Mohamed al-Buflasa went to the Pearl Roundabout on February 15, 2011, the second day of Bahrain’s Arab Spring–inspired uprising. What he witnessed there was a swelling crowd of Sunnis and Shia calling in a single voice for greater political rights and freedoms. On a whim, he took the stage and gave a rousing speech decrying sectarianism and warning the royal family that its attempts to divide the people of Bahrain would bring great harm to the country. 

The speech was noteworthy because al-Buflasa is a religiously conservative Sunni, a former army captain, and, at the time, an employee of the court of Bahrain’s crown prince. He comes from a tribe that is close to the ruling family, and he spent years supporting King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s vows to enact political reform before coming to the conclusion that they were just empty promises. His presence at the demonstration and his impassioned call for unity were a direct challenge to the government’s portrayal of the protests as purely sectarian. 

After stepping off the stage, al-Buflasa was approached by a young protester who invited him to share a cup of tea. He followed the man to the edge of the roundabout. As he waited for his host to pour the tea, a truck packed with plain-clothed policemen pulled up. The men threw a sack over al-Buflasa’s head and began punching and kicking him. Before anyone in the crowd could react, he was thrown into the back of the truck and hauled away, becoming the first political prisoner of the Bahrain uprising. 

For the next three weeks, al-Buflasa was secretly held in isolation in a tiny prison cell. He was routinely beaten, tortured, and humiliated by his prison guards, although, bizarrely, no one bothered to interrogate him. At one point, the police told his 13-year-old daughter that her father had been bewitched and put under a magic spell. They promised to take him to a hospital for treatment, but only if she told the public prosecutor that he had molested her. When she refused, the police arrested her, too.

Although al-Buflasa was ultimately cleared of the charges against him, he would spend a total of seven months in prison. When he was finally released, he had lost his job, his friends, and his livelihood. He was told he would not be allowed to open a bank account or leave the country. Despite holding a business degree, he could not find work even as a low-paying security guard.

Even by the standards set by the Bahraini government’s brutal response to the mass protests that have rocked the tiny island kingdom over the last two years (international human rights groups have documented beatings, torture, collective punishment, and arbitrary arrests), the treatment of al-Buflasa is exceptional. According to al-Buflasa, that has mainly to do with the unique threat he poses to the government, for he puts lie to the claim that the uprising in Bahrain is nothing more than an Iranian-inspired Shia revolt against a besieged Sunni regime.

“I was an example of what happens to a Sunni who speaks out against the government,” al-Buflasa told me. “The plan is to treat Sunnis in such a way as to [discourage their participation] and make it seem like a Shia uprising.” 

It is a documented fact that the government of Bahrain has a long history of deliberately fostering sectarian conflict among the Shia, who make up about 70 percent of the population, and the Sunnis, who control the government and much of the private sector. The much-lauded Al Bandar Report, a 240-page document produced in 2006 by the Gulf Center for Democratic Development and written by one of the government’s own advisers, documents the Bahraini government’s plans to foment sectarianism in the kingdom by encouraging Shia conversions to Sunni Islam, rigging elections in favor of Sunni candidates, and creating a secret intelligence apparatus to spy on Shia citizens--all to marginalize the majority Shia community. (The author of the report, Salah al-Bandar, was deported to the United Kingdom and his findings banned from publication in Bahrain.)

But the current conflict is not a direct backlash against this history of oppression and material dispossession. Indeed, if the continuing conflict in Bahrain now has the character of a sectarian conflict, it is because the minority Sunni government, not the majority Shia population, decided, as a matter of policy, to make it one. The 2011 uprising began as a broad national protest movement calling for democracy and human rights; the kingdom responded to those protests with blunt policies deliberately designed to stoke sectarian tensions. Over the past last two years, government troops have damaged or destroyed 43 Shia mosques. Dozens of Shia professors have been fired and many replaced by Sunnis as a result of government policy. Large numbers of Shia doctors and nurses have been harassed or arrested by government security forces for healing wounded protesters. And state-owned television stations have been spewing hateful anti-Shia propaganda.

According to Maryam al-Khawaja, the exiled acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, whose father and mother are both in prison for their human rights work, these actions by the government are meant to elicit a violent response from the Shia against the Sunnis, and thus prove the government line that the uprising is not about freedom or democracy but part of a regional sectarian conflict for which there can be no political response. “The sectarian situation [in Bahrain] is a result of government policy,” al-Khawaja flatly says.

Al-Khawaja’s Bahrain-based colleague, Sayed Yousif Almuhafdah, agrees. “The government of Bahrain wants to make this a sectarian conflict,” he says. “And they are succeeding.”

Almuhafdah, whose primary role at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights is to document government abuses, lays out the government’s strategy thusly: First, deal ruthlessly with any Sunni activist who dares to join the opposition, for instance, al-Buflasa or Ibrahim Sharif al-Sayed, the head of the Waad party, who was just sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the uprising. This discourages Sunni citizens from taking part in the demonstrations. Second, silence all secular and liberal voices from those such Nabeel Rajab and al-Khawaja’s father, Abdulhadi, both of whom have recently been given long prison terms for their human rights work in Bahrain.

