|Shia professors have been removed from their positions in universities, Shia deputies in the parliament were forced to resign, and many activists have been tortured and imprisoned [EPA]
Bahrain’s decision in recent days to demolish dozens of Shia mosques is just the latest move in a dangerous gambit to head off the unrest gripping much of the Arab world, by playing directly to widespread fears of Shia political power and – by extension – of regional power, Iran.
Here, Bahrain stands alone. While other countries have seen an easing of sectarian and ethnic tensions as whole swathes of Arab societies have come together – at least for now – to protest authoritarian regimes, the government in Manama has set out deliberately to fan Sunni-Shia tensions.
The strategy of Bahrain’s ruling Sunni elite seems to be as follows: blame the demonstrations on the majority Shia, and by extension, on Iran; and justify the violent crackdown and accompanying violence as necessary to avert a Shia takeover which might encourage Iran’s direct intervention.
Bahrain has then sought to use these arguments to persuade its close ally and patron the United States that the Saudi invasion was in fact an appropriate response to the uprising. US officials tried to broker a compromise between the opposition, the ruling al-Khalifa family and Saudi Arabia in March, but failed. Moreover, the US appears to be more open to Bahrain’s stated fears of Iranian meddling than it was just weeks ago.
During a recent trip to Bahrain, after a two-year absence, it was clear to me that the sectarian divide now being fueled by the government has profoundly affected society. As part of the government repression, Shia professors have been removed from their positions in universities, Shia deputies in the parliament were forced to resign, and many activists have been tortured, imprisoned, placed on death row, or even killed.
Just this week, the government announced that four Bahrainis would be executed for their political activity. The country, once considered a land of relative tolerance, is now a republic of fear.
“People now see the Shia as provocateurs, even in families where there are mixed marriages,” one lawyer said, sitting in her office that she locks out of fear of being arrested at any moment. Ironically, Bahrain, its Saudi backers – and their bitter rival, Iran, are all playing the same game – for the Islamic Republic of Iran is clearly doing its part to exacerbate the tiny monarchy’s sectarian divide.
Iran undoubtedly harbours pragmatic political and strategic hopes that Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa dynasty will be overthrown in favour of a government more friendly to Tehran. It also makes no effort to disguise its anticipation that such a strategic boon would also lead to a major setback for regional rival, Saudi Arabia, in the form of a “Shia uprising” in the oil-rich eastern part of the kingdom.
Realpolitik aside, however, dozens of articles in the Iranian media reveal that significant anger over the repression against the Shia in Bahrain is building among religious Iranians of all political factions, from traditional clerics to armed members of the Basij militia.
On April 26, brigadier general and commander of the Basij, Mohammad Reza Naqdi, proclaimed that Iranians should unite out of solidarity with their Shia brethren. “If the current conditions do not allow us to get directly involved in the battlefield, we should change the conditions and play a direct role on this scene.” Naqdi’s comments were published on Fars News, a semi-official site with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The brigadier general’s encouragement of “direct involvement” is particularly noteworthy inasmuch as war between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council alliance would prove extremely costly for all nations in the Persian Gulf. Strategically, Iran would gain little through overt combat and stands to lose a great number of lives and endanger its already teetering economy. Thus, while war is highly unlikely, the very fact that one of Iran’s senior commanders publicly urged direct action is a testament to the power of the sentiments of spiritual affinity with Bahrain’s Shia among some key elements of Iran’s establishment.
Meanwhile, many Shia opposition activists expressed frustration that Iran is making a link with their cause – a development they see as unhelpful and even downright dangerous. “Bahrainis have always been put to the test,” said one human rights advocate. “Arabic culture or Persian culture. And we have never failed the test; we are Arabs.”
At first glance, the capital Manama shows few signs that life has changed, aside perhaps from the prominent police check points and the closure of the main road from the airport to the town centre from midnight to 5am. But underneath the surface, the society is more polarised than it was – even in the 1990s, when four years of unrest sparked severe government repression.
As in most authoritarian states, citizens here rarely have a clue of what is forbidden and what is permitted. For example, in March the Shia editors of the only independent newspaper, Al Wasat, were charged with publishing “fabricated news”and “harming public safety”. They were fired from their positions and they are due to face trial, although no court date has yet been set.
The charges against the three, including chief editor Mansoor al Jamri, reflect the new era of repression: The newspaper and al Jamri, in particular, were never viewed as a mouthpieces for Shia views in Bahrain. In fact, al Jamri was asked a decade ago to return to Bahrain, from Great Britain – by the Crown Prince.
The prince even offered him a cabinet post because the monarchy wanted to appear to be reforming the political system. Al Jamri, a member of Bahrain’s elite who was Western-educated and has a Sunni wife, founded al Wasat, which until March had the backing of the government.
The charges against al Jamri have shocked the political elites, who believe his case shows no one is safe or beyond persecution. Perhaps this is the reason the government has singled him out – to intimidate the Shia population.
The Shia of Bahrain experienced similar repression, though not to this degree, in the 1990s. In fact, in 1995 it was al Jamri’s father, Sheikh Abd al Amir al Jamri, who had emerged as the most powerful spokesman of the Shia protest movement. He served time in jail and the government crushed the protests without making significant concessions. And just as now, the Bahraini government accused Iran of instigating years of social and political unrest.
Geneive Abdo is an author, analyst, and the liaison for the United Nation’s Alliance of Civilizations. She has just completed a new book, which will be published in late August: Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11 (Oxford University Press).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.