Hasan Moosa Shafaie

MPs and Politicians:­

Beware of the Sectarian Fire

Hasan Moosa Shafaei

A seminar was held in the house of Sheikh Jassim Al Saidi (MP) at the end of October entitled ‘Challenges Face Sunnis in Bahrain’, which raised many questions regarding the sectarian situation in the country. The importance of this seminar comes from the fact that the main speaker was Khalifa Al Zahrani, the President of the House of Representatives. Al Zahrani called for the unification of Sunni societies, hinting that their rights are being attacked whilst they remain patient. He also sees the need of the Sunni societies become well organized and coordinated in order to confront these challenges.

This call originated from Al Saidi, MP and traditional religious man (Salafi), who called on all Sunni Islamic political societies to coordinate and take strong positions with regards to ‘loyalty to the country and leadership, the reality of sectarian discrimination in Bahrain, the truth of the demographic naturalization, the position towards terrorism, the loss of state security and pride, and finally conducting regular meetings between Islamic Sunni societies to discuss current issues’. Al Saidi accused some political forces, which were not mentioned by name, of ‘attempting to destroy the Islamic movement in the kingdom and distort Islam’s image by making baseless accusations and spreading rumours to mobilize the public against the Government without any legal or Islamic justification’. (Al Saidi was referring to the Shia political movements)

Fortunately, and in a commendable step, the Ministry of Justice and Islamic affairs was quick to respond to this illegal sectarian and political polarization by issuing a statement stressing that all political societies regardless of their name, are national and public organizations, which work to organize and represent the citizens, only as citizens, and not on the bases of gender, race, colour, ethnicity and class. These societies work to promote culture and political activism within the framework of national unity, social peace and democracy. In addition they protect the independence and security of the national unity, through the use of legal political means, as stated in the Constitution, National Action Charter and the law. The Ministry added that Al Saidi’s call was directed to political societies on the basis that they were Islamic societies involved in politics. The Ministry stressed that these societies are not solely Islamic, since the second article of the Societies’ Act states that ‘any society or group will not be considered a political society if it was established solely for religious purposes’. The Ministry also explained that the phrase ‘Islamic’ points to the common identity of this country and that it is an umbrella which covers all Muslims and non Muslims regardless of their religion and sect. The Ministry also emphasized the need to protect the national unity and social fabric of the nation.

The seminar drew considerable criticism of officials, media, political societies and NGOs, and prompting the President of the House of Representatives to have a u-turn, and forcing him to confirm the national values and parameters of political action which was approved in official documents, in particular the National Action Charter and the Constitution.

The timing and the language used in Al Saidi’s call for political polarization raises several issues that need to be explained:

Sectarianism and sectarian polarization is the main threat facing the social fabric of Bahraini society. Secondary sectarian affiliations in all multicultural societies can only be dealt with by strengthening the concept of citizenship and national identity, especially when the Government deals with the various social segments. However, what is surprising is that these sectarian calls did not only come from elected MPs but also from the President of the House of Representative. This illustrates that sectarianism is still deeply rooted in the mind of political and intellectual elites, who use sectarian rhetoric to reach their own political goals. This strategy has been widely used in many Arab, Islamic and non-Islamic countries. It is not important whether these elites are religious or not since sectarianism has no link to religion, let alone for being the basis for building nations.

It is difficult to understand the reasons and justifications behind such calls, especially since forgiveness, equality and brotherhood constitute integral parts of the reform project, which every individual, sect and movements have benefitted from. A closer examination reveals that some likely reasons including: regional influences, especially the effects of the sectarian civil war in Iraq, which influenced nationalists, leftists and religious elites. Also, sectarian interferences from neighbouring countries, who want to settle old scores outside their boarders has encouraged the growth of sectarianism.

More importantly, the reform project, which was meant to remove sectarian tension, succeeded in reducing the tension from the Shia segment and at the same time elevated the status of the Royal Family to that of a ‘paternal figure’ for all Bahrainis. The reforms, through democracy included all parties in the political machinery of the state, including the Sunni Islamic movement. However, in spite of its many achievements, the reform project has caused a great deal of resentment from both Sunni and Shia extremists, where each group believes that they were unfairly treated and blames the Government for siding with the opposite party.

We must not forget that one of the main obstacles confronting the democratic transition is the acceptance of new concepts. For example, not everyone accepts the idea of equality between all citizens, either because of an odd interpretation of a religious text or because of close links to the political system. At the end of the day, the democratic tools, the concept of equality and social justice exist to serve everyone without any exception.

When we say that sectarianism has no religion, we mean that what might seem as an ideological conflict may not necessarily be the case. Maybe in the mind of simple people but not in the mind of the elites, who use sectarianism as a tool and a cover for their political rivalry. When examining the issues raised by Al Saidi, it becomes apparent that all the issues raised were of a political nature. From the Shia point of view, the issues of naturalization, discrimination and loyalty were also interpreted differently so as to serve a political purpose. The question here is what is the relation between sectarianism and religion? In truth all the issues raised by Al Saidi were used by both parties in order to gain their rights, which they believe were stripped away from them. In theory, equality should abolish the terms majority, minority, indigenous citizen, foreign citizen and the feeling of unfairness. All citizens should be treated equally regardless of their backgrounds.

The aim of those that advocate sectarianism is to gain more Government’s spending and services such as employment, housing and high ranking positions, even if it is at the expense of the other political parties. Public services have been frequently used in the political rhetoric by both sides, including elected MPs. The solution to this problem in the hands of the King, who intends to balance the interests of all the various parties involved. There are several points that can reduce sectarian tensions, which include the following:

1. It is evident that the religious elites are politically inexperienced, and although their sectarian rhetoric might serve their interests during a particular phase, it will have a devastating effect on society in the long- term. The Sunni and Shia divide will always remain and there is no other solution but to coexist, accept and respect one another, and refrain from using the sectarian language in the political discourse. Such a language contradicts democratic and human rights principles, the reform project and its institutions.

2. The violent and extremist tendency within the Shia community has caused much fear and apprehension. The problem was dealt with wisely by Government officials who took into account the greater national interests, and the stability and unity of the country. Extremism should not be dealt with in a stereotypical manner since these violent groups do not represent the whole Shia community. Nor should it be the basis for any sectarian positions and speeches, which would divide society and encourage the Authority to use oppression. The sectarian response by some elected officials has undermined the current political process. The law should be left to deal with riots and violence, whilst officials should be left to deal wisely with the security issue. Additionally, politics, security and sectarianism should be separated from each other. We must stop importing foreign sectarian problems into our country, as we have enough problems to deal with ourselves.

3. Elected politicians should make sure that they do not drag the Government and its officials into a sectarian quagmire because the Government’s services should serve all citizens regardless of their religious or tribal affiliations. The State belongs to everyone and should solve social disputes in order to guarantee stability and balance in the country. This can be done by learning from the experience of contemporary countries that have already dealt with civil, religious and ethnic conflicts. The sectarians and racists can only succeed when they manage to drag the government’s apparatus into their conflict.

The sectarian divide will always remain with us, hence the religious leaders bear the responsibility of promoting and regulating discussion and dialogue. The law could also be of great help to them in this regard, since it criminalizes those who disrespect and demean sacred symbols. The solution to the current political problems does not lie in the ‘street’, or through sectarian polarization or through violence. Political problems should be discussed in Parliament so that possible solutions can be proposed and take the form of legislation.