Bahrain’s royal family has managed to paint the country’s opposition movement as a sectarian affair, involving only Shia and entirely manipulated by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The opposition says that it is not a sectarian uprising, but a political reform movement, and points to members of the country’s Sunni minority (roughly 35 percent of the population) who support their demands.
By calling it an Iranian-backed Shia rebellion, Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family meant not only to flush the Sunnis out of the opposition, but also to frighten Washington, which recognizes Tehran as a threat to vital American interests, including the Manama-based Fifth Fleet. Therefore, Bahraini Shia have been subjected to a campaign of violence and systematic harassment the last few weeks in an apparent attempt to get them to fight back so that the government will have even more leeway to crack down on the opposition.
Among other instruments, the Al Khalifa have been using checkpoints to rattle their people, where the Shia are rousted by policemen and soldiers from places like Yemen, Pakistan, and Syria. These Sunni foreigners have been given Bahraini citizenship in order to try to tilt the sectarian divide in favor of the ruling family, and see the current situation as an opportunity to heap abuse upon the Shia with sectarian slurs.
And yet my Bahraini colleague didn’t understand why were stopped this morning at a checkpoint and told to get out of the car. “Maybe,” I suggested as we were driving off, “it’s because of the two green headbands hanging from your front mirror that say, ‘Hussein the Martyr.’” Given the charged environment, it’s hardly surprising that Sunni security forces are going to be especially watchful for any signs of militant Shia tendencies—like the kind that might be indicated by apparel commemorating the greatest Shia martyr of them all, Hussein.
The fact is, to date, the violence surrounding the uprising in this small country is not coming from the Shia or, for that matter, the local Sunni community. Rather, members of the opposition here are quick to note that the only people who carry weapons in this security-conscious state are government employees. So whoever put two bullets in the head of 51-year-old Bahia al-Arady last week, the first woman killed here since demonstrations began February 14, was not acting simply out of a personal sectarian grievance. At least 20, including al-Arady, have been killed in the demonstrations.
Still, I’m having a hard time figuring out my new friend, whom I’ll call Al. Al’s a youngish colleague, late 20s, whom I met in Beirut before I came to Bahrain. He says he doesn’t want any foreign involvement in Bahrain, not from the Saudis or Emiratis, who sent more than 1,000 troops last week as part of a Gulf Cooperation Council force, nor from Iran. He explains he doesn’t want anything like the Islamic Republic of Iran here in Bahrain, and yet for his religious guide he takes Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei. When I remind him that Khamenei crushed his own domestic opposition, Al notes that for his political guide he takes a different cleric, Bahrain’s Isa Qassem, who merely insists, Al explains, that Shia are owed their rights in Bahrain.
As we drive through Manama, we pass scores of other drivers pulled over at checkpoints and lined up against a wall with their backs turned to their interlocutors’ weapons, just as we had earlier been. How, I asked Al, did the soldiers know they were Shia? Shias speak with a different accent, he tells me. Al takes that as proof that the Shia presence in Bahrain predates the Sunnis by hundreds of years. Also, Al explains, there’s the evidence on the tombstones in the graveyards. Still, it doesn’t bother him that Sunnis rule Bahrain; he just believes it’s not just that the Shia don’t have equal rights. His mother, for instance, has an engineering degree and can’t get a job, even as they import foreigners to do the same work. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman, I suggest. But they hire Sunni women, Al tells me.
When I ask him if he thinks the fall of Saddam gave Shia the sense of new possibility in the region, he demurs and counters that it was the 1979 Islamic revolution that inspired the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts 30 years later. “It was proof that people can change their rulers.” The answer is a little surprising, even if admiration for the Islamic revolution is a fairly characteristic Shia perspective—one I’ve heard not only in Beirut from anti-Hezbollah Shia, but in Washington after many glasses of Shiraz late into the evening with secular Shia.
Nonetheless, Al’s understanding of Shiism gives him a pretty conservative worldview—“It’s our responsibility to improve things, including our own station, and it is wrong to abandon our lives to fate,” he says. “But there are limits to political change that will not be resolved until the Imam Mahdi returns.” Perhaps the real Arab revolution, he thinks, is not what is happening on the streets but is an internal one that is yet to occur. “Islam was supposed to put an end to tribal divisions,” he says. “And yet now we have divisions based not only on tribe but sect as well.”
That internal revolution is the subtext when Al and I are stopped later in the afternoon at another checkpoint, even after he has taken the green headbands off the rear mirror. “Maybe I look Shia,” he says to me as the soldiers approach the driver’s side window. They’re wearing the camouflage uniforms of the GCC force—they’re Saudis. This time we’re told to stay in the car, and to pop open the trunk. “You were in the Pearl Roundabout, weren’t you?” one of the soldiers asks, referring to the large monument commemorating the country’s pre-petroleum economy based on pearl diving. The roundabout served as the main site of the uprising in Bahrain, until security forces dismantled it.
Al, who indeed had been at the Pearl Roundabout earlier, takes a strange detour around the question. He says he was actually in Lebanon, and I am wondering if the Saudi in the dark mask covering his face who has stuck his head in the car can see my jaw drop. It happens to be true he was in Lebanon for part of the time, but this is just the sort of thing that is likely to rile up these occupying forces sanctioned by their Wahabbi government to bear arms against foreign Shia. “So you were visiting your friend Hassan Nasrallah,” one of the Saudis says. “Of course not,” says Al. Nasrallah has taken up the cause of Bahrain’s Shia, and in return the Al Khalifa government has cancelled all flights between Manama and Beirut, and instructed Bahraini nationals inside Lebanon to leave the country.
One of the soldiers asks Al to open the glove compartment, where he’s hidden the two headbands. “What are these?” a soldier wearing a Salafi-style beard asks. Al is compelled by the Saudis to recount the story of Hussein and his martyrdom on a 7th-century battlefield in Kerbala. “We have martyrs, too,” says one of the soldiers. “What’s Kerbala?” he says dismissively.
Al had previously explained to me that the story of Hussein is generally misinterpreted, even by some Shia. Where many see the story of his tragic betrayal and his death at the hands of a superior force as an emblematic tale of Shia suffering and resignation, it is in reality a story of hope and aspiration. The grandson of the prophet knew he was going to lose, but he went anyway. “We believe that Imam Hussein,” Al had told me, “his companions and family members were the real winners at Karbala. Yes, they lost the military battle but they won for their values and beliefs. And that victory gave a great impulse for Shiism to survive.” This central tableau in Shia Islam is a political narrative, not about self-abnegation but about faith and endurance.
Maybe that’s why Al and the rest of the Shia here are able to withstand the taunts of their persecutors. But it also suggests that if the campaign of violence against them persists, it is going to reach a point where the hope and faith invested in the figure of Kerbala moves the Shia to action against the injustice they are suffering, and they are going to have a much better chance of success than their martyr.