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Sunni-Shi’ite Divide Clouds Prospects for Reform in Bahrain

7 minute read
Aryn Baker / Manama

“Not Sunni, Not Shi’ite, Bahraini!” was the most popular slogan chanted by Bahrain’s pro-democracy demonstrators, but that all-inclusive message was poorly reflected in the crowd of protesters gathered at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout over the past week. Most of the protesters were Shi’ite, and though many assured me that Sunnis were somewhere in the crowd, they were difficult — if not impossible — to find. Ibrahim Sharif was the one exception. A Sunni politician and activist, Sharif is one of the most highlyegarded leaders in the democracy movement, revered by Shi’ites for breaking with the Sunni-dominated power structure, and respected by pro-democracy Sunnis who support reform but wouldn’t necessarily step into the roundabout to wave a placard.

“You won’t see many Sunnis here,” Sharif told TIME. “They have been told by the government that the Shi’ites want to take over the country.” Of course it isn’t true — “We want to choose our leaders, not be the leaders,” one protestor said — but the fear is deeply ingrained in a Sunni minority population that has ruled over this Shi’ite-majority nation for more than 200 years.

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In Bahrain the divide between sects is not doctrinal. Mixed marriages are common, and Sunni and Shi’ite mosques sit side by side in many areas. Bahrain is the only country in the Gulf that allows the unfettered celebration of the Shi’ite holiday that marks the martyrdom of Imam Husain, who was killed in the 7th century in a battle that marked the decisive split between the two major Islamic sects. But take a drive through any village in this tiny island nation of 730,000, of which half a million are citizens, and it’s easy to spot the economic fault lines. Shi’ite villages are marked by unpainted concrete walls, potholed streets and poor lighting. Few have access to the beaches and harbors that were once the mainstay of a pre-oil boom fishing and pearling industry — massive reclamation projects have stolen the sea front. Sunni villages are well maintained, have good drainage and many even claim a small harbor or beach. Shi’ites control 30% of the economy, even though they represent 65% of the population. “It is accurate to say that the Shi’ites have a larger, disproportionate underclass compared to the Sunnis,” says a Western diplomat in Manama, but “how much of it is due to what is happening now as opposed to decisions 20-30 years ago that lead to lower education rates [and higher birth rates] is difficult to assign.”

(See “The Divided World of the Middle East.”)

When Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement took off on February 14th, it was largely about constitutional reform, a goal shared by both sides of the sectarian divide. The Prime Minister, an uncle to the King, has been in power since Bahrain’s independence in 1971. And while there is an elected parliament, it is overshadowed by a Shura council, which, like the prime minister, is appointed by the king, and which quashes any legislation deemed inimical to the interests of the royal family. But the authorities’ deadly crackdown on the democracy demonstrations quickly changed the terms of political debate, spawning a deep sense of betrayal among the Shi’ite victims and their supporters. Demands for reform were eclipsed by calls to remove the king and the royal family, further alienating a Sunni population that sees the King as a father as much as a protector.

“The calls to remove the al-Khalifas is alienating even more Sunnis,” says Sharif, referring to the name of the royal family. “I don’t think these young kids really mean it — no one wants to be a republic — but they are angry and want revenge.” Sharif believes that it will blow over, that once the anger subsides the two sides will be able to work together again for change, but out in the roundabout, and in Sunni enclaves as well, the mistrust and resentment has taken root.

TIME’s Complete Coverage: The Middle East in Revolt

“I have lost so many Sunni friends because of this,” laments pastry chef Zainab al-Halwachi, who closed her business on Monday to join the protests. One friend told her that she was ungrateful for all that the King had done for his people. “She said we deserved what had happened. I was shocked. I said I didn’t want to lose our friendship over politics, but the reality is, after hearing something like that, I don’t think we can ever really be friends again. How many other Sunnis think this way?” A pro-reform Sunni activist, who has given Shi’ite democracy campaigners technical assistance in the past, confided that the new tone of the protests sickened her. “It is tearing us apart even when you walk alongside each other in these protests. You find yourself picking and choosing what to chant.”

Unlike Egypt, where Christians stood guard while Muslims prayed in Tahrir square, Bahrain’s government has successfully driven a wedge between the sects. It’s a move that has gained them short-term relief from the pressure to reform, but will likely end in greater divisiveness. On Tuesday evening, a widely broadcast SMS from the newly formed “unity council” invited all Bahrainis to join in a rally at a nearby mosque. It turned out to be a massive pro-government show of support, complete with mass-printed banners and identical Bahraini flags — a marked contrast to the hand-lettered placards seen at the Pearl Roundabout. Shi’ites were hard to find. The government estimated a turnout of 300,000 — triple the real number, but still a significant showing. The following day a counter rally drew similar crowds. Calls for democratic reform have been drowned out by pro and anti-government stances.

“What we need at this point is unity against violence, censorship and corruption,” says the Sunni activist. “These are things every Bahraini can agree on regardless of their stance.” But the more the divide settles along sectarian lines, the less likely it is that Bahrain will ever see democratic reform. Of the sixty-some people who were missing after the government’s initial crackdown, all but one have been located. Mohammad Bouflasa, a Sunni from a prominent family, stood up on the stage of the first day of the protests to announce, “I am Sunni, and I am with you.” His disappearance immediately afterwards, say anti-government protesters, is a visible warning from the regime to the pro-reform movement’s Sunni sympathizers. By using a combination of force, threats, promises and propaganda, the government of Bahrain has succeeded in dividing the nation and buying time. But the question is what else has it purchased with its unholy currency?

Sharif says what Bahrain really needs it time for reflection. The opposition and the government have entered into a dialogue that he hopes will remove some of the pressures, and will give the anti-government protesters time to cool down. “It will take time to convince people that whatever comes out of this will not dilute what the Sunnis have, it will only make things better for the Shi’ites,” he says. “What ever fruits that come from this movement will be eaten by everyone in Bahrain.” That is, if Sunnis and Shi’ites are even sitting down together by then.

TIME’s Complete Coverage: The Middle East in Revolt

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