Oppressed and Neglected: the Shias of Bahrain
The primary political goal of the Shia community in Bahrain, in conjunction with many Sunnis and leftist thinkers, has been a reinstatement of the parliament of Bahrain, which was dissolved in the 1970s. Unfortunately, a reinstatement of parliament and the representative democracy that it would entail is a frightening prospect for the regime, considering that the vast majority of Bahrain's population is Shia.
As followers of the Holy Qur'an and the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them), we have been taught to resist oppression and injustice in all its forms. It is thus surprising that so few of us are aware of the tragic plight of our brothers and sisters in the Gulf State of Bahrain. The Shia Muslims of Bahrain, while forming a majority of the island's total population, are economically impoverished, severely underrepresented in significant sectors of society, and face harsh discrimination from ruling elites.
Since 1782, the year when Bahrain was conquered by the al-Khalifa tribe of the neighboring Qatar, the Shia of Bahrain have been marginalized. To this day, despite the fact that the Shia form roughly 70 percent of the total population of Bahrain, the Shia community remains isolated economically, politically, and socially as a result of harsh repressive policies against them by the al-Khalifa family. For instance, despite demographics, there is very miniscule Shia representation in government, with the Minister of Labor being the only Shia as of the late 1990s. This discrimination is also rampant in the educational system; many Shia students who work tirelessly to be in the top 10 percent of their class do not gain admission to universities, whereas less qualified Sunnis do. Another example of this was in the late 1990s, when a new president of Bahrain University was hired, and he subsequently fired most of the leading Shia professors under false pretexts. Similarly, high unemployment has plagued the Shia community for some time due to the fact that the government prefers to hire foreign expatriate workers – who are sure to remain politically quietist – over the native Shia population.
Shia of