Let’s Talk About Sect
by Tahiyya Lulu
“This was an affluent crowd, far different from the mostly low-income Shiites who took to the streets to demand a constitutional monarchy, an elected government and a representative Parliament. The air was scented with perfume, and people drove expensive cars,” writes Michael Slackman of the New York Times, describing a pro-status quo government self-described “Unity” demonstration held in Bahrain on Monday.
With repeated reference to Bahrain’s sectarian divide in local and international media (some variation of the tagline “Bahrain has a 70% Shia population ruled by a Sunni ruling family” has rolled along the ticker of almost every major TV news network), and anti-government protesters insisting on Shia-Sunni unity (a cry also parroted by pro-government crowds), it’s worthwhile then to follow the trail of this mysterious scent a little further.
First, some facts. The majority of Bahrainis are Shia, who are estimated to make up 70% of the local population. The majority of pro-reform/anti-government demonstrators at the Pearl Roundabout are Bahraini Shia. True, also, that Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni royal family, and that the majority of participants at pro-government rallies held over the past week appear to be Bahraini Sunnis.
As Slackman and a few other commentators have pointed out, the ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’ hashtags certainly reflect a disparity in wealth while suggesting only a difference in sect. The BBC describes the Mercedes and Humvees at the “luxury car protest” pro-government rally, while a discerning tweeter from the Pearl Roundabout asks, “Most of the cars here in #lulu are pre-2000 models, I wonder what was the case in #fateh [site of pro-government rally]?”
This is not to say that being Bahraini and Shia is always synonymous with being poor or disenfranchised. As many pro-status quo commentators will point out, Bahrain is home to economically powerful Shia families and high-ranking Shia government officials. It is also not to say that all Bahraini Sunnis are rich; a drive to the Huneiniyah valley bordering the affluent area of Riffa (where much of the royal family resides) will take you through neighborhoods characterized by the issues raised by pro-reform demonstrators, including poverty, bad infrastructure, inadequate housing, and poor school facilities.
But the facts of the matter speak for themselves. Corruption, crony capitalism and lack of transparency add up to uneven development and a vast disparity in wealth in a country so small, that five minutes away from glass towers of international banking centers and royal palaces you find yourself among the crumbling walls and crowded streets of Bahrain’s villages. By and large, Bahrain’s Shia are losing out on the country’s economic boom, which affords it one of the highest GDP per capita in the world. But if the current uprising is just a matter of the underclass, how come the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who make up the socially invisible strata of Bahrain’s working class, along with Sunni have-nots, have not joined the pro-reformers at Rearl Roundabout?
What this reflects, to a large extent, is the success of the Bahraini regime’s strategy to deal with challenges to its legitimacy by promoting and reinforcing identity politics within a system of privileges where certain groups and individuals are favored over others. In a word: discrimination.
So yes, the Shia represent the majority of pro-reform anti-government protesters because they are the majority of the population – but also because the government actively discriminates against them. The big pearl elephant in the living room would tell you if it could that while Bahraini Shia make up around two-thirds of the population, their rulers, the majority of the government, military, and business leaders are Sunni. Bahrain’s political, social and economic system operates by offering privileges and “wasta” to some, at the expense of the rights of others. In this way, the government maintains separation between Bahrain’s communal groups (Baharna, Arab, Howala, Ajam, Asians) and discourages citizens from associating with each other on a national basis – which has posed a real challenge to the regime in the past.
This ‘divide and rule’ politic was developed by the Al Khalifa and its allies after they settled in Bahrain in the 18th century, appropriated land from the indigenous Shia owners and effectively made them into peasants. Even then, the regime operated with the assistance of a number of Shia families who they employed as ministers or tax collectors. Still today, high ranking government positions are disproportionately awarded to members of the Al Khalifa family, or other Sunni allies, and a few handpicked Shia representatives are given seats of power.
Continuing a discriminatory tradition set by imperial Britain during Bahrain’s time as a British protectorate (when police were recruited from British-colonized India), the Bahraini regime today relies on defense from imported mercenaries, while Bahraini Shia are denied the right to serve in their own armed forces. The Bahraini Defense Force remains the domain of the royal family and the descendants of its tribal allies, as well as the foreign mercenaries. Contention over discrimination has now developed into a row over illegal political naturalization of these personnel as well as others. Government statistics from 2008 showed an annual population increase of 41%, and a 15% increase in the number of citizens (13.6% higher than the previous year).
Another form of discrimination practiced by the Bahrain government is electoral gerrymandering. In past elections, the Shia-dominated Northern Governorate of more than 91,000 voters elected nine members of parliament. In the Sunni-dominated Southern Governorate only 16,000 voters elected six. This is in addition to the already weighty tome the detention of hundreds of Shia protesters last year, and the prolific arrest of 23 Shia citizens charged with forming a ‘terror network’ to overthrow the government. The 23 men, many of them members of the Haq Movement of Liberties and Democracy (an opposition group that boycotts elections), were charged under the widely criticized anti-terror law. The highly publicized trial was preceded by the release of suspects’ names and photographs to national media outlets by the governmental Bahrain News Agency. They have been released as of Tuesday (February 22) in a concession to the current uprising, confirming suspicions that the case was politically motivated and gives another example of the government’s oppressive policies towards its opponents.
The sectarian divide therefore stems from economic disparity and the denial of civil rights. A better way to understand the current uprising is as a movement for civil rights and liberties. The demands are for transition from a system of privileges for a few at the expense of the many towards a system of greater rights for all. That is presumably why the Shia-dominated ‘cannot-haves’ of the anti-government, pro-reform crowds appear to have crossed the sectarian rift and drawn in Bahrainis from a range of political platforms including liberals, seculars and human rights activists.
This is not to say that there are no sectarian elements within both the anti-government camp and the pro-government rallies. But at this point there appears to be a larger calling for less economic disparity and more rights, which has to some extent managed to cut through the boundaries of the Shia-Sunni political divide in Bahrain. A good illustration of the class element is the position of the affluent upper-middle class ‘Nido’ youth. While some are part of the Pearl roundabout pro-reform opposition, many more it seems have awoken from their apolitical reverie to participate in the pro-government rally, in bewildered protest that, “this [complaints of the protesters] is not the Bahrain we know,” – well, because, it isn’t.
Suffice to say then, that it’s not so much the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ but the ‘have’ and ‘cannot-haves’ battling for Bahrain’s future today.
In terms of ‘conciliatory gestures’ by the government, what Bahrain needs now is not publicity stunts supported by the privileged and grateful supporters of the government proclaiming “Unity”. This is little more than a PR exercise to relegate the issue of a deeply flawed and potentially failing political system, by window-dressing real sectarian discrimination with a glossy banner (book and video) calling for Sunni and Shia to unite. It has been a long winter of discontent in the wider Middle East; and the sweeping changes this spring have not escaped Bahrain’s imagination. The outcome right now looks uncertain, but one thing is for sure – it is not the demands of the pro-reform protesters at Pearl roundabout, but the Bahrain government’s rule by repression and discrimination that is pushing this country towards a “sectarian abyss”.