An unlikely alliance is the latest obstacle for Bahrainis in their struggle for self-determination.
Centuries of distrust between Sunnis and Shiites were reignited by another mass movement for freedom in Iran 30 years ago. The fallout of that revolution - shaped by the painful memory of a tyrannical king backed by the West and a long, brutal war with its neighbors - continues to color much of the Middle East.
Israel may have reached a shaky peace with the Arabs, but it refuses to see Iran as anything but an existential threat. And the United States has found a great market for its high-tech killing machines. Meanwhile, the struggles for self-determination in nations like Bahrain continue to fall victim to campaigns of delegitimization.
"Bahrain Is a Rich Country, Why Are They Rising Up?"
"People think, Bahrain is a rich country, why are they rising up?" Haider*, a Shiite from the eastern Bahraini island of Sitra explains, as he begins to lay out Bahrain's history. "It's not about being poor, it's about our heritage, our history of demanding our rights."
The current Al-Khalifa dynasty traces its origins in Bahrain to the invasion and conquest by Ahmed ibn Muhammad ibn Khalifa, who expanded his emirate beyond modern-day Qatar, Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia in 1783. Most of the natives were adherents to Shiite Islam, principally brought to the region when it came under the Persian Safavid dynasty's control in the 17th century.
The Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty spent the next two centuries allying with regional powers to keep, at various times, Egyptian, Ottoman, Persian, Omani and British forces at bay. When oil was discovered in the 1930s, the British Royal Navy moved its regional command to Manama. When the British left Bahrain in 1971, the United States began leasing their base in Manama for $4 million a year.
The chief demand of today's revolution in Bahrain is a return to the Constitution of 1972. Crafted soon after independence, it was the most promising democratic system in the Middle East. But Bahrain's ruler, Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, dissolved Parliament when it refused to pass a set of state security laws in 1975 that would have given him sweeping security powers.
|The split between Shiite and Sunni Islam can be traced to disagreement over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad upon his death in 632.|
The regime hired Ian Henderson, a British Colonial police officer with experience from Kenya (where he helped kill thousands of Mau Mau rebels in the 1950s), as head of state security. His oversight of the detention and torture of dissidents over the next two decades would earn him the title "The Butcher of Bahrain."
Toby Jones, an expert on Bahrain and the Gulf at Rutgers University, says that the use of "systematic torture" over the next few decades would deeply entrench sectarianism in the country.
A coup attempt in 1981, allegedly backed by Iran, prompted the first emergency meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Originally composed of Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the GCC officially hoped to leverage their "special relations, common qualities and similar systems" in order to "channel their efforts to reinforce and serve Arab and Islamic causes." Iran, with its non-Arab Shiite population, obviously did not qualify.
Throughout the 1990s, Shiite demands for a democratically elected Parliament in Bahrain were met with skepticism, imprisonment and exile. Street movements in 1995, 1996 and 1999 - often branded by the Al-Khalifas as Iranian-backed coups - would end in the arrest and exile of hundreds of opposition leaders.
Jones says the government spent the last decade recruiting foreign residents in order to tip the Sunni-Shiite demographics in their favor. Today, incoming Sunnis - laborers from Yemen and Syria and police and military recruits from Pakistan - are given citizenship and housing, often before they even arrive in Bahrain. Meanwhile, native Shiites are kept from key government and managerial positions.
Optimism at the ascension of a new king in 1999 was frustrated when King Hamad ignored a fresh referendum for restoring the Constitution. Instead, he announced a new bicameral Parliament, largely devoid of any authority, in 2001. In 2006 and 2010, Shiites won 40 percent of the seats in the lower house, but ultimate authority still resided with the king, so protests continued.
"We really hope even that the Shah was still in power, because it would make our job easier," says Haider.
Sunni & Shiite
The political naiveté of Western nations when assuming that all the world's Shiites are seeking some kind of pan-Shiite state is shared by many Sunni Gulf rulers today. Iranophobia, for the West, is rooted in the Iranian Revolution. For Gulf royalty, post-revolution Iran added potent political overtones to a historic religious rivalry.
The split between Shiite and Sunni Islam can be traced to disagreement over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad upon his death in 632. The first three successors are considered the most pious of Muhammad's followers by Sunnis, but usurpers and worse by many Shiites. For many Shiite groups, Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was divinely appointed to be the prophet's successor.
Ali was eventually murdered, and when his two sons Haider and Hussein attempted to overthrow the Sunni Ummayad rulers, they, too, were killed. The deaths of these three mark the most important times of the year for Shiites, such as the Day of Ashura, as well as some of their most revered sites: Karbala and Najaf, in modern-day Iraq.
