Bahrain has always been a multicultural country; since its ancient history, Bahrain's small but diverse population has thrived through tolerance and mutual understanding. Bahrain's geographic location and maritime commerce have all played a crucial role in its diversity.
Throughout its history, Bahrain has undergone three uprisings, of which the revolutionary waves of the Arab Spring were the largest. The Arab Spring triggered the rise of political Islamism and sectarianism in the region. Though Bahrain has always been a sectarian country, what makes it so inflamed right now is the fact that people are no longer ashamed of their sectarianism. Arguably, the Arab Spring caused citizens to feel pride in their sectarianism, placing a great deal of value on defending the exclusive rights of an individuals own sect. For Bahrain, the Arab Spring triggered not only a clash of interests, but also a clash of faith.
Despite the government's frequent use of identity politics as a means to promote legitimacy, the people of Bahrain lived in harmony prior to the Arab Spring 1. There are multiple narratives about the origins of Bahrain's division. Many argue that it was corruption and the lack of transparency in government, as well as the discrimination felt by anti-government protesters, which triggered unrest during the Arab Spring. The current sectarian divide in Bahrain is greatly influenced by economic disparity and a lack of civil rights; however, there is also an important historical component. This paper will demonstrate the importance of imperial Britain's Divide and Rule policy during Bahrain's colonization.
Bahrain's uprising had an enormous impact on society, fueling intense polarization among the country's citizens. Mobilized within their sects, citizens separated themselves from members of other religious groups, which resulted in the formation of two major groups, one pro-government and Sunni faction, and the other anti-government and Shiite. Islamists within each sect hijacked the movement, fueling sectarianism by emphasizing extreme positions rather than seeking compromise. Sunni groups fortified Sunni-dominated areas with civilian checkpoints, while riot police secured the Shia-dominated areas by securing exits, and restricting movement. Anti-government protesters were active at the Pearl Roundabout, while pro-government groups rallied at the Al Fatih Mosque courtyard 2. Both groups have different narratives about what was happening in Bahrain. The Sunni faction narrative claims that it's an Iranian conspiracy; the sole aim of it is to topple down the Sunni monarchy and replace it with Velayet Al Faqih. It is also worth noting that the majority of government supporters deny the government's brutal crackdown, the ill treatment of the protesters and their torture in jail. The pro-government side claims that Hezbullah and the Iranian revolutionary guards trained the protesters. Many people stressed that the anti-government protesters use mosques, as a haven for homemade weapons, and that there demands for democracy and civil rights is just a way to lure the international community. On the other hand, the Shiite narrative revolves around the government's brutality, discrimination, unjustified arrests and torture; however, the majority of the pro-government deny these claims, stating them as delusional. Cherif Bassiouni 3 described the polarization as being "like a murder scene where you have the dead body, but nobody can agree if the bullet came from the right or the left"4.
As polarization deepened and became increasingly rooted within Bahraini society, it led to various business boycotts; people boycotted the other sect and people lost their jobs in the governmental sector because of their religious identity. While in the private sector, many people lost their jobs due to their involvement with groups opposing the government. The government ordered big corporates to fire people that were protesting at the Pearl Roundabout. In addition to their impact on individuals, these boycotts had larger negative repercussions as well, causing Bahrain's economy to suffer. The Arab Spring in Bahrain affected the private sphere as well. People lost their spouses, childhood friends, and relatives. Rates of intermarriage plummeted. The sectarian tension was at its highest peak when people refrained from socializing with the opposite sect regardless of their political affiliation. Even those who claimed neutrality found it difficult to predict whether it would be acceptable to greet colleagues of a different religious identity in both business and academic settings. The rising intolerance also became increasingly visible on social media websites, such as Twitter and Facebook. Tensions escalated to the point where citizens from both sects began to report anonymously about each other on the internet, which led directly to police action including arrests.
As tensions continued, people became increasingly radicalized. Those who identified themselves as liberal patriots emphasized an ultra-orthodox Sunni identity, and those who initially called for democratic reforms increasingly followed the direction of Shiite clerics. Extremists from both sides made illiberal demands, though the substance of these demands varied: while Sunni demands mostly stem from an alternation of lifestyles, such as bans on alcohol and pork, Shia demands remained mostly political, and included dissolving the 2002 constitution, investigation of torture allegations, release of all political prisoners and activists, an elected prime minister, and an end of political naturalization. The sectarian tension lingers not only in public settings such as businesses and the Internet, but also in the private realm as well, permeating every aspect of social fabric. The extent to which sectarianism and intolerance have become deeply embedded across Bahraini society mean that religious division will continue to determine the life and politics of Bahrain in the foreseeable future.
1 The Bahraini government's use of identity politics is widely acknowledged; however, it is also worth noting that the same modus operandi is very apparent in other areas such as workplaces, and is employed by members of both sects.
2 Pearl Roundabout was a monument of Bahrain where the uprising took place in 2011. Though the government following the uprising dismantled the monument itself, the area is still secured by military tanks and remains inaccessible to the public. Al Fatih Mosque is an important mosque in Bahrain's capital, Manama.
3 Cherif Bassiouni is an Egyptian-American professor of law at DePaul University. The King of Bahrain asked him to lead a commission of inquiry to investigate the events that took place in the uprising.
4 The Independent. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/bahrain--the-divided-kingdom-2333431.html
*Graduate of Bahçeşehir University, Political Science and International Relations Department