The Narrative of Resistance - Bahrain and Iraq
Sunni Bahraini distrust of the Shi'a is partly grounded in the nature of the structure of Shi'a religious authority (marja’iyya), which transcends national boundaries. Many Bahraini Shi'a emulate clerics in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. But Ayatollahs Sistani and Hussaini Shirazi2 in Iraq, for instance, are not in line with Iran’s theocratic ideology, and their conception of clerical involvement in politics is more in support of electoral politics than of militant activism and the formation of an Iranian-style theocracy.
According to rough estimates, 30 percent of Bahraini Shi'a follows religious leaders who look to senior clerics in Iran for guidance. The majority look to Ayatollah Sistani, and a few to the clerics in Lebanon, especially Muhammad Fadlallah until his death last year. Bahrain's most popular Shi'a cleric is Sheikh Isa Qassim, who has occasionally endorsed the Iranian regime's doctrine of velayat-e faqih, or rule by clerics. Historically, the Shi'a in Bahrain look to their coreligionists in Iraq as a model in terms of political and social achievements.
Shi'a activism is sectarian in character and is a reflection not so much of regional or transnational aspirations but of historical processes and political life in the Islamic world. Because of the status of Shi'ism as the minority variant of Islam and its adherents' status as politically marginal or even oppressed communities in most of the states where they reside, communalism has become the most natural form of Shi'a political activism. Clearly, the current Shi'a political and social movement in Bahrain is not a transnational one, and thss was made explicitly clear by protesters who marched chanting “Neither Sunni nor Shi'a but Bahraini.”3
The Bahraini government's official narrative is one of defense against Iranian interference, legitimizing the military intervention by Saudi Arabia and the UAE through the GCC. Official state newspapers such as Al-Watan, which is financed by the Bahraini royal family, describe the unrest as the result of infiltration by Iran, and the opposition movements are painted as organized by political organizations and unions working for Iran4. These accusations serve to legitimate not only the violent repression of the protesters, but also actions such as suspending the opposition newspaper Al-Wassat5 and summoning its founder and board member Karim Fakhawi, who later died in custody.
In response, Iran’s narrative of the uprising in Bahrain is based on anti-imperialist rhetoric and sectarian conflict, reflecting Tehran’s intent to exert greater influence in a region undergoing profound political changes. While the current events in Bahrain resemble historic struggles over political and class inequalities, the focus on the sectarian narrative in this discourse is bound to heighten tensions in Bahrain and in the region, particularly in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, where sectarian issues are already sources of conflicts and political deadlock.
In fact, the sectarian overtones have dominated the protests, leading King Hamad Al Khalifa to accuse Lebanese Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shi’a movement, of involvement, and later to suspend all flights to Iran and Iraq. Iran engaged in an acrimonious retaliation through the media as well, with its parliamentarians advocating a “military preparation” against Saudi “occupation” troops6.
The protesters in Bahrain selected 14 February 2011 as a day of protest to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the National Action Charter7. As violent clashes with polices forces escalated, resulting in civilian deaths, troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates entered Bahrain on 14 March with the stated purpose of protecting essential facilities, including oil and gas installations and financial institutions. The arrival of some 2,000 troops undoubtedly fueled sectarian tensions: Al-Wifaq strongly objected to the move and denounced it as an “invasion,” whereas many Sunnis saw it as a “brotherly” intervention to restore order. Regionally, the move has been fiercely criticized by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.
Al-Wifaq’s rhetoric, while within a broader Shi'a eschatology, tries to maintain a broader sense of national unity by focusing on internal demands and rejecting accusations that it serves foreign interests. The party’s latest attempt to call on Kuwait to mediate the conflict reinforces this idea. Furthermore, in calling for the intervention of another GCC member to mediate and thereby offset any political and social losses that may have been inflicted by the intervention of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Al-Wifaq demonstrated political acumen. Kuwait was more likely to exert influence on the Bahraini government than Iran or Iraq as mediators. In the meantime, Iraq has taken a stance of its own, according to its own political designs.
2 Though an Iraqi Shi’a Marja, he resides most of the time in Qom, Iran
7 The National Action Charter of Bahrainis a document put forward by King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain in 2001 in order to end the popular 1990s Uprising and return the country to constitutional rule.
12Insofar that historical and cultural symbols of Shi'ism appeal to the sentiments of the masses and have often been used by religious leadership to foment uprisings.
14 Cf. work by Mohammed El-Nawawy & Adel Iskandar, The Story Of The Network That Is Rattling
Governments And Redefining Modern Journalism
16 Ibrahim Al-Marashi, ”The Dynamics of Iraq’s Media: Ethno-Sectarian Violence, Political Islam, Public
Advocacy and Globalization,” Open Society Institute, 2007.
27 The Fedayeen was a paramilitary organization loyal to the former Ba'athist government of Saddam Hussein. The name was chosen to mean "Saddam's Men of Sacrifice".