December 6th, 2012: Not Shi’i not Sunni, Just Bahraini!’: The non-violent pro-democracy movement

On February 14 2011, inspired by the Jasmine Revolution and, moreover, by what Iranian scholar Hamid Dabashi has called a ‘reconfigured geopolitics of hope,’ Bahrainis of all walks of life poured into the streets of the capital Manama under a single chant and a simple request: al-Shab Yurid Isqat al-Nizam, ‘the people demand the overthrow of the regime.’

NOVACT – International Institute for Nonviolent Action, publishes this article to honour the nonviolent militancy of those who participated in the secular nonviolent pro-democracy movement in the Kingdom of Bahrain. The courage of the numerous political activists sentenced to life in prison in Manama, the legacy of Ayat al-Qurmezi, and the noble actions of the Salmaniyya Hospital Complex medical staff, ought to be remembered and never forgotten.

Very much has been reported about the Syrian, Egyptian and Libyan uprisings, while the tiny Gulf State of Bahrain has been abandoned by the Arabs, the West and the rest of the world. In response to the sectarian narrative, which has been widely employed against the legitimate demands of Middle Eastern citizens in Lebanon, Iraq and lately in Bahrain, NOVACT-Barcelona, wants to critically tackle two myths behind the sectarian narrative. In unpacking the causes and the unfolding of this nonviolent uprising, we can go beyond the sectarian and ethnic language and demonstrate that the demands of thousands of disenfranchised women and men in Bahrain go beyond sectarianism.

Myth number 1. Despite the corporate and royal endeavor to portray Bahrain’s uprising as a sectarian issue, the nonviolent movement in Bahrain was not a sectarian confrontation between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Notwithstanding, demographics features matter in Manama!

Bahrain is a tiny island state in the Persian Gulf with a total area of little less than 800 km2, and an overwhelming Shi’a Muslim majority. However, since the 19th century, the country has been ruled by the al-Khalifa royal family who profess Sunni Islam.

Historically, human rights groups have documented state-orchestrated discrimination on a sectarian and ethnic basis against Shi’a Bahrainis and non-naturalised migrant foreign workers. According to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Shi’a Bahrainis are not allowed to hold positions in the military or the police, are not represented in any ministry, and face systematic discrimination on a daily basis in several fields including employment, education and the public sector. Iranian scholar, Vali Nasr, senior fellow at the Belfer Centre at Harvard University, has described the systematic discrimination against Shi’a Bahrainis as ‘apartheid.’

Rivalry between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims is not new in the postcolonial Middle East. Countries like Lebanon, Iraq and Azerbaijan have gone through similar disputes of varying severity. However, as Iraqis and Lebanese can testify, during the last fifty years sectarian cleavages have been galvanised and instrumentalised for political and economic purposes. Post-Saddam Iraq is the best and most worrying instance. Mixed marriages, neighbourhoods and schools were common in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. However, after the US-led illegal military invasion, sectarian differences have being sharply exacerbated driving the country into a civil war. In this vein, see NOVACT’s publication Searching for Peace in Iraq (2012). Evidently, the old Roman doctrine divide et impera continues to be an excellent imperialistic strategy for the benefit of imperial domination.

The latter societal process sustained in the Middle East over its post-colonial history has jeopardised the relations between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. Indeed, discrimination on a sectarian basis is a reality in Bahrain, Nevertheless, the civil non-violent pro-democracy movement in Bahrain went far beyond a sectarian logic. Although the uprisings were secular in origin, local authorities, state-controlled media and foreign powers have sought to distort the incidents as Shi’a attacks against their Sunni brothers.

