The Sunni-Shiite conflict is inherited from the early decades of Islam. The relationship was never rosy, but rather a mixed bag with plenty of bloodshed throughout Islamic history. The conflict has been a mixture of tribal and ideological differences and a struggle over power. Bahrain is an interesting case where sectarianism is an entrenched problem that is most essentially a symptom of kleptocracy.
In Bahrain, the government, headed by the King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has resorted to hate speech to incite sectarian violence between the country’s Shia and Sunni communities. The government’s marginalization of the Shia community has expanded in scope and magnitude since King Hamad came to power in 1999. Since that time, the population of Bahrain has doubled under a plan to transform Shia from majority to minority. This strategy is designed to distract the population and draw the public’s focus away from the kleptocracy.
About one-quarter of Bahrain’s public landmass is either missing from the records of the State Registration Board or officially transferred to members of the ruling family and their allies without a single penny recorded in the state budget. Such findings cannot be categorized under corruption when the state is structured as a “criminal organization” and the objective is about extraction and concentration of resources for personal benefits of the ruling family.
Sectarianism, human right crimes, creation of monopolies, and the solicitation of subsidies or aid are the methods employed to sustain the kleptocracy. Therefore, it is hard to address sectarianism without considering the role of business in this cycle. Engaging business owners in programs of labor market reform and confronting the abuses against migrant workers can enhance the independence of laborers and business owners and strengthen their political role.
In the Gulf, Kleptocracy Syndrome comes with a list of symptoms, such as sectarianism, violations of basic human rights, and the absence of religious freedom and a fair judiciary system. In advanced stages of Kleptocracy Syndrome, sectarianism is promoted and utilized to divide and conquer and can lead to terrorism—not just against Bahrainis but even U.S. individuals and assets in Bahrain. All of this leads to a higher risk of widespread atrocities and an absence of basic principles for resolving conflicts and struggles.
These symptoms are manifest in Bahrain where—since the upheaval in 2011—many Shia mosques were demolished, injured Shia protesters were denied access to hospitals, and those who were inside hospitals were tortured. In addition, citizens have faced collective punishment through the wide use of tear gas, which led to deaths of many infants and elders with chronic diseases. The sectarian incitement peaked with the shooting of protesters in their backs while they were fleeing from riot police and the torturing to death of many prisoners.
After I served as a Member of Parliament for six months, representing Bahrain’s largest constituency, I found myself in solitary confinement for speaking loudly about the suffering of Bahrainis and their inspirations. In my cell, I had plenty of time to think. I was asking myself, why am I surprised by the extreme response from some Bahraini Sunnis against Shia? I realized that even without the hate speech and atrocities, sectarianism can be expanded behind the scenes, kept encapsulated, and triggered at a certain critical point. For example, the Bahraini government exploited sectarianism by utilizing state television to orchestrate propaganda about an external Iranian threat through the Shia of Bahrain to establish a theocratic Shia state and to expel Sunnis.
In such advanced cases, many observers, including international players such as the United States, become distracted by the symptoms rather than looking at kleptocracy as a cause. There will no doubt be a misguided focus on the need for respect for human rights, police reform, reconciliation, fair trials through condemnations, consultations workshops, conferences, and training, but none of these initiatives will succeed simply because they would force the kleptocratic regime to relinquish the only tools it has to maintain power. Sectarianism allows the Bahraini regime to maintain control over the majority Shia community and the minority Sunnis who support the political reform community.
Instead of all these initiatives, the United States and other international powers should stop praising kleptocrats in Bahrain by calling them a “strategic ally,” “longtime partner,” or referring to their “longstanding alliance.” Before any talk about sectarianism, the United States should avoid involvement in the cycle of kleptocracy, where international recognition for such a regime is a major asset that allows it to continue its destructive policies.
Sectarianism is not fulfilled prophecy. It is a problem in and of itself, and it is being exploited by kleptocratic regimes. Turning to real democracy will not be the end of the story. But by shutting down the supply of hate speech and discrimination, sectarianism can be managed through peaceful approaches.
This is part of The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs’ 2014 Global Risk Forum. The Global Risk Forum is an effort to convene conversations around some of the most pressing issues we face as a global community in the year ahead: the breakdown of climate change negotiations; the spread of sectarian violence in the Middle East; the credit crisis and economic slowdown in China; the growth of cyber espionage; and the unraveling of Africa’s economic boom. We encourage you to read the conversations, participate with written responses or on social media, and help us work together to produce constructive ideas that will reduce the aggregate risks we face.