Courtesy Reuters

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.”

A sharia-based system fared even worse among Shia, of which only a quarter felt it was “suitable” or “very suitable,” while 63 percent deemed it “not at all suitable.” Among Sunni respondents, just under half rejected a Bahraini state based on Islamic law, but almost 40 percent felt it would be “very suitable” or “suitable.” Contrary to King Hamad’s implications, then, Shia are no more likely -- and, in fact, are somewhat less likely -- than Sunnis to favor a religious state.

Even Bahrain’s most extremist Shia elements rejected Islamic-based government. For example, those who indicated that their political views most closely correspond to the al-Haqq Movement, the underground Shia group that is the main sponsor of the Coalition for a Republic, were no more likely to support an Islamist-only parliamentary system or a sharia-based system than were those who identified with the more moderate Al-Wifaq society, which, until a few weeks ago, occupied 18 of 40 seats in Bahrain’s parliament.

Far from supporting the idea of Islamic government, the vast majority of Bahrain’s Shia expressed their desire for an open parliamentary system -- that is to say, democracy. Almost three-quarters of Shia responded that a parliamentary system in which leftist, rightist, Islamic, and nationalist parties all compete in elections would be either “very suitable” or “suitable” for Bahrain. Shia support for parliamentary democracy was some 15 percentage points higher, even, than that among Sunnis.

Thus, if Bahrain’s king was correct that the opposition movement had been overtaken by Iranian-backed “extremists,” then the political orientations of Shia would have moved appreciably toward more support for an Islamic-based regime in Bahrain in just two years. In 2009, a little more than half of Shia respondents who identified with a political society named Al-Wifaq as the one most closely representing their own views, while less than 20 percent identified with Al-Haqq. But survey responses also revealed mounting disillusionment with Al-Wifaq’s experiment with political participation, which critics say has achieved little in its five years and comes at the price of government co-optation. The growing sentiment seized upon by such groups as the Coalition for a Republic, is that if working for reform from within the existing system has proved a dead end, then perhaps the entire regime must change before Shia can achieve political and social influence in Bahrain commensurate with their demographic majority.

Rather than looking to Iran, Bahrain’s rulers should look to themselves to explain Shia radicalization. Indeed, the more telling half of King Hamad’s statement is not the second half -- “hijacked by extremist elements with ties to foreign governments in the region” -- but the first: “the legitimate demands of the opposition.” The problem in Bahrain is not Iranian-inspired extremism, it is that the Bahraini government’s definition of “legitimate demands” excludes the most basic grievances of ordinary Shia.

Bahraini Shia have long sought an end to religious-based discrimination in public-sector employment, particularly their wholesale exclusion from the police, the armed forces, and the power ministries such as Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs. Shia (as well as some Sunnis) decry the state’s decade-old program of naturalizing Arab and non-Arab Sunnis for work in the security services as tantamount to demographic engineering. Opposition figures in both religious communities complain that the country’s parliamentary districts are gerrymandered around ethnic lines to limit the influence of Al-Wifaq and secular Sunni societies. Bahraini authorities, of course, dismiss all of these accusations.

It is unclear, then, what exactly King Hamad would have been willing to offer the opposition in recognition of its “legitimate demands.” To be sure, it was not resolution of any of the fundamental grievances articulated by Shia. From the ruling family’s perspective, it was precisely the measures that caused these grievances which had limited the extent of the present crisis. Although the opposition could draw hundreds of thousands to the streets, it had no legal avenue to initiate political reform, and it had utterly no access to weapons with which to fight for it. The authorities, meanwhile, enjoyed a manufactured pro-government majority in parliament and a ready-made force of largely non-Bahraini servicemen with loyalties to none but the state. Clearly, any revision of this status quo is a nonstarter.

In lieu of substantive political concessions, King Hamad followed the lead of other Gulf Cooperation Council countries and offered opponents (and would-be opponents) one thing: money. Shortly after the onset of protests, the government announced generous social welfare packages including increased salaries and benefits, cost-of-living stipends, and plans for new subsidized housing. The GCC even kicked in a $10 billion aid package of its own, dubbed a “Gulf Marshall Plan” for Bahrain. But this overt attempt at political buy-off only enraged protesters further. As aptly summarized by Ebrahim Sharif, the imprisoned head of Wa’ad, a now-dissolved secular political society, “This is about dignity and freedom -- it’s not about filling our stomachs.”

By blaming political opposition on foreign meddling, religious extremism, and socio-economic frustration, Bahrain like other Arab Gulf regimes has sought to obscure and delegitimize elementary sources of discontent, namely targeted political exclusion. King Hamad’s “extremists,” then, are not Shia Islamists but simply those who refuse to accept the material wealth-for-political silence bargain upon which Bahrain’s ruling regime and those of other Gulf states rest. But in refusing to address the most fundamental demands of mainstream Shia -- or indeed to acknowledge the legitimacy of their complaints -- Bahrain’s rulers have created a class of citizen every bit as dangerous as the Iranian-backed revolutionaries they seem to fear.

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