Sectarianism historically stood in the way of the Bahraini Left’s efforts to achieve unity against the Sunni government, and the al-Khalifa House has instrumentalised these sectarian divisions to delegitimise any calls for democratisation. Consequently, against the official sectarian narrative, Bahrainis have actively struggled to show the world that their claims are rooted in economic and political facts. For instance, during the televised marches in the early months of the uprisings, the world saw massive banners at the demonstrations with messages like ‘Sunnis and Shi’as are brothers,’ ‘This country cannot be sold,’ or ‘Nor Shia, nor Sunni I am Bahraini.’ Similar efforts were carried out in the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), when social movements took over the responsibility to diminish the wounds of their bloody 15-year civil war, and create a Lebanese non-sectarian identity.

As several international watchdog organisations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have reported, the medical staff who assisted the wounded were accused by the Bahraini authorities and the state-controlled media of acting in favour of Shia and against Sunni Muslims. For instance, doctors and nurses at the Salmaniya Medical Complex, Manama’s biggest medical facility, were accused by Bahrain’s Ministry of Justice of assisting only Shia Muslims and fabricating wounds, and were imprisoned for ‘high crimes against the Kingdom’.

Sectarianism characterises state-controlled televised statements. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, established by King Hamad, dedicates a special chapter to the demagogic and perverse role of mass media during the uprising. In the chapter, ‘Allegations of media harassment,’ several journalists were found guilty of defamation.

Both Bahrainis and expatriates who have lived in Bahrain know that the economic disparities do not exclusively affect Shia Muslims. Bahrain, like all other Gulf States, is a large importer of a migrant labour force. For an excellent analysis of migrant workers in Bahrain see Harvard University Ahmed Kanna’s work. Worryingly, according to the 2010 national census, Bahrain has a total population of 1,234,571people, out of which only 568,399 are citizens. Namely, 54% of the people living in Bahrain are not nationals and do not qualify as full citizens. In some cases Sunni Pakistani, Syrian or Bangladeshi workers are granted Bahraini nationality, but the vast majority of migrant workers are gathered in ghettos together with Bahrain’s indigenous Arabs.

With concern, several organisations have noted that the al-Khalifa royal family has systematically imported Sunni Muslims from Syria and Pakistan, both Sunni majority countries where their respective Shia minority does extremely well and sectarianism is common among low waged people, to join Bahrain’s security forces to quell the uprisings. To appreciate the psychological implication of such a trend, it is necessary to take account of the deep-rooted prejudices that exist between religious Shia and Sunni. Worryingly, the Bahraini Sunni security forces, namely the police and the military, have been employing increasing numbers of Sunni Muslims who have always perceived Shi’a Muslims as their enemies. Again, we see another colonial strategy that was largely used in colonial control of the Global South.

Certainly, the economic and political disparities which lay behind the 2011 non-violent uprising are not rooted in sectarianism. The regime though, has used the sectarian narrative to quell the demands of thousands of disenfranchised Bahrainis.

Myth 2: The Islamic Republic of Iran wasn’t the main stakeholder behind the uprisings, both the Saudi Crown and the Anglo-American power had more to lose in this battlefield than the Persian autocracy

As the Arab Spring unfolded in 2011, Western policy makers, and their Arab proxies, displayed concern about the events in Tripoli and Damascus. Consequently, the answer to the Libyan crisis was a NATO-led offensive against the government of Muammar Gaddafi, and an unwavering financial and military support for the National Transitional Council. Similarly, the Western and Saudi response to the Syrian crisis has been to offer financial and military support to the social platforms and militias that make up the Syrian opposition.

Nevertheless, the international reaction to the non-violent uprising in Bahrain has been drastically different. Since the onset of the Bahraini uprisings, the Islamic Republic of Iran was accused of orchestrating the unrest among their Shia brothers. However, if one takes a look to the tribal rule of the Kingdom, its economy, and its geopolitical importance, it is clear that the US and Saudi governments have more interests in this tiny archipelago than the Iranian government.