Today, a number of Shiite sub-sects survive, and despite a wide variety of ideologies, hard-line Sunni scholars exploit ignorance among their followers to label many of them as non-Muslims. The Sunni Salafi (or Wahhabi) revivalist movement is particularly noteworthy as it dominates the philosophy of Saudi Arabia, which uses its considerable financial and religious influence to spread the ideology abroad. The movement has its roots in Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, a scholar whose thinking was greatly influenced by his travels in the 18th century Ottoman world.
For Abd-al-Wahhab, the central Islamic tenets of monotheism forbade the reverence of saints and their shrines. Shiite belief attaches a sacred nature to the descendants of Muhammad, deferring spiritual and political guidance to them and focusing much of its worship around their shrines. Not content with arguments that Islam allowed for such practices, Abd-al-Wahhab set about finding a political partner to carry out his reformation, eventually finding the House of Saud, which would consolidate its power of the Arabian Peninsula over the next century to found modern-day Saudi Arabia.
For traditional Twelver Shiites - the predominate branch today - scholars played no role in governing the nation. Thus, Ayatollah Khomeini, who first pushed the idea of a rule of scholars (wilayat-ul-faqih), is seen by many Arab Shiites as somewhat of an opportunist, who touted the concept in order to justify the Iranian Revolution. Today, according to Jones, more Bahraini Shiites emulate Iraqi clerics such as Ali Al-Sistani, than Khomeini or other Iranian clerics.
While a number of influential Sunni scholars, such as the Egyptian Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, have made an effort to tone down the sectarian rhetoric - especially after the brutal lessons of the Iraqi Civil War - most Salafis have not. In fact, Saudi leaders do not hesitate to leverage their control over Mecca and Medina to highlight their views that the Shiite are a "deviant" sect. As fighting raged on the Saudi-Yemeni border last year between the Shiite Houthi rebels and Saudi forces, Saudi jets dropped bombs along with flyers warning, "You attack the State of Islam and Muslims, seat of the Two Holy Shrines."
The aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 provided fresh impetus for Sunni fears. Leaders in the Gulf saw an anti-imperialist trend that reminded them of the Gemal Abdul Nasser era, when they fought the Arab nationalist through a number of proxy wars.
The only two states in the region with sizable Shiite populations, Iraq and Bahrain, became problematic soon after. Iraq's membership in the GCC was suspended after it invaded Kuwait in 1991 (it is on its way to being reinstated again, once the Shiite-dominated government there can convince everyone they hate Iran), but received no such censure when Saddam Hussein launched an invasion of Iran in 1980.
Initially motivated by Iraqi territorial claims in Iran and control of the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway, the eight-year war morphed into a jihad not unlike the one in Afghanistan for Sunni Arabs, as Saddam received massive economic and military support from the Arab League, the United States, and a number of European powers.
For Iran's Shiites, the war had tremendous religious significance as the tombs of Ali and many of his descendants were on the other side of the front lines. The leading Shiite scholars in Najaf and Karbala, the historic centers of Shiite training, were either killed by Saddam during the war, or forced to flee to places like Qom in Iran. Iran in turn maintained support for the Islamic Dawah Party - believed to be responsible for organizing a number of bombings and coup attempts in the region - throughout the '80s.
Bahrain became pivotal as Iraq and Iran battled for control of the oil shipment routes in the Gulf. Hundreds of oil tankers were destroyed, threatening to pull the United States and the GCC countries into the war. The GCC formed a rapid military deployment force and spent billions of dollars buying radar systems from Western powers to thwart any Iranian attack on the Straits of Hormuz. Today, the Straits continue to be the world's most crucial choke point for oil, accounting for 40 percent of the world's oil shipments.
(Part 1 – To Continue)
*Haider is not the interviewee's real name, which is being withheld to protect him from reprisals.
1. Al-Tajir, Mahdi Abdalla, "Bahrain, 1920-1945: Britain, the shaikh and the administration," London, 1987.
2. "Bahrain's Base Politics: the Arab Spring and America's Military Bases," Daniel H. Nexon, Alexander Cooley, Foreign Affairs, 2011.
3. Fisk, Robert, "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East," New York 2005, pp 125, 847.
4. Fisk, Robert, "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East," New York 2005, pp 613.
5. Fisk, Robert, "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East," New York 2005, pp 661-662.
6. "The Gulf Cooperation Council: Record and Analysis," RK Ramazani, 1988, pp 60-67.
7. "World Oil Transit Chokepoints," Energy Information Administration, 2011.