Once Sunnis and liberals have been removed from the equation, the next step is to encourage Shia protests. The government of Bahrain does this by freely issuing protest permits but only to the main Shia opposition group, al-Wefaq, and only if its protests are restricted to Shia neighborhoods. This makes it seem as though the mass demonstrations that have become a weekly occurrence in Bahrain are strictly Shia affairs, which, in fact, they have since become. The rest is just a matter of letting the institutional sectarianism in the kingdom play itself out. As Almuhafdah puts it, if you are a Shia citizen arrested by a Sunni military, tortured by a Sunni policeman, fired by a Sunni boss, replaced by a Sunni employee, charged by a Sunni prosecutor, tried by a Sunni court, and sentenced by a Sunni judge, then the deep well of resentment you feel toward the Sunni regime will eventually spill over into open violence. And that is precisely what the government wants to happen. Because then its dire warnings of a sectarian civil war come true.

It is not difficult to imagine why the government in Bahrain would want to heighten artificially the sectarian dimensions of the current uprising. For one thing, it allows the royal family to depict the conflict as a theological battle based on centuries of scriptural disagreement, one that the outside world would be wise to steer clear of. What is more, by deliberately overlaying this fundamentally political conflict with religious/sectarian overtones, the government can easily deflect responsibility for addressing the legitimate grievances of its opponents. Why bother proposing political reform when the only thing that will satisfy the protesters is the complete reversal of the social order?

Most important, however, portraying the challenges to its authority in sectarian terms allows Bahrain’s government to link its internal conflict to a larger geopolitical contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia, thus encouraging outside actors such as the United States to prioritize its perceived national security interests over the promotion of human rights and democratic values. The effectiveness of this strategy can be seen in how easily the Obama administration has turned a blind eye to the grave human rights violations taking place in Bahrain--even when Saudi troops entered the country in March 2011 and began shooting protesters ensconced in the Pearl Roundabout--because of the perceived benefit to Iranian interests that may result should the demonstrators succeed in implementing political change in the country.

“They know that as soon as they can make it look like a Shia issue they don’t need to even say it,” al-Khawaja says. “It automatically gets linked to Iran. And this is exactly what they did.” 

Indeed, the government line that the disturbance in Bahrain is nothing more than a Shia uprising backed by Iran has become utterly entrenched in both the media and foreign policy circles. This despite the fact that a report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was commissioned by the government itself, concluded that there was absolutely no evidence of an Iranian role in the unrest. (The report also exposed the ways in which Sunnis were being especially targeted by the government for their participation in the uprising.)

The problem is that stoking sectarianism for short-term political gain can be a dangerous and ultimately uncontrollable strategy, as Syria’s Assad regime has learned. Faced with what nearly all neutral observers agree began as a nonsectarian, popular protest calling for basic rights and freedoms, the minority Shia government of Syria immediately tagged the demonstrations as sectarian, then instituted a policy of actively promoting sectarian divisions in the country so as to make its predetermined conclusions come true. The result is a country that has become an apocalyptic battleground between proxy forces, with no end in sight for the conflict.

Al-Buflasa fears the same thing may happen in Bahrain. “The continued crackdown is creating hatred between the citizens and the government,” he warns. “It will lead to a black future. The reaction of the protesters could be more violence. You can’t have reconciliation between Shia and Sunni when you have systematic institutionalized sectarianism from the government.” 

Keeping the Syria scenario from happening in Bahrain will require a far more sophisticated response from the Obama administration than it has thus far demonstrated. The White House could begin by openly rejecting the lie that the uprising in Bahrain is not a democratic revolution but a Shia plot to create an Iranian style theocracy in the tiny island kingdom. Instead, it should pressure the regime to address the legitimate grievances of the protesters. It should call for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners currently languishing in Bahraini prisons, particularly those moderate, secular voices (such as Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja) who can appeal across sectarian divides. It could also encourage the royal family to institute a sort of affirmative action policy--the opposite of what the Al Bandar report proved it has been doing--in order to provide the dispossessed Shia community with a greater voice in the government, courts, military, and private sector. Finally, and most important, it should cease believing in the false choice between securing its national interests and promoting its values.

“We’re looking at a very religious society demanding a civil government that institutionalizes human rights,” Maryam Alkhawaja says. “That doesn’t happen every day. And it doesn’t last. But American inaction is starting to turn the people against the U.S. In the beginning, when people protested in front of the [U.S.] embassy, the staff would come out with donuts. Now protesters carry Obama’s pictures in protest and equate him with the king. For a lot of people, the United States is no longer a mediator. The United States is now complicit in the crackdown.” 

With each passing day, the Bahrain government’s self-fulfilling prophecy of a sectarian war is becoming more and more the reality. If that happens--if the Bahrain uprising descends into the kind of regional holy war between Sunni and Shia--the United States will not be able to avoid the consequences. 


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  • Reza Aslan is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author, most recently, of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Follow him @rezaaslan.
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