Effectively, the international politics of culture and religion matter in this region and historically both Iraq and Iran have played an important role mobilising Shia Muslims all over the Middle East. However, in a United Nations survey conducted in 1970, which some have described as a referendum, an overwhelming majority of Bahrainis wished for their country to be recognized as a fully independent state. Nowadays, after decades of top-down ‘de-Iranisation’ policies, most Bahrainis have more tights to Western nations than to the Islamic Republic. Certainly, major geopolitical events in the Islamic Republic have had consequences outside Iran. The Iranian 1979 Revolution inspired Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, mostly populated by impoverished Shia oil workers, in Lebanon, and, of course, in Bahrain. Notwithstanding this, in 2011 Bahrain’s nonviolent movement did not find a reliable ally in Tehran, Bahrain’s royalty, on the contrary, did not hesitate to call Riyadh and Washington for assistance.

As Middle East specialist Shirin Sadeghi has argued, Bahrain’s problems are deeply rooted in colonialism, not sectarianism. Bahrain, echoing Sadeghi, is another victim of British mapmaking. The financial and political interests that justify the Western support to the al-Khalifa family are of paramount importance. This tiny island state hosts the US Fifth fleet, America’s naval force responsible for the naval security of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, and the coasts of the Horn of Africa. The surveillance of geostrategic places for trade and defense such as the Suez Canal or the Strait of Hormuz depend on this naval division. Major US operations in the region, including the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, were conducted from this base, the largest US military base outside the US soil.

The UK also has several military and intelligence links with Bahrain. Recently, the British newspaper The Telegraph uncovered the links between Britain’s armed forces and the training of Bahraini soldiers on Saudi soil. Meanwhile, the UK and US accused Iran of interference in the unrest. Furthermore, the story of Bahrain’s intelligence services brings more facts to light about the Anglo-American endeavours to contain change in this country. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, established by King Hamad after the 2011 unrest, concluded that ‘the National Security Agency followed a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody.’

In a 2002 documentary titled ‘Blind Eye to the Butcher’, Carlton ITV documents the links between Ian Henderson, a British colonial police officer overseas, and the creation of Bahrain’s National Security Agency (NSA), formerly the General Directorate for State Security Investigations. Henderson, internationally known for his alleged use of torture during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, was employed by King Hamad for more than 28 years as head of state security.

Joe Stork, HRW Deputy Director for the Middle East, has extensively documented the links between Foreign Office officials and state torture in Bahrain. These scandals have been raised repetitively at the British and European Parliaments. The latter in 1997, passed a resolution calling on the UK to order Henderson to leave Bahrain.

Britain’s Klaus Barbie’, the ‘Butcher of Bahrain’ or ‘Kenya’s torturer in-chief’, were some of his sobriquets. In Britain he has been honoured twice by the George Medal and the Queen Elizabeth II Order of the British Empire. He lives in a £250,000 house in Devon, England.


In Central Asia and the Gulf region the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, has diverted attention from the real economic and political problems that affect this region. These political problems stand in the way of the non-violent resistance to achieve unity and effectiveness. Against the legitimate demands of the people of the Middle Eastern, sometimes organised in voluntary civil associations and sometimes not, most grassroots attempts at democratisation in Saudi Arabia, the Gul

This political engineered sectarianism is standing in the path of peace and democracy. It is imperative for the world to comprehend the economic and social incentives that encourage governments to stress ethnic, sectarian and racial divisions.

In ‘The Arab Spring and the End of Post-colonialism’, an inspiring interpretation of the Arab Spring from the Green Movement to the Jasmine Revolution, Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi talks about a ‘reconfiguration of the geopolitics of hope.’ Nevertheless, he argues, that a transformation of consciousness, hence a sustained struggle against the ‘régime du savoir,’ is absolutely necessary to overcome the plights of the colonial manufactured world: transcending sectarianism is part of this collective transformation. Now, a year and a half after the Pearl Roundabout was demolished by Saudi-led forces, several social activists, nor Sunni nor Shia but Middle Eastern citizens, remain in prison. The world remains silent. Meanwhile, in Manama’s ghettos poorly-paid Bahrainis keep on resisting. As broadcasted in Al Jazeera’s extraordinary documentary, they keep on shouting every night, Shouting in the Dark.