by Catherine Shakdam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 10, Safar, 1437)
While rights defenders and pro-democracy activists in Bahrain or abroad have long spoken out against the many heinous crimes committed by the Hamad ibn Issa Aal Khalifa regime, one of the monarchy’s dirtiest little secrets has remained well hidden from view: ethno-sectarian engineering.
Behind Bahraini officials’ smiles and promises of reform lies a reality that few have dared look squarely in the eye. It speaks of a tyranny of such horrendous proportions that it can be only equated with genocide. Not only has Bahrain’s tiny Sunni ruling elite naturalized Sunnis from outside en masse to dilute dissent among its majority Shi‘i population, and thus bolster its security forces, it has wielded demographic engineering and sectarian cleansing as a weapon of mass-oppression.
Trapped in a cycle of violence directly aimed at their faith, Bahraini Shi‘is have however refused to engage the regime on such a narrative of exclusion and radicalization. Instead, they have chosen to stand for social justice and political determination on the basis that freedom and dignity are inalienable human rights.
In utter and complete violation of international law, notwithstanding ethic and human decency, the Manama government has run a systematic campaign of intimidation against its own citizens, threatening to make individuals stateless should they dare challenge Aal Khalifa’s monarchical rule. Behind such institutional absolutism, Western capitals have stood by as loyal foot soldiers of violent repression, cloaking their so-called partners with political absolution in exchange for military access and other lucrative deals.
Since 2011, Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom linked by a man-made causeway to the Arabian Peninsula, has experienced unprecedented civil unrest and political instability. It has been in the throes of a popular movement that has relentlessly called for meaningful representative reforms. With the country caught between the formidable wills of its Shi‘i majority and Sunni monarchy, Hamad bin Isa Aal Khalifa decided to sanction the acceleration of a naturalization policy that has been equated to demographic engineering due to its sectarian and ethnic nature — a policy that uses national security as a smokescreen to obscure sectarian repression.
“Although Bahrain has long seen political polarization between the ruling Sunni elite and the predominantly Shi‘i opposition, the events of 2011–2012 stand out because of the intensity of the popular mobilization, the state’s reliance on violent repression, and the increasing shift from economic and political grievances to sectarian religious conflict,” Quinn Mecham, a scholar of civil conflict and political Islam, wrote in December 2013. Today repression has reached new dizzying heights as it involves a desire to erase Shi‘i Islam from Bahrain, on account of its traditions and history being fiercely rooted in resistance against tyranny.
The regime’s attack against the home of Ayatullah Shaykh Issa Ahmed Qassem, a prominent Shi‘i alim and the main voice of the opposition in November 2014, stands testimony to the violence and merciless approach Aal Khalifa adopted vis-à-vis its people, when all they have ever called for were reforms.
And though the Aal Khalifa stooges have often depicted Bahrain’s uprising as a Shi‘i revolution, a movement directed by Iran to expand its political traction in the region against Saudi Arabia, the truth lies in the desire of the people to exercise political self-determination. The Bahrainis’ only ambition has been to live free of fear in a system that mirrors their political will; religion and ethnicity were never part of the equation. It is the Manama regime that weaves such a narrative so as to force protesters to engage in rhetoric it knows would bog down their efforts toward change.
Bahrain’s uprising was never sectarian-based. “Bahrain’s uprising was born from the desire and need to shape a just and fair society, where all Bahrainis, regardless of their faith and ethnic background could feel heard, represented and valued as members of society,” said Hussain Jawad, a leading human rights activist and Chairman of the European Bahraini Organization for Human Rights (EBOHR) in exclusive comments.
When he first assumed power as an amir in 1999, King Hamad presented himself as a modern monarch, a reformer compared to the other monarchies in the region. In the intervening years, however, he has proven to be as ruthless and persistent as the monarchies at the helm in neighboring countries, if not more imaginative in his handling of dissident voices.
In 2011, for example, the state sanctioned the arrest and torture of health workers who defied official orders by treating injured protesters. Physicians for Human Rights catalogued the grave international law violations in a report, “Under the Gun: Ongoing Assaults on Bahrain’s Health System.”
