On its way to decline:

Hasan Moosa Shafaie

Sectarianism: Problem Not Crisis

Hasan Moosa Shafaei

An individual cannot be labeled ‘sectarian’ for merely practicing his own beliefs and expressing his opinion, but rather being sectarian involves insulting the followers of other sects using religious excuses, or believing that the creed of the ‘other’ is false and should be banned. A sectarian is not an individual who loves his own sect, rather it is he who hates other sects and religions claiming that what he is doing is a religious duty, social habit or that he does so on the basis of ethnic or linguistic grounds. It is not sectarian to help fellow members of the sect, but it is sectarian to favour them at the expense of others and deprive others of their rights. Sectarianism refuses equality of, and justice for, those who are not members of the same sect.

It is not sectarian to wish the best for fellow members of your sect, rather it is wishing the worst for the ‘other’; and it is not sectarian to defend your rights in accordance with the Law, Constitution and according to what citizenship provides you, but to deprive the ‘other’ from his constitutional rights. It is not sectarian to live secluded in your own environment, but rather it is to openly reject co-existence and prevent the promotion of mutual interests and inter-marriages, regarding this as a religious and political sin.

The Bahrain Strategic Report for the year 2009 addressed the sectarian issue adequately, highlighting its weaknesses. The report pointed to the existence of a sectarian ‘problem’ and not ‘crisis’ in the country, and stated that all parties and various social segments are participating in it. According to the report, sectarianism has affected institutions such as ministries, Parliament, clergymen, civil society, and political and charitable institutions. It also added that the problem is spreading amongst the elite as well as ordinary people and that some of its sources are from abroad.

It is surprising that the sectarian problem has surfaced during the on-going reform project. The reason for this - in addition to the foreign influence- is the fact that the reform project has provided a suitable atmosphere for discussing the problem after a long period of silence. The reform project, especially in its political dimension, had for the first time provided political parties with the tools for national integration, which were instead exploited for sectarian purposes, as is the case of the Parliament and its activities.

In fact, the reform project has exposed what was previously kept hidden, and because the democratic experience is new in the country, some parties and figures rushed to exploit the sectarian issue politically; although this was not preferable, it was natural. Thus it is expected that the level and manifestation of sectarianism will decrease in the coming years. This was noted by the Strategic Report by comparing the years 2007 and 2008 with the year 2009.

Bahrain is not experiencing a sectarian ‘crisis’ even if it was recently struck by a sectarian spirit triggered by some old local problems as well as being influenced by regional events. In light of this, our hopes and expectations can be summarized in the following:

1) Political freedoms and the increase in freedom of expression can absorb excessive extremism on the one hand, and control political discourse on the other hand. As long as social forces join together in a political project, the danger seems less than what has been publicized and rumoured. The general attitude of the Government should be taken into account since its agencies and leadership, despite some sectarian violations, are moving towards sectarian tolerance.

2) One of the main reasons for sectarianism is underestimating its danger. However, after the previous years’ experience, especially inside Parliament, all parties began to realize that sectarianism is not necessarily the best tool to serve their objectives, for even if sectarianism served some persons in obtaining a high position, it will not protect the position or provide it with stability. Anyone who aspires to achieve a higher political position, including the opposition which aims to participate in the building of the state, will find the use of a sectarian discourse useless and will damage their credibility.

3) What has led us to anticipate a decrease in the problem is the expansion in the margin of freedom of religious expression, particularly among the Shia. It is evident in many countries that the lack of freedom of expression has provided the raw materials for political conflicts. Bahrain is enjoying a wider margin of freedom and the Government has displayed a great deal of respect by providing financial support to Shia religious gatherings. Some officials and members of the royal family have even attended these gatherings which were broadcast on State television. This kind of attitude distances the State and its leadership from the sectarian conflict and serves to ease any sectarian tension.

4) Finally, the increase in sectarian tensions does not concern Bahrain only but involves the whole region; and if it were not for the positive political changes as well as the efforts of the Government and the active leaders in society, Bahrain would have faced many problems with unexpected consequences. The sectarian tendency has become out of control in the region, and the Strategic Report pointed to its local effects; and because it is declining in neighboring countries for the past two years, it is conceivable that this will contribute to the decline of sectarian discourse in Bahrain itself.