Shia Unrest in Bahrain is Not Only About Sectarianism

Shia Unrest in Bahrain is Not Only About Sectarianism

Shia Unrest in Bahrain is Not Only About Sectarianism


4 min read

Mubaraz Ahmed Analyst, Co-Existence

Posted on: 20th January 2017

Six years on from the uprisings that brought carnage to Bahrain, the execution this week of three Shia men for the killing of three police officers in 2014 brought protestors onto the streets of the Gulf nation once again, with the risk of even greater violence. 

In response, a Shia cleric announced a “new phase” of armed resistance against the royal family, calling on his followers to seek “martyrdom.”

Executions had not previously been carried out in Bahrain since 2010, while the last time a Bahraini national faced the death penalty was over two decades ago.

There are conflicting narratives about the events that led to the executions of Abbas al-Samea, Sami Mushaima, and Ali al-Singace. Bahrain insists the men were found guilty of their crimes based on witness testimonies and forensic reports, while critics allege that verdicts came on the back of sham cases and confessions under torture.

In the minds of most commentators, the episode is down to sectarianism. This old cliché response to conflict in the Middle East is the epitome of lazy analysis and reflects an acute lack of awareness about religion in the region.

Undoubtedly many banners and slogans raised in the protests will evoke images connected to Shia Islam, but to suggest that these hostilities are borne out of a dispute over religious leadership some fourteen centuries ago is preposterous. 

Instead, this is a modern dispute in which regional superpowers are pursuing their geopolitical interests under the cover of religion. The brinkmanship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has reached new heights since 2011, with conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and territories beyond the confines of the Middle East carrying the effects of their rivalry.                                                        

Immediately following the news of the executions, a foreign ministry spokesman in Iran told reporters, rather threateningly, that “the Bahraini government will see the consequences of extremist actions and behaviours by following this path.” A statement from the Iran-backed Lebanese terror group Hizbullah read, “This execution will topple any opportunity to reach a political solution to the crisis in Bahrain.”

But with most headlines focusing on the religious identities of the executed men, it seems relevant to ask whether Bahrain is actually anti-Shia?

But with most headlines focusing on the religious identities of the executed men, it seems relevant to ask whether Bahrain is actually anti-Shia?

The Bahraini authorities have certainly engaged with political unrest since 2011 with some heavy-handed tactics, with a number of watchdogs raising human rights concerns. The Bahraini government itself acknowledged this with a commitment to reforms following an Independent Commission of Inquiry. 

But it is important to distinguish between politically and religiously motivated acts. While both are unfortunate, focusing on a religious element risks exacerbating the situation, not only in Bahrain, but throughout the Middle East.

In reality, the Bahraini government recognises the fact that it has a large Shia population and that it has a responsibility to act in manner which is conducive to allowing its citizens to practice their religion freely.

Bahrain’s religious makeup is among the most vibrant and diverse in the Gulf. The tiny island, with a population of around 1.3 million, boasts over a dozen churches, two temples, and even a synagogue to cater to the religious minorities that constitute 30 per cent of its total population.

For Shia Muslims, the government has a Waqf, or religious endowment, focused on providing for their needs, including the building of mosques, just as it does for its Sunni population. There is no restriction on Bahrain’s Shia citizens, or any other religious group, from practicing their faith, participating in elections, or receiving government benefits.  

In the 2006 general election, the Shia opposition won some 40 percent of the vote, while a Shia Muslim, Jawad bin Salem al-Arrayed, was named as one of the country’s deputy prime ministers. In the 2010 election, several months before the political unrest began in Bahrain, the Shia Islamist party, al-Wefaq, came out with 18 of the 40 seats available in the lower house. 

The government’s crackdown since 2011 has not been motivated by the religion of the protestors, but by concerns over their allegiances. With clerics such as Issa Qassim, or al-Wefaq leader Ali Salman, closely linked to the clerical establishment in Tehran, Bahrain’s concern is that its national security interests are being undermined by the agents of a hostile power. 

Whether through Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the top brass from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or the leader of Hizbullah, the guardians of Iran’s revolutionary and expansionist Wilayat-e-Faqih model have consistently meddled in Bahrain’s affairs. Key allies of Iran’s supreme leader have even referred to Bahrain as Iran’s “fourteenth province.”

It is safe to say that not all Shia Muslims – in Iran, Bahrain, or across the world – support this model. While it borrows heavily from Shia tradition, it is a truly modern phenomenon, one with political power at its heart. Since the nuclear deal of 2015, Iran has been bolder and braver in its commitment to exporting this ideology, in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Bahrain’s government is determined to prevent this at home, particularly when terrorist groups have been found to have links either to Iran itself or to its proxy Hizbullah.

Ignoring this context in order to perpetuate an assertion of sectarianism risks fuelling the tension, and even creating the very thing that is condemned. Attributing the Bahraini government’s actions to ‘anti-Shia’ tendencies absolves external actors working to destabilise the country of responsibility. Moreover, it provides ammunition to the very extremists who depend on painting the world as black and white.

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