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Bahrain and Pakistan: the Shia Dilemmas

The broader goal, it seems, is to keep both Shias and Sunnis in Pakistan busy and thereby break their united position on the Palestine and Lebanese resistance movements through the sectarian card.

In Bahrain today, the rulers are engaged in a concerted effort to shift the demographic make-up along the sectarian lines. In a population of around a million, if the government brings in new Sunni immigrants from Syria, Jordan, and other countries in hundreds of thousands, that is surely going to raise concerns among the local Shias who are more than 70-80 percent of the population.

Another issue is that of fair representation in the parliament and other political institutions. Bahraini Shias have also demanded fair representation and opportunities in social and cultural spheres. Social includes educational and job opportunities. Cultural includes representation of their voices and cultural symbols in the public sphere. They complain that their voices are underrepresented and their symbols (like Shia mosques) have been literally kept off the main streets of Bahrain.

The Bahraini Shias are also concerned that foreign personnel, usually from South Asia, serve in the law enforcement agencies. Firstly, the selection criteria in this “foreign deputation” (as it is called in Pakistan) for Bahrain is strictly limited to Sunnis. Two, since these personnel usually do not speak Arabic, their contact is minimal with the local population. It’s obviously a strategic move on the part of the rulers to maintain their domination, by force if necessary. The social distance between the South Asian personnel and local Arabs – because of religious, language, and ethnic differences – is a strategic tactic employed by the rulers.

The underlying logic of the conflict is that of power and powerlessness, although sectarian communities are certainly being targeted. But the fight is not between Sunni and Shia masses. It is between a marginalized Shia community and the oppressive rulers who are also supported and influenced by the neighboring Arab regimes.

If Shias do get the legitimate rights they are demanding, that would effectively shift the political configuration of the Bahraini state. Hence not only the rulers but also the Arab status quo dictatorial regimes (Saudi, Jordan, Egypt) perceive the Shia demands as a threat. Their strategy has been to blame Iran for causing agitation among Bahraini Shias. Whether Iran is actually doing that or not, those charges certainly distract attention from the oppressive policies of the Bahraini rulers.

Blaming it on Iran or the so-called “emergence of the Shia crescent” also has a broader utility for the geo-politics of the region: Hamas is now labeled as a Shia organization, and the Lebanese supposedly speak Farsi! The popularity of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Iranian leaders in the Arab world and South Asia – among both Sunnis and Shias – creeps out these Arab regimes. These regimes have always been wary of (1) the rise of any prominent Arab leader on the inter-regional level (like Gamal Abdul Nasser) who might potentially politicize their subjects/populations, and (2) their Palestinian refugee populations (an example is in the Jordanian Black September of 1970). During and after the Gaza massacre, the provocative statements by these status quo regimes and also the recent move by Morocco to cut ties with Iran are indications of their bewilderment.

How conflicts are framed in the global media therefore becomes very crucial. Also, how Shias engage with their Sunni brothers, how they frame their grievances, and how they protest, whether in the West or in other parts of the world, requires active caution and strategic thinking.

Internal vs. External

In the media, the adjective “sectarian” is often used as the description as well as the explanation of the conflict: that the doctrinal differences and supposedly inherent hatred between the two sects explain the nature of the current conflict(s). That’s obviously too simplistic – it emphasizes religious at the expense of the political. Yet the region-specific dynamics of conflicts are often ignored in the media to create smooth narratives. It is unfortunate that at times many Sunni and Shias also speak in these over generalized terms.

Even if one broadens the scope of explanation to other factors like internal power struggle, socio-economic discrimination, and rivalry among Muslim states, the focus still tends to be on the ‘internal’. The ‘external’ factors, like the role of foreign powers in forging sectarian conflict in colonial and postcolonial eras, are not given adequate weight. Even Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival, although written in a quite nuanced manner, couldn’t escape this fragmented focus, as the subtitle of his books clearly states: ‘How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future’. Any prognosis of either Middle Eastern or South Asian politics, however, is inadequate without factoring in the role and interests of regional and global powers like the US, Israel, India, China, and Afghanistan.

The popularity of the “sectarian conflict” narrative (as both description and default explanation) poses serious challenges to those Shias and Sunnis who understand the actual dynamics of the conflicts in different regions and want to change the situation. How to raise voice against the injustice but at the same time not promote or multiply the effects of sectarian tensions? Especially considering that conflict in one region – say in Iraq or Bahrain – can have ripple effects on sectarian relations in other parts of world.

The Geo-political Connections

After the unexpected outcome of the summer 2006 Israeli war and then the recent loss of Israel in Gaza, both of which were also bitter losses for the US and the Arab status quo regimes, it became quite predictable that there will be an escalation in sectarian violence in sensitive regions of the world. The Saudi authorities, it seems, are deliberately trying to fan sectarian tensions using one tactic or another (for example, their recent move to put barriers around the Imams’ graves in Jannat al-Baqi).

In Pakistan, the agencies-supported SSP (Sipahe Sahaba) and its allies re-surfaced last year. The connection among these security agencies, the militant SSP, and the Saudis is no secret. If the local militant groups in Pakistan were not allied with certain Taliban factions before, according to a recent New York Times report (April 14, 2009), they are now.

The broader goal, it seems, is to keep both Shias and Sunnis in Pakistan busy and thereby break their united position on the Palestine and Lebanese resistance movements through the sectarian card. The local and national political circumstances in various regions of Pakistan are making this task of fanning sectarian conflict easily achievable (for example, the recent clashes in Karachi).

Within this broad geo-political framework, one can see a parallel with the Shia dilemma in 1998, when the Taliban killed a number of Iranian officials in Mazar Sharif and there was a growing pressure on Iran to attack the Taliban in response, while in Pakistan SSP and Lashkare Jhangvi were ready to do mass killing of Shias if Iran had attacked the Taliban. The two conflicts would have been framed together as a Sunni-Shia war, like the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, which was also instigated and framed likewise.

During the 18-month-long siege of Parachinar, Pakistani Shias faced the same dilemma: if they complain that they are being targeted, the conflict will be framed as a sectarian conflict. The criminal elements and the local and foreign Taliban who were attacking them would be presented as representing the Sunni sentiments in Pakistan. The Shias knew that these criminal elements wanted to spread the conflict to the rest of Pakistan. (SSP leaders have repeatedly said that they are targeting Shias in D.I. Khan and other areas because “Sunnis” are being targeted in Parachinar.) The dilemma and challenge, again, was to speak out for justice and struggle for the legitimate rights without falling in the trap of “sectarian conflict”.

The dynamics of political conflict in Bahrain highlights both the country-specific causes and the geo-political connections. Given the variety of power configuration in different regions, Pakistan is a much more complicated case. Especially at stake at the moment are: (1) the future of Islamist politics vis-a-vis liberal-secular prescriptions from inside and outside of Pakistan. And the fragile democracy: More and more people are talking about how things were much better under the military rule. (2) The political and economic stability. If the downward spiral continues, we may see a regime change very soon, possibly in the next two months: Either a direct military coup or a compromise between the US and the Pakistani military on Nawaz Sharif-type character as a replacement. (3) Pakistan’s nuclear assets. Both of these cases – Bahrain and Pakistan – highlight the dilemmas mentioned above.

If this analysis has any weight, Muslims in different regions of the world need to be extra-cautious in how they perceive and respond to any provocation – real or imaginary – from any side.


Ali A. is a doctoral student in social sciences.

About Ali A

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  • ummi raihanah

    very useful article, gives an idea what’s really happening in these two region,
    thank you for writing

    keep up the good work 🙂