Following three years of unabated violence, Hamad’s promises to transition Bahrain into a “modern constitutional monarchy” seem both distant and insincere. If he began his official reign as king of Bahrain in 2002 — following the adoption of a national charter — by vowing to fulfill his people’s desires for fairer and more inclusive institutions, the years of systematic sectarian-based manipulation are evidence of an entirely different reality.
Maryam al-Khawaja, a prominent human rights defender and president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is adamant that King Hamad is anything but a reformer. “Bahrainis have been promised change for over a decade and yet little, if anything, has changed. I would argue that Bahrain has never been more authoritarian than it is today,” she stressed. “When even nationals stand to be stripped of their citizenship on account of their political affiliation, I don’t think that anyone — let alone the authorities — can argue with the totalitarian nature of the state.”
Though Bahrainis’ long walk toward freedom only recently caught the media’s eye, their struggle began in 2001, when Aal Khalifa’s rule was already exposed as an eroded autocratic structure. The only country of the Arab Spring to have resisted its people’s yearning for change, Bahrain has been the epicenter of brutal state repression and a comprehensive reactionary state policy rooted in sectarianism.
Vice News reported in September 2014 that, according to Travis Brimhall of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, “An estimated five people per day are ‘disappeared’ in Bahrain and locked up for indefinite periods; prisons in the country swell with thousands of political prisoners.”
Intent on breaking the Bahrainis’ quest for freedom King Hamad has launched persecution of pivotal figures of the opposition, among them Zainab al-Khawaja, Nabeel Rajab, Shaykh ‘Ali Salman, and Ibrahim Sharif (to name only a few) — all of whom are members of Bahrain’s Shi‘i community. But just as the state has shown that it will pursue every avenue and stop at nothing to remain in power, Bahrainis have long vowed that their resolve won’t diminish, no matter how long their struggle takes.
In 2011, Omar al-Shehabi, director of the Gulf Centre for Policy Studies, described King Hamad’s reliance on immigrants — particularly, Sunni immigrants — as symptomatic of the regime’s eagerness to control and curb Shi‘i Muslims’ religious pull and political traction within the kingdom. In a report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, al-Shehabi wrote, “The Bahraini monarchy has long relied on foreigners not only as military and police forces, but also to shift the political balance in the island kingdom.”
“The opposition in Bahrain… has accused the government of fast-tracking the citizenship of carefully selected foreigners in order to change the demographic makeup of the country,” he said, explaining that those immigrants have almost always hailed from an ethnic and religious background similar to that of Aal Khalifa, thus mirroring the monarchy’s sectarian inclinations.
Ruled by a Sunni minority, Bahrain’s population is overwhelmingly Shi‘i, more closely resembling Iran than Saudi Arabia in terms of its religious identity and affinity. While this reality has been a source of constant worry for Aal Khalifa, Bahrain’s Shi‘is have never felt the need to imprint their religious preferences in the political realm.
Amid the suffering and injustices, activists are reportedly most concerned about King Hamad’s naturalization policy, as it aims to artificially alter Bahrain’s demographic and religious-ethnic makeup through targeted immigration in order to control dissent and dilute the opposition. In 2006, five years before the Muslim East came to dance to the tune of revolution and change, Bahrain was already deliberately naturalizing Sunnis from Pakistan, Yemen, Jordan and Syria to absorb the sectarian imbalance that troubled the country’s monarchy.
Bahrain’s naturalization policy first came under sharp criticism in 2005, when International Crisis Group noted in a report, “Consistent with past practice [as early as 1999], the government reportedly is pursuing policies to alter the island’s demographic balance. These include granting citizenship to non-Bahrainis — mainly Sunni Arabs from around the region — to mitigate Shi‘i dominance.”
ICG clearly asserts that the state used “exceptional measures” to fast-track naturalization and ensure that those naturalized citizens join the military and security apparatus. “[T]he heavy presence of foreigners in the military and police has provoked sharp anger from locals who consider them ‘mercenaries,’” according to the report.
