Political Initiatives to Combat Sectarianism

The root of the problem in Bahrain and the escalating sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shia is undeniably political. It is not a disagreement over a specific religious issue between Shia and Sunni scholars, nor is it a result of 14 centuries of ideological differences. Rather, the present conflict is a result of political arguments and a conflict of interests among the political powers which represent both sects.

This conflict could have been contained within the political elite without affecting wider social relations and the unity of Bahraini society. Unfortunately however, the current sectarian conflict has had a dangerous social impact on both the State and the people of Bahrain. Moreover, Bahraini political parties lacked wisdom during the crisis, and took their problems to the street where slogans and cheap accusations were used.

Politicians from all parties are responsible for the present political crisis and the sharp social division that followed. As a result of their disagreements, Bahraini society has been divided and hate-speech has spread due to their irresponsible use of sectarian discourse to acquire or protect their position. On their part, religious scholars have called for unity and brotherhood, but their calls have been ignored as the key to solving this issue lies in the hands of politicians.

Political consensus among the elites and the restriction of the use of sectarian hate speech could ease tensions and incitement in the media; although at present this seems far-fetched, since differences of views and conflict of interests continue to be the norm among the elites.

As much as the King’s speech, during the occasion of the Eid Al-Adha, was directed to every member in Bahraini society, it especially addressed political elites who see themselves as representatives of the interests of all social groups. He called for a new spirit, tolerance and urged Bahraini citizens to foster love and solidarity among each other, in compliance with Islamic precepts.

The political elites must realise that sectarian incitement and the exaggeration of the threat posed by the ‘Other’ strengthen the foundation of schism and weaken the State, to the extent that it becomes unable to provide security and protection for all its citizens. The elites bear most of the responsibility for the current crisis because their differences, and perhaps also their selfishness, represent an obstacle to any middle solutions to achieving political objectives regardless of their legitimacy.

Sectarian feelings remain strongly present in Bahrain, and have unfortunately resulted in a psychological gap between citizens, as well as a breakdown in common interests on all levels, such as the economy, jobs, housing, marriage and social relations.

In order to put the King’s call for unity into practice, interactions between the two sects must take place on the street level, as well as interactions between the political elites on both sides, especially Al Wefaq and the Gathering of National Unity (GNU). Equally important are meetings on a religious level between religious scholars from both sides, as well as agreements between the Government and the opposition within a national consensus framework. This would pave the way for a new political life, and would save society from the quagmire of sectarianism which threatens to destroy everything beautiful in Bahrain.

Bahrain needs many initiatives from all parties and on all levels, as until now these initiatives have been few and far between, and have only been initiated by the Government. To date, we have not seen any political initiatives by either Al-Wefaq or The GNU. Furthermore, we have not seen any initiatives to reduce the sectarian crisis on a public level from religious figures, civil society organizations, intellectuals or human rights defenders. Instead of waiting for political initiatives from the Government and engaging in media debates, we should develop initiatives, adopt constructive ideas and build on them. These are characteristics of a vibrant society, constantly aiming to search and find solutions to its problems.