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How Radical are Bahrain's Shia?

The Real Source of Unrest in the Kingdom

In an April 19 op-ed in The Washington Times, Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, wrote that his regime was forced into its ongoing brutal crackdown on political protest and dissent when “the legitimate demands of the opposition were hijacked by extremist elements with ties to foreign governments in the region” -- that is, when the movement was hijacked by Shia revolutionaries with ties to Iran.

Such accusations first arose soon after protests began in Bahrain in mid-February. But they took on new momentum on March 7, when several hard-line Shia opposition groups formed an alliance called the Coalition for a Republic, which rejected any political solution short of the wholesale ouster of the ruling Al Khalifa family. The very name of the coalition evoked the specter of Iran’s Islamic Republic, and seemed to leave Bahrain’s rulers with no choice but to act firmly if they wished to avoid a Shia revolution of their own.

Yet King Hamad’s argument implies that there is a significant proportion of the Bahraini Shia population that would favor an Iranian-style religious regime in Bahrain and would be willing to take up arms to achieve it. At least as of early 2009, when I undertook the first-ever mass political survey of the country, this was not the case: the vast majority of ordinary Bahraini Shia joined Sunnis in rejecting a system of governance based on or limited to religion.

In my nationally-representative, 435-household study, which employed the widely used Arab Democracy Barometer survey instrument, citizens were asked to evaluate the appropriateness of various systems of government as ways of ruling Bahrain. About a quarter of all Shia and Sunni respondents deemed a parliamentary system in which only Islamist parties could compete “suitable” or “very suitable.” Over half of each group rejected the option outright, declaring it “not at all suitable.”

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