Speaking on the issue, Hussain Jawad noted. “Bahrainis are not sectarian in nature. Shi‘i Muslims do not seek religious supremacy, nor [have they] envisioned a future where Sunni Muslims would be excluded and persecuted. This is all the regime’s doing. These fears have been drummed into society to entice mistrust and justify state-run repression against Bahrain’s Shi‘is.”
He added, “King Hamad has intentionally perpetuated this idea of a Sunni-Shi‘i divide so that he could control the political narrative and assert himself as the guardian of Sunni stability. This makes no sense from a democratic standpoint. Religion has never been an issue, only a weapon wielded to serve the regime’s interests.”
Adding to the feeling of uneasiness, the politically-naturalized now swell the ranks of the security and military apparatus, “increasing the perception that they have been brought to contain the local population,” al-Shehabi wrote.
With the Muslim East to the west and Asia to the east, Bahrain’s population is a reflection of its complicated history — a window to a past that saw populations and tribes mix and mingle on the backs of merchant ships and migration patterns. Imperial Britain was the first to exploit ethnic rivalry as a tool of repression and political control. In the 19th century, Britain brought troops from Baluchistan and India to regain control over the Trucial coast — a group of sheikhdoms in the southeastern Persian Gulf, thus introducing ethnic engineering to the region.
Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, Bahrain’s most prominent opposition group, has been instrumental in exposing Aal Khalifa’s naturalization policy, pointing out the abuses and negative consequences that such demographic manipulation has generated over the years.
In August 2014, Khalil al-Marzouq, the political assistant to the secretary general of al-Wefaq, denounced Bahrain’s naturalization policy, noting that the recent wave of targeted immigration has catastrophic implications for social, economic and political life in Bahrain. According to al-Wefaq’s 2014 figures, “95,000 foreigners from different nationalities have been granted Bahraini nationality in an attempt to replace the indigenous people of Bahrain, both Sunni and Shi‘i.”
Al-Marzouq has repeatedly asserted that immigrants have raised Bahrain’s population by an estimated 17.3%, a figure al-Wefaq has described as conservative. Such numbers are based on Bahrain’s state-run Central Informatics Organisation 2010 census.
Bahrain’s sickening policies have reached such worrying proportion that even the most reluctant critics cannot help but feel uneasy. Earlier in November, eight national human rights organisations condemned the revocation of nationality decisions carried out by the Bahraini authorities: Bahrain Human Rights Observatory, SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Bahrain Forum for Human Rights, Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, The European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights, Bahrain Human Rights Society, and Justice Human Rights Organization.
On November 6, 2012 the Bahraini authorities revoked the nationality of 31 Bahraini political opponents and nationals based either on their political views, activism, religious beliefs, or heritage, without proper legal proceedings or justification. It is in direct contravention of Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality and (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”
As EBOHR noted in a press release, “The Bahraini authorities did not stop at this decision, but moved on to revoke the nationality of more than 190 Bahrainis, who too are mainly involved in political, human rights or media activism. The consequence of these decisions has left the vast majority stateless. Amnesty International voiced the following concern, “Such retaliation has a chilling effect on peaceful dissent and freedom of expression, and has serious human rights implications for everyone in Bahrain.”
Instead of resolving this case and returning the victims’ citizenship, the Bahraini authorities further revoked the citizenship of five Bahraini nationals and issued life sentences to each, under the alleged charge of communicating information to foreign agencies. Many activists have voiced their concerns regarding the manner in which the confessions were extracted, with many of the revoked nationals’ families lodging complaints on behalf of their members, confirming this issue. In addition, many have complained that their cases lacked any incriminatory evidence, and the victims were forced to sign false confessions following grave ordeals of torture.”
To put things in proper perspective, it needs to be noted that between 2004 and 2010, the Bahrain regime brought in a record 100,000 Sunni migrants into Bahrain to swell the ranks of its ruling minority. Prior to that, between 2000 and 2004, 120,000 were artificially integrated into Bahrain.
Since the year 2000 onward, the king has carried out an aggressive plan that seeks to transform Bahrain’s ethnic and religious identity, offering foreign migrants those rights he has denied Bahraini Shi‘s on account of their religious beliefs.
Bahrain is living under the rule of a genocidal tyrant whose Western friendship has allowed for a people to face annihilation by ostracism.