The Middle East Channel

Ahead of elections what do Bahraini Shias really want?

Bahraini authorities are getting increasingly irritated with their indigenous community. Since August, Shias have taken to the streets, demanding the government release dozens of activists who have been rounded up on suspicion of conspiring against Bahrain’s rulers. In September, a police clampdown on opposition leaders made headlines across the world and Human Rights Watch released ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Bahraini authorities are getting increasingly irritated with their indigenous community. Since August, Shias have taken to the streets, demanding the government release dozens of activists who have been rounded up on suspicion of conspiring against Bahrain’s rulers. In September, a police clampdown on opposition leaders made headlines across the world and Human Rights Watch released a damning report stating that after having taken steps to curtail the use of torture in recent years, the government had returned to it for interrogations of security suspects.

It’s a strange paradox, as Bahrain is often praised for its ‘liberal, open and transparent’ financial market and efforts to establish a progressive and accountable parliament. But the opposition movement has only grown since democratic reforms were implemented in 2002, including a return to constitutional rule. And the reason for this lies largely in the country’s demographics. More than 75 percent of Bahraini’s are Shia of Persian or Arab origin (only over half of whom are citizens), while the remaining population and the ruling Al-Khalifa family are Sunni.

Despite their demographic predominance in the Kingdom, however, Shias have long complained of systematic discrimination by the government and its Sunni supporters, and are unable to secure adequate housing or public-sector jobs. "While the Shia form…[the majority]…of the population, they only fill 13 percent of the senior positions in Bahrain," says Najeeb Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. "Most of these posts are based in service institutions or the non-government sector." The government dismisses these claims, denying that discrimination exists at all and that the mass arrests by police had only to do with a "cell" of activists who stand accused of "plotting to overthrow the ruling family".

Following the arrests, the Bahraini authorities referred ominously to the involvement of "outside forces", which most observers have taken to mean Iran, which has long been accused of harboring territorial ambitions over Bahrain. For Adel Al Moawda, the chairman of Bahrain’s Parliamentary Foreign Affairs, Defense and National Security Committee, the reason behind the opposition movement rests largely on Iran’s alleged support to Bahraini Shias in establishing an independent state. "They [the Shia] are loyal to the land of Bahrain, not to the regime or to the political system. We need them to be loyal to everything. It takes time. This problem has occurred after Khomeini and his revolution [in Iran]. Since then, they thought they needed their own state." Does the ruling government feel the vast majority of Shias, then, want their own state? "Yes, I think the majority of illiterate ones do. The educated ones know better."

But how inclined are actually Bahraini Shias towards Iran?

Maryam Al-Khawaja is a 23-year-old human rights activist who has been active in the opposition movement within Bahrain since she was 14. "People in Bahrain do have a connection to Iran but it’s a religious connection…it’s the same connection that people have to the Pope or to Italy," she says. "What the government talks about is the Shia being funded by Iran. If that were true, they would have been more violent with the government. Up until now, the Shia have never taken up arms."

Educated at the University of Bahrain, Maryam recalls Shias in her classes not being allowed to express their views. "In the mandatory history class, which speaks about the Sunni ruling family and their glorious achievements, all parts of Shia involvement in the making of Bahrain are overlooked," she says. "When one of our American professors allowed us to express our opinions in class, he was put under probation by the university board and threatened with expulsion." Maryam’s worst experience with the Bahraini authorities came nearly three years ago when she saw her father being beaten at a protest. "He was attending a peaceful demonstration organized by a group of unemployed Shia youth that was and attacked by the Bahrain Special Security Services," she recalls.

Ali, a 24-year-old IT technician who has never participated in a protest, lives in a Bahraini village and relates a similar encounter with police. Last month, his brother was arrested in front of his home by riot police after youth demonstrations broke out in the village:

We heard two jeeps pull up in front of our house. They pulled my brother from the door and beat him…punching him and then putting a cover on his head. My mother and father were watching and my mother was crying. We all went to the police center and they asked him to sign a paper saying that he had been involved in some sort of issue and that he would not be involved in any other crime or else he would be returned back to them. He is not even a protestor…he is a driver for a small company. This sort of thing caused terror in my family, especially for my mother. It is this image in my head that I consider even worse than my brother being beaten — seeing my parents helpless. My father begged the police to release him but they refused. They kept him for one night.

Ali says the experience has only strengthened his identity as a Bahraini. "All of this makes me feel even more like a part of the country." "It’s a contradiction," he admits. "We are the majority…that means it’s our land so they should give us at least a bit of freedom. I just want a bit of reform. The King can be there, yes, but we just want some reforms in parliament and freedom of speech. The government knows as well as anyone that we are loyal citizens."

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed even among the more hard-line opposition activists. "You can’t question the loyalty of those whose ancestors are from Bahrain. You can question the loyalty of someone whose ancestors are from outside," says Saaed Shehabi, who leads the Bahrain Freedom Movement based in London. "It’s they [the government] who feel like they do not belong — not us."

Shehabi’s movement aims to bring a new constitution to parliament and played a leading role in the 1990s uprising in Bahrain, after which Shehabi was exiled to the UK. Shehabi says that the Bahrain Freedom Movement does not have ambitions to overthrow the current regime, but that a "different government would be ideal". "They think we’re an illegitimate movement and we think they’re an illegitimate government…it is clear they want to change the demographic nature of the country," he says, referring to a whistleblower’s claim in 2006 that the authorities are trying to erode the country’s Shia majority by granting citizenship to foreign Sunnis. "But you can’t suppress a majority population or make them second class citizens."

With parliamentary elections being held on Saturday, it is possible that the rise in protests and ensuing Shia crackdown are a warning to other Arab governments (who have been supportive of the ruling family) and the silent Western governments, that Bahrain’s Shias are unlikely to remain acquiescent.

Shenaz Kermali is a London-based freelance journalist with a focus on Middle Eastern politics. She has previously worked for Al Jazeera English (London and Doha), BBC News and CBC Television.

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