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.”

Syria’s Assad retrenches into power base of his Alawite Shi’ite sect

(A supporter of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad holds aloft a photograph of the president at Hamidiya market in Damascus April 30, 2011/Khaled al-Hariri)

President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly relying on his Alawite power base to crush pro-democracy protests that have posed the boldest challenge to the Assad family’s 41 years of rule over Syria. Assad, an Alawite, sent army and secret police units dominated by officers from the same minority sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, into mainly Sunni urban centers to crush demonstrations calling for his removal for the last six weeks.

Their use of tanks to shell the city of Deraa last week, storming of mosques and attacks on unarmed civilians — as reported by residents and activists — have raised the stakes.  Reports say that Sunni conscripts, Syria’s majority sect, refused to fire at their co-religionists.

Syria lifts niqab ban, shuts casino, in nod to protesting Sunnis

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(A visitor browses through books at the 26th International Book Fair near Damascus July 31, 2010/Khaled al-Hariri)

Syria has lifted a ban on teachers wearing the full face veil and ordered the closure of a casino, moves aimed at placating conservative Muslims in the tightly-controlled country that has seen weeks of unrest. Last month pro-democracy protests erupted in the majority Sunni Muslim city of Deraa and later spread to other cities, including the religiously-mixed port city of Latakia, posing the greatest challenge to Assad’s 11-year rule.

Thousands of people protested in the Damascus suburb of Douma on Friday, dissatisfied by gestures President Bashar al-Assad has made towards reform.

Egypt’s al-Azhar shuns Western action in Libya

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(A man prays at the Al-Azhar mosque in old Cairo August 18, 2010/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, al-Azhar, has condemned Western military “aggression” in Libya but said it supported what it called the legitimate demands of the Libyan people’s revolution.

Azhar, one of the oldest seats of Sunni Islamic learning, warned the United States and Britain against “dividing Libya and destroying its natural and human wealth, as happened in Iraq,” the state Al Ahram newspaper said on Wednesday .

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.”