FaithWorld

Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian divide widens after Bahrain unrest

(A new sign showing the direction towards Al Farooq Junction, previously known as Pearl Square, stands along a road in Manama May 31, 2011. Bahraini authorities demolished the monument in Pearl Square in March following the country's unrest where thousands of Shiite Muslims protested by camping there/Hamad I Mohammed)

Sectarian tension between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims has reached new heights in Bahrain after pro-democracy protests that the Sunni minority government crushed with martial law and foreign military forces. Inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Sunni and Shi’ite Bahrainis took to the streets in early February to demand political reforms in a country where the ruling Al Khalifa family appoints cabinet ministers and an upper house of parliament, neutering the powers of the elected assembly.

An idealistic movement began with slogans such as “No Sunni, No Shi’ite — Just Bahraini”, but now sectarian fear and anger are uppermost on this small island state where Saudi Arabia and Iran are playing out a proxy contest for regional supremacy. Sunnis and Shi’ites talk of friends lost and of a rift that once seemed manageable. Sunnis feel threatened, Shi’ites abused.

Fatima, a Shi’ite accountancy graduate, recalled past tensions when Shi’ites clashed with police and faced trials in the 1990s, but said the government response was harsher this time because the protest movement was so large and unexpected. “It hurts me. I have very close Sunni friends. People inter-married and had close personal relations,” she said. “Even if the government took a step back now, the Sunnis have been convinced that we are criminals.”

Shi’ites have long complained of discrimination in Bahrain, saying the government distributes jobs and housing on a pro-Sunni sectarian basis, to the extent of giving nationality to Sunnis from other countries to offset Shi’ite numbers. There are few Shi’ites in the army and their number in the state bureaucracy has steadily dwindled since independence from Britain in 1971, Shi’ites say. The government denies this.

Protests in Bahrain’s Shi’ite neighbourhoods fall on deaf ears

(Shi'ite protesters march in the Sanabis neighbourhood in Manama June 3, 2011/Hamad I Mohammed)

In a poor district of Bahrain’s capital, a few hundred people marched through cramped, crumbling alleyways banging pans and screaming, “Down with the regime.” A mile (1.5 km) away, in the city centre, with its gleaming malls and office blocks, no one heard them.

A week after the tiny Gulf island kingdom repealed martial law, and despite the lingering presence of a few checkpoints, much of Manama seems almost back to normal. “Everything is quiet, there’s nothing wrong. I haven’t heard about any problems,” a man who gave his name as Khalifa said as he walked to a Starbucks coffee shop.

Shi’ites say they endured reign of terror under martial law in Sunni-ruled Bahrain

(Martial law troops at Salmaniya Hospital in Manama March 18, 2011/Hamad I Mohammed)

Bahraini Shi’ites say they have endured a reign of terror during 11 weeks of martial law imposed to break up a pro-democracy movement that for the first time threatened the control of a Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab dynasty. Martial law was lifted on Wednesday. The authorities hope this will show investors and tourists that the island state is back to normal.

Shi’ite dissidents fear repression will go on. Thousands have been detained or dismissed from jobs in a crackdown that has targeted those who took part in six weeks of protests centered on the capital’s Pearl Roundabout. Dozens of Shi’ite places of worship have been pulled down or vandalized.

Did Bahrain’s Shi’ite opposition squander its democracy chance?

(Thousands of protesters gather at Pearl Roundabout in the heart of the Bahraini capital Manama February 15, 2011/Hamad I Mohammed)

As martial law comes to an end in the Gulf Arab state of Bahrain this week, opposition activists are wondering whether they threw away what might have been the first real chance for democracy in the Gulf Arab region.

Shortly after young Bahrainis, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, converged on a roundabout in early February, the government offered dialogue with opposition parties on political reforms. But the talks failed to get off the ground. After weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions during which sectarian tension worsened between the Shi’ite majority and Sunnis who saw the ruling Al-Khalifa family as protection, Saudi troops poured in on March 15, martial law was declared the next day and the roundabout encampment was broken up on March 16.

Bahrain Sunni says majority Shi’ite opposition must change leaders

(An anti-government protester waves a Bahraini flag during a rally in Manama March 3, 2011/James Lawler Duggan)

Bahrain’s opposition must change its leadership for the divided Gulf Arab state to move on with political reconciliation after crushing a pro-democracy movement led by majority Shi’ites, a Sunni cleric said on Saturday. Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Mahmoud said the democracy movement, which began in February when protesters inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt occupied a roundabout in Manama, had been hijacked by Shi’ite opposition leaders with a sectarian agenda who were in contact with Iran’s clerical leadership.

