The Narrative of Resistance - Bahrain and Iraq
Issue 14, Summer 2011
Iraqi Shi'ites demonstrate in solidarity with the Bahraini opposition
The protests in Bahrain reflect demands for long overdue changes in a country where social and class divisions have often been formulated in sectarian terms. While in relatively homogeneous countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, protest movements have overthrown longstanding leaders and taken important steps towards political freedom, Bahrain has proven a challenging environment for change, although political unrest is nothing new there. Bahraini Shi'a, who represent 70 percent of the population and are ruled by a minority Sunni elite close to Saudi Arabia and the United States, have been in the vanguard of protest movements in the 1980s, the 1990s and again today. The Bahraini government has historically been unable or unwilling to follow through on promises of reform, exacerbating tensions and resentment in a way that resonates with other groups in the region. Attempts at political reform in 2002, when the government converted Bahrain from an emirate to what it called a constitutional monarchy, have so far failed to yield meaningful changes.
The reasons for the discrimination against the Shi'a in Bahrain are numerous and go beyond the scope of this paper. However, the discrimination certainly reflects the Bahraini government's perceptions of an existential threat from Iran and its use of identity politics to promote the notion that some Bahraini Shi'a are in fact agents of destabilization. Tensions between the sects were greatly exacerbated after the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, which heightened the anxieties of Sunni Bahrainis.
Iran has a longstanding territorial claim to Bahrain, the smallest of the Gulf states, dating back to Safavid rule, which began in the 16th century. Later Iranian governments did not press the claim but the religious leaders of the Iranian revolution revived it on the grounds that the majority of the population was Shi'a. The Iranian parliament went as far as leaving two nominal seats empty for Bahraini representatives. Bahrain certainly lies on the front lines in the struggle for regional influence between Tehran and Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni power in the region and Iran's great political rival. Saudi-Iranian relations help define broader Arab-Iranian ties and are pivotal to the security of the Gulf.
In addition, the Bahraini government has a strong relationship with the United States, another ideological rival to Iran, and receives valuable U.S. military protection. This relationship also plays a part in Tehran’s narrative of the current conflict in Bahrain. Equating Saudi military intervention in Bahrain with an American threat to its own regional position, the Islamic republic proclaims a discourse of resistance and victimization in defending Bahraini Shi'a against “double standards” that reveal “the mask of deception from the face of bullying powers,1” while calling for peaceful resistance against the ruling Al Khalifa family.
Bahrain’s own sense of national identity is undermined by the sectarian divides within Bahraini society. Most Bahraini Shi'a identify themselves as Arabs and wish to remain independent from Iran. While they certainly welcome religious and economic ties with their Iranian counterparts, the two nations are fundamentally different. The political representatives of the Bahraini Shi'a community, such as Al-Wifaq, the largest political bloc in the opposition, holds a plurality in the elected lower house of parliament, and seeks greater political influence rather than to serve Iranian ambitions. However, the Bahraini authorities remain unwilling to compromise or work with the opposition, partly because Iran would interpret any concession as an ideological victory against Saudi Arabia and the United States.
This paper looks at aspects of the conflict in Bahrain between the mainly Shi'a protest movement and the Sunni-dominated government, with particular attention to the way that Iran and newly empowered Iraqi Shi'a have adopted the cause of the protest movement, and how Iraqi sympathizers have set it in a narrative of resistance that parallels their own recent history of oppression by Sunni groups.
Longstanding Distrust in Bahrain
During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the Bahraini government repeatedly jailed members of Shi'a political groups that called for greater political representation, justifying such actions on the grounds of national security threats amid lingering Iranian territorial claims over Bahrain. Bahraini Shi'a on the other hand resent the widespread suspicion among officials about their national loyalty and their ties to their coreligionists in Iraq and Iran. These suspicions stem in part from misconceptions about the relationship between Shi'a' spiritual and political leadership. They ignore the broader trend over the last two and half decades, in which the sectarian tensions in Bahrain have been driven far more by local political and social frustrations than by national religious irredentism.
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".