Bahrain’s Shia Question

What the United States Gets Wrong About Sectarianism

The spirit of Cairo’s Tahrir Square was reborn on February 16, as a diverse group of Bahrainis gathered in Pearl Square in Manama, the country’s capital. Two days before, a Facebook-organized “Day of Rage” had ended in two deaths as security forces cracked down on protesters. Now, the demonstrators marched from the funeral toward Pearl Square’s traffic roundabout, determined to continue the fight for a new Bahrain. Officials from the main Shia political society, the Islamic National Accord Association (Al-Wefaq) brought cleaning supplies to scrub graffiti off the Pearl Square fountain. The leader of the leftist secular National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad) movement spoke of Bahrain’s proud history of cross-sectarian labor activism and proposed the formation of a new national organization to press for a genuine constitutional monarchy. Shia and Sunni prayed together. By nightfall, thousands of unaligned Bahrainis had crowded the square to join what, by then, felt like a celebration.

Yet that celebration was cruelly extinguished at three in the morning by a surprise police attack on the sleeping encampments. Security forces wounded hundreds and killed four in the brutally efficient raid. Even health workers seeking to aid the wounded were attacked. By morning, the space where Bahrain’s pro-democracy activists, Shia and Sunni, had come together was encased in barbed wire. The ruling al-Khalifa monarchy did not want that unity to continue.

Like much of the news media covering Bahrain’s uprising, it prefers a simpler narrative of Shia against Sunni. Just as Hosni Mubarak held Egypt hostage for decades to a false choice between staying loyal to his regime or facing an Islamist takeover, the ruling al-Khalifa family resisted democratic reform by presenting themselves as protectors of the Sunni community against the Shia majority. The extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Bahrain on the same day as the Pearl Square raid both reinforced and broadened this threat by sharply denouncing foreign (read: Iranian) intervention in Gulf countries. During the meeting and since, the GCC have been reviving the fear that plagued the region after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution -- that Iran would foment unrest among Shia communities of the Gulf.

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