Mahmoud led a team of Sunni negotiators coordinating with Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa in talks with the opposition days before Saudi troops entered Bahrain to help the government break up the protest movement and arrest its leaders in mid-March. He said Shi’ite leaders, headed by Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the largest opposition group Wefaq, had overplayed their hand by trying to marginalise the royal family in the talks on political reform and accused them of taking orders from Iran — a familiar Sunni charge against group.

Bahrain Shi’ite leader backs the royal family, rejects alleged Iran links

(Head of Al Wafaq Society, Sheikh Ali Salman, speaks during an anti-government protest at Bahrian's Foreign Ministry in Manama March 4, 2011/James Lawler Duggan)

The leader of Bahrain’s main Shi’ite opposition party said on Sunday his goal was to help bring political reform, rejecting accusations of taking orders from Iran or seeking to install Shi’ite religious rule. Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the opposition group Wefaq, said his party supported the Al Khalifa family as rulers and wanted to help the government with constitutional reforms.

“We said we want a constitutional monarchy, not a republic. We are for a gradual move to a democratic system, so we are not against the ruling family,” Salman told Reuters in an interview. “We have national demands that have nothing to do with Iran. We are proud of being a sensible, mature and progressive political movement that doesn’t need to take instructions from Iran or any other country.”

Arab revolts set to transform Middle East

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(Bahraini anti-government protesters in central Manama, February 16, 2011/Hamad I Mohammed)

The astonishing popular protests against Arab autocrats that have churned the region for three months are the authentic birth pangs of a new Middle East. Israel’s American-backed attempts to bomb Hezbollah and south Lebanon into submission in 2006 did not change the region, as Condoleezza Rice predicted it would. Nor did the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq three years earlier, which former President George W. Bush touted as introducing democracy to the Arab world, have much effect.

The change now is coming from within — and from below. Ordinary people taking to the streets swept away the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia. The leaders of Libya and Yemen are fighting for survival. Arab leaders almost everywhere else are trying to fend off real or potential challenges with a mix of repression and concessions.

Saudi Shi’ite protests simmer as Bahrain conflict rages

saudi protest

(Protesters demand the release of prisoners they say are held without trial, in Saudi Arabia's eastern Gulf coast town of Qatif March 11, 2011/Stringer)

Hundreds of young Shi’ite men marched down a commercial street in the Saudi city of Qatif, near the heart of the kingdom’s oil industry, pounding their fists in anger over their country’s military intervention in Bahrain. “With our blood and soul we sacrifice for you, Bahrain,” they chanted as they walked, according to videos of a recent protest posted on the internet. Some wore scarves to conceal their faces. Others waved Bahraini flags.

“People are boiling,” one Shi’ite activist in Qatif told Reuters by phone, asking not to be named for fear of arrest. “People are talking about strikes, demonstration and prayer to help the Bahrainis.”

Bahrain crisis could worsen Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian tensions in the region

beirut bahrain

(Rally organized by Lebanon's Hezbollah in front of the U.N. headquarters in Beirut March 16, 2011, in support of Bahraini protesters. Around 2,000 mostly Shi'ite Lebanese demonstrators rallied in central Beirut on Wednesday in support of an uprising by Bahrain's Shi'ite Muslim majority/Cynthia Karam)

A Bahraini police crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, two days after Saudi Arabia sent in 1,000 troops to bolster its longtime Gulf Arab ally, will heighten Sunni-Shi’ite tensions in Bahrain and beyond. At least five people were killed and hundreds wounded when police cleared demonstrators from Manama’s Pearl Square on Wednesday in an attempt to halt weeks of popular unrest.

The violence, so soon after the Saudi-led intervention, will further embarrass Washington, which had urged dialogue to tackle Bahrain’s problems and says Riyadh did not consult it before moving troops to the island where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based. That may be the case, but U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates visited Bahrain at the weekend. To many Arabs the timing smacks of U.S. complicity in King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s decision to invite the Saudis in and declare martial law.

Bahrain declares martial law, Sunni-Shi’ite tensions flair

bahrain

(Protesters near the Saudi Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, March 15, 2011/Hamad I Mohammed )

Bahrain declared martial law on Tuesday as it struggles to quell an uprising by the island’s Shi’ite Muslim majority that has drawn in troops from fellow Sunni-ruled neighbour Saudi Arabia. The three-month state of emergency will hand wholesale power to Bahrain’s security forces, which are dominated by the country’s Sunni Muslim elite, stoking sectarian tensions in one of the Gulf’s most politically volatile nations.

The United States, a close ally of both Bahrain and Saudi, said it was concerned about reports of growing sectarianism in the country, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and warned that violence from any side would make matters worse.