Bahrain’s Shiite-Sunni Apartheid 

The country’s Shiite majority has for generations been treated as an oppressed minority. 

By: Hilal Khashan

Like many other countries of the Middle East, Bahrain has been repeatedly conquered by foreign invaders, including the Abbasids, Jarwinids, Omanis, Persians and Portuguese. In 1783, a tribal confederation backed by a Kuwaiti naval force and Bedouins from Qatar’s Zubara invaded Bahrain and established the rule of the House of Khalifa. 

But their uninterrupted political control, beginning with the first monarch Ahmad bin Mohammad al-Khalifa, paved a path of hardship for the country’s Shiite majority. 

Treated as a renegade sect and group of outside eccentrics, Bahrain’s Shiites have been systematically oppressed by the country’s ruling elite for generations

Deep-Seated Inequality

Bahrain’s indigenous Shiites, referred to as Baharina, are hard-working people who do not shy away from manual labor. They work in the agriculture, manufacturing and services sectors. (Until the industry collapsed in the late 1930s, pearl fishing was also common.) 

For centuries, Bahrain was a commercial hub in the Persian Gulf and a station from which trade was conducted with Southeast Asia and the Far East. Its exposure to the outside world made its people tolerant of diversity. But despite their productivity and worldliness, they continued to live under poor conditions, oppressed by Sunni rulers and receiving little help from the British, despite Bahrain becoming a British protectorate in the late 19th century.

In the early 20th century, British diplomat John Gordon Lorimer described the situation of Bahrain’s Shiites as “little better than landless serfs.” In 1921, 50 Shiite public figures presented a petition to another British diplomat, Stuart George Knox, demanding the implementation of measures to mitigate discrimination against the Shiites. 

But Knox opposed meddling in Bahrain’s sectarian affairs and showed little sympathy for the Shiites’ plight. In 1923, he told them not to “expect equality with the Sunnis at all.”

Distribution of Shiite and Sunni Muslims
(click to enlarge)

In 1953, after Bahraini forces attacked Shiites participating in an annual religious procession that Sunnis oppose, Shiites began to revolt. The turmoil paved the way for the establishment of the Higher Executive Committee, an organization consisting of Sunnis and Shiites that was encouraged by the pan-Arab movement and demanded the formation of a parliament, labor unions and a supreme court. But authorities took advantage of the 1956 Suez War and anti-British demonstrations to clamp down on the group.

In 1968, Britain announced its decision to pull out from the east of Suez by the end of 1971. Bahrain’s fate would be put to a vote in a referendum over whether residents preferred independence or annexation by Iran, which had its own claims over the country. Sheikh Isa bin Salman Khalifa visited prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim to urge Bahrain’s Shiites to vote in favor of independence. The sheikh promised to respect Shiite rights and integrate them into the fabric of society. 

The country voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence, and Iran renounced its claim. In August 1971, Sheikh Isa declared Bahrain independent, and the 1973 constitution declared its people sovereign. 

Shiite opposition grew in 1974, however, after the government introduced a state security law that allowed for the arbitrary arrest and torture of activists. The Interior Ministry immediately made use of the law, and just a year later, the constitution was suspended and parliament dissolved.

After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Shiites started to organize. In 1982, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain and the Bahrain Freedom Movement organized a coup, though it failed to overthrow the government. In response to the Constitutional Petition of 1994, signed by both Sunnis and Shiites, many Shiite activists were arrested. 

The repression continued until the death of Sheikh Isa in 1999.

His son, Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifah, took over the throne and declared Bahrain a kingdom in 2001. He repealed the state security law and called for a referendum on the National Action Charter, a document that would reinstate constitutional rule, carry out comprehensive political reforms and improve the country’s human rights. More than 98 percent of people voted in favor of the charter, believing it would help transition Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy. 

But in 2002, King Hamad presented a constitution that actually gave him even more power, including the authority to appoint half of the parliament’s members, while limiting parliament’s legislative powers and oversight authority.

In February 2011, protesters gathered at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout demanding the regime’s ouster and the installation of a republican order. The army quickly moved in to quell the uprising. A few days later, the Saudi-led Desert Shield Force entered Bahrain to stabilize the situation and prevent another rebellion. Security forces then launched a massive campaign of terror against Shiite activists.

Scope of Discrimination

The authorities in Bahrain have systematically persecuted Shiites who have long seen themselves as an oppressed majority. Between 1869 and 1932, local authorities imposed a tax on Shiite Ashoura processions to commemorate Imam Hussein’s martyrdom in the Battle of Karbala in 680. 

They also set high tariffs on Shiite areas under the pretext that they did not pledge their allegiance to al-Khalifa’s rule. In 1923, the British India Office instructed Knox to depose the governor of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa bin Ali, after Sunni tribes affiliated with al-Khalifa attacked and ransacked Shiite villages. However, the move did not change Britain’s colonial policy under the Protection Act.

The government has also distorted Bahrain’s national history. Children are taught in school that their country was mostly uninhabited until Ahmad Mohammad Khalifa spread Islam to Bahrain.

In 1987, Sheikh Isa built the country’s largest mosque in the capital, Manama. He named it Ahmad al-Fateh, a title that offended Shiites because a “fateh” implies the conquest of non-Islamic territory, despite the fact that the indigenous people of Bahrain adopted Islam during the Prophet Mohammad’s lifetime. 

There is also widespread discrimination in issuing permits for building mosques. Of the 70 mosques built in the three cities developed since the 1970s, only 14 are for Shiites. 

The Bahraini army and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Desert Shield Forces destroyed 38 Shiite mosques in 2011. Many Shiite historical sites have been neglected or vandalized. 

The government has also prevented Shiites from managing their religious endowments. (Unlike Sunni endowments, Shiite endowments are not meant to be controlled by the state but by boards that are free to dispense their funds as they see fit.)

Local TV stations do not cover Shiite rituals, and their programs often incite hatred toward Shiites and their religious practices. Shiites are blocked from residing in more than 40 percent of Bahrain’s territory. 

Shiite students studying abroad do not have access to state funds, even if they qualify for them academically. The military controls Bahrain’s only public hospital, where Shiites do not seek treatment for fear of arrest. Hospitals operated by the armed forces do not employ Shiite personnel.

Even today, Shiites are still grossly underrepresented in Bahrain’s political system. Shiites represent just 15 percent of officials in the executive, 12 percent in the judiciary, 10 percent in state companies, and 1 percent in the Royal Guard and Royal Court.

Survival of Tyranny

Since the 2011 uprising, the government has cracked down on Shiite dissent, using executions and torture among other means to ensure that a repeat is unlikely. In 2012, opposition groups, including the al-Wifaq National Islamic Society and the Waad leftist and pan-Arab movement, pledged that they would not engage in violence or disorderly behavior.

The government insists that Sunnis are the majority in Bahrain, without providing any population statistics. In reality, Shiites account for 70 percent of the country’s estimated 680,000 residents. 

The government is pursuing an aggressive naturalization policy – granting citizenship to more than 120,000 people over the past 15 years – that aims to reduce Shiites to a demographic minority. It is also recruiting and naturalizing police officers from Syria, Yemen, Jordan and Iraq’s Anbar region. 

The size of Bahrain’s police force is six times the international average for a country its size.

As we’ve seen in Bahrain and many other countries in the Arab world, state resistance to revolutionary forces is still strong. The Arab uprisings nearly a decade ago did not succeed. 

But the time for change will eventually come, even if belatedly.

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