FaithWorld

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. (Followers of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demonstrate in Baghdad's Sadr city on Wednesday in support of mainly-Shi'ite demonstrators in Bahrain  March 16, 2011/Mohammed Ameen)

(Followers of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demonstrate in Baghdad's Sadr city on Wednesday in support of mainly-Shi'ite demonstrators in Bahrain March 16, 2011/Mohammed Ameen)

The decision to crush a protest movement inspired by popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia is conditioned by the sectarian factor in Bahrain, a tiny country seen by the United States and the GCC as a bulwark against the rising power of Shi’ite Iran.

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.

Saudi clerics condemn protests as un-Islamic

saudi protest

(Supporters of Saudi Shi'ite cleric Tawfiq al-Amir hold his pictures during a demonstration following his release in Al-Ahsa March 6, 2011. Cleric Tawfiq al-Amir was arrested last week after calling for a constitutional monarchy and a fight against corruption/Stringer)

Saudi Arabia’s council of senior clerics has issued a statement forbidding as un-Islamic the public protests, which the rulers of the U.S. ally and key oil exporter fear could spread following demonstrations by minority Shi’ites. The kingdom has escaped major protests like those which toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, but the wave of unrest has reached its neighbours Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and Oman.

“The Council of Senior Clerics affirms that demonstrations are forbidden in this country. The correct way in sharia (Islamic law) of realising common interest is by advising, which is what the Prophet Mohammad established,” said the statement by the body headed by the Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh.

Watching Bahrain, Saudi Shi’ites demand reforms

saudi shi'ite

(Shi'ite Saudi Muslim worshippers during the Ashura festival in Qatif ,December 27, 2009/Zaki Ghawas)

When Saudi Shi’ites mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad, meeting at mosques and exchanging sweets is only part of what’s going on. The Shi’ites also are testing the tolerance of Sunni clerics and taking advantage of reforms introduced by King Abdullah that allow them greater freedom to practise their branch of Islamic faith.

For the hundreds of Shi’ites who gathered on Sunday in the rundown eastern town of Awwamiya, near the Gulf coast, this year is special. Just an hour’s drive and a bridge away is the island nation of Bahrain, usually a place where Saudis go for a bit of weekend fun but now the scene of a majority Shi’ite uprising that is challenging the minority Sunnis’ grip on power.

Is free Iraq becoming a more Islamic state?

baghdad shi'iteA group of men recently ordered Siham al-Zubaidi to close down her Baghdad hair salon for two months for Shi’ite religious festivities. She had no idea who they were but complied because she feared for her life.

“Can you just tell me who will pay the rent of my shop for these two months? What shall I do to support my family? What is the relation between hair dressing and religious events?” Zubaidi, 40, asked furiously. “This is a new dictatorship. They want Iraq to be an Islamic state. But this is not right. Iraq includes a variety of religious factions … These are alien ideas, not Iraqi.” (Photo: Shi’ites attend Friday prayers in Baghdad’s Sadr City, northeastern Baghdad on March 5, 2010/Mohammed Ameen)

Recent efforts by authorities, clergy and unknown bands of neighbourhood enforcers to police morals by shutting nightclubs, bars and other establishments has heightened concerns among academics and intellectuals that Iraq, now emerging from war, is displaying the tendencies of a hard-line Islamic state.

Iraqi Shi’ites mark Ashura without incident, Saudis scuffle in Medina

ashura (Photo: Pilgrims gather between Imam Abbas and Imam Hussein shrines to mark Ashura in Kerbala, December 17, 2010/Mushtaq Muhammad)

More than two million Shi’ite pilgrims in Iraq’s holy city of Kerbala marked Ashura, commemorating the slaying of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Imam Hussein at the battle of Kerbala in 680, with no major violence reported amid tight security. But Saudi security forces dispersed crowds of Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims after scuffles broke out in the holy city of Medina.

Shi’ites from across Iraq, along with thousands of foreign pilgrims — most dressed in black — streamed into Kerbala for the emotive ritual on Friday in which the faithful beat their heads and chests and gash themselves with chains and swords to mourn the event that defines Shi’ism and its split from Sunni Islam.

“According to official statistics, there are more than two million Iraqi pilgrims and 248,000 foreign pilgrims who have entered Kerbala city,” said Mohammed al-Moussawi, head of the Kerbala provincial council.

Saudi Shi’ites mark Ashura festival in anxious mood

ashura (Photos above and below: Saudi Shi’ite Muslims mark Ashura in Qatif, December 16, 2010/Zaki Ghawas)

Like their Shi’ite brethren across the Middle East, Hussein and his Saudi friends marked the mourning day of Ashura on Thursday, their mood tinged with worry over their future in the strict Sunni Muslim kingdom. Hundreds of black-clad Shi’ites in the small Gulf town of Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, rose early to join once-forbidden processions to mark the slaying in 680 of Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein.

Long viewed as heretics or even agents of Iran by the Saudi authorities and hardline Sunni clerics, Shi’ites have been testing pledges to let them practice their rites more freely. Now they fear a reversal in their long struggle for recognition. The freedom to mark Ashura relatively unhindered in Qatif and nearby villages is a fruit of changes launched by King Abdullah since he ascended the throne in 2005.

But the king is about 87 and is in New York for medical treatment. His slightly younger half-brother, Crown Prince Sultan, spent the past two years abroad with an unspecified ailment. With a possible succession in prospect, many Shi’ites worry that a more conservative king might be tougher on them.

Sacred Shi’ite ritual tests Pakistan’s security resolve

ashura (Photo: Shi’ite men at an Ashura procession in Peshawar, January 19, 2008/Ali Imam)

Pakistan is deploying tens of thousands of paramilitary soldiers and police ahead of a religious festival that could be a major security test for authorities struggling to contain militant violence. Many of Pakistan’s minority Shi’ite Muslims, who make up 15 percent of the population, will be vulnerable to suicide bombings when they stage large rallies Friday to mark Ashura, the biggest event in their calendar.

Highlighting concerns, paramilitary forces carry people away on stretchers in mock exercises televised live. Officials say army soldiers will be on standby. Recent suicide bombings carried out in defiance of a series of military offensives which the government describe as successful highlighted U.S. ally Pakistan’s instability.

“Ashura is going to be very tense. There is a danger of terrorists trying to attack processions. We are taking all possible measures to avert that,” a senior security official said.

Azerbaijan wrestles with Islam in rough region

baku (Photo: Building boom in Azerbaijan capital Baku, 3 Nov 2010/Osman Karimov)

The view from Nardaran’s vast sandstone mosque sweeps down through roses to the Absheron peninsula and the Caspian sea from which Azerbaijan derives its wealth. Devotion to Islam defines life in this dusty coastal village, where walls carry Koranic verses and social grievances against this strictly controlled former Soviet republic find voice in religion.

But it’s a way of life that sits uneasily with the secular regime of President Ilham Aliyev, an authoritarian who draws his power from rich reserves of oil and gas in the Caspian. “They are wealthy, but they are afraid,” Haji Aga Nuriyev, Naradaran elder and former head of the banned Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, said of the political elite around Aliyev.

Like much of the former Soviet Union — Christian and Muslim — this country of 9 million mainly Shi’ite Muslims has witnessed a limited religious revival since the collapse of Communism two decades ago.

Bahrain aims to control vote amid Sunni-Shi’ite tension

bahrainBahrain’s elections on Saturday are unlikely to bring change to an assembly with little clout, but the government is leaving nothing to chance as it tightens security and makes it tougher for majority Shi’ites to vote.

Critics say densely populated Shi’ite areas are not represented in parliament according to their share in Bahrain’s 1.3 million population, and in some cases Shi’ite voters, of whom 300,000 are registered — have been moved to Sunni areas where their votes have less impact. (Photo: Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, December 15, 2009/Stephanie McGehee)

“The types of rules and laws that are passed still favour the Sunni elites over the majority Shi’ite population,” said Theodore Karasik of Dubai’s Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “The Shi’ites are angered because they want more inclusion in decision-making and they want more jobs in government ministries, but these kinds of legislations don’t come up.”