This week I have been asked about the state of my home, the Kingdom of Bahrain (a tiny, sleepy island somewhere off the coast of Saudi Arabia) more than I have in my entire university career. “What is the situation there?” seems to be the most popular, followed up by “Do you think the revolution will succeed?”. The loaded question, “Do you want the revolution to succeed?” has been one of the most difficult to negotiate. Frankly, no I do not. This response generally receives either a look of utter confusion, or a wry smile from the more savvy of IR students who will say “Oh, you’re Sunni, then?”
Firstly: yes, I am. I was born to an English mother and a Bahraini, Sunni Muslim, father. Accordingly, I accept that from the very start, my perception of events will often be dismissed as the rattling defence of a young sectarian protégé. However, I will not accept that this is true. My perspective is deemed invalid because I am considered to be from the privileged minority, and so my views are tainted by years of misinformation and seedy motivation. Yet, those camped on Pearl Roundabout (yes, it’s a roundabout not a square, a rather revealing faux pas on the BBC’s front), are spared such cynicism? Perhaps it is because they are in possession of the most coveted of media buzzwords, the ultimate newspaper seller: revolution.
Before we plunge into current affairs, let me explain a bit of the background to this conflict – it will be abysmally short, but hopefully more informative than the THREE BULLET POINTS IN RED BLOCK CAPITALS which most news stations favour in order to outline hundreds of years of history. Firstly, the strife between Shiia and Sunni Muslims is not restricted to Bahrain – across the Middle East these two factions of Islam have suffered tension. The schism began immediately after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, when a dispute broke out about who should take his place as religious leader. Over time, under various warring Caliphates of Sunni and Shiia, some very minor differences in worship developed but essentially prejudices are based in political upheaval rather than a genuine divide of religious doctrine.
Bahrain is an entirely individual case in the Gulf, as it is the only state whose indigenous population has a majority (around 70%) Shiia population. For the most part, the Sunni and Shiia communities have few problems co-existing. Indeed, Bahrain has historically been known as the most tolerant nation in the Gulf. The Muslim population as a whole also live in harmony with the expatriate Christian population (with dozens of churches settled in amongst malls, mosques and restaurants) and a small Jewish community, many of whom are third generation Bahraini. We have had bars and nightclubs for decades, there are no laws pertaining to what women should wear, and on my street alone sit two mosques – one Sunni and one Shiia, co-existing entirely peacefully. The main mark of discord in fact lies more between our Sunni royal family and the Shiia population. Some of the Shiia population accuses the monarchy of marginalizing them, preventing them from working in public sectors although currently 80% of government jobs are taken by Shiia Bahrainis. This alleged prejudice is rooted in the fact that from the 1970s to the 1990s, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain(an Iranian-based Shia resistance) attempted a failed coup intended to install Iraqi Ayatollah Hadi al-Modarresi as the spiritual leader of a theocratic state – a foothold in the heart of the Gulf for Iran.
In order to combat the unrest of the 1990s, our current king, Sheikh Hamad al-Khalifa, enacted the National Charter in 2002 to establish ethnic harmony in Bahrain. This involved the release of hundreds of political prisoners; the launch of investigations into accusations of torture; and the establishment of a Bahraini parliament, which offered fair and equal suffrage to all Bahrainis over 18 years old. Last year’s elections saw the Shia Muslim party Al Wefaq holding 18 seats, whilst their Sunni opposition parties held 5 between them – the remaining 17 seats are held by Independents.
Flash forward to the present day. Protests, many of them violent, have been prevalent for the last three or four years. Anti-monarchy graffiti is scrawled across every house in my area (the most popular phrase being ‘Death to the monarchy, Up Iran’. I personally witnessed ‘peaceful protest’ last April devolving quickly into roaring crowds throwing Molotov cocktails into police cars. The uprising in Egypt ensured the recent Pearl Roundabout protesters international coverage, but this was by no means the first time the Bahrain Defense Force had come up against protesters chanting the adage “death to the Al-Khalifas”. The clashes have been horrific, resulting in the tragic deaths of seven men, and I was sickened to see a place I drove through every day littered with fires and tear-gas canisters. I do not support violence, in any form, but it should be understood that violent protest, in recent times, is an established reality of Bahraini life.
Many Bahrainis, including myself, are supporters of massive reform, but we believe this can be achieved through democratic means, working within the system – revolution is a snappy catchphrase, but in reality bloodshed will escalate, and the threat of a radical Muslim theocratic state backed by Iran looms. 300,000 Bahrainis, both Sunni and Shiia, attended a pro-government rally on Monday – all concerned with the economic stability of our country thrown into uncertainty. This morning our King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa released recently arrested political prisoners so that negotiations can begin peacefully.
Now that Libya is in absolute turmoil I imagine the world’s fascination with my small island will not be held for much longer. We were a convenient tie-in with Egypt and Tunisia; the animation team of Sky News’ dream. They had a third country to add to the chain of reaction, and were free to draw obscure parallels between protests occuring on different continents, all in technicolor HD.