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.