Sunnis against Shia protesters on the claim the latter are manipulated by a predatory Iran, the regime has made Shia-Sunni hostility the conflict’s overriding theme.
Consider the recent cases of Ali and Omar: two Bahraini boys, one a teenager, the other a pre-schooler. Ali, of course, is one of the more common Shia names while Omar is a common Sunni name. Their stories, much embellished in the retelling, have been wielded by each side in the conflict to attack the other side.
In March, the Bahraini Internet was full of Twitter comments about 4-year-old Omar, who was said to have been forced to kiss his (Shia) teacher’s feet simply because of his name. The historical Omar was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions and Islam’s second Caliph. To Shia, he was a usurper, who muscled aside Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, in the succession crisis that erupted following Muhammad’s death.
The teacher denied the accusation, but when it was leaked to the press that the school had launched an investigation (after a complaint lodged by Omar’s parents), the Ministry of Education became involved, and the matter, quickly amplified by social media, soon became a national controversy. The school was forced to suspend the teacher, and a picture of her husband and his daily route to work were circulated on Twitter in an attempt to intimidate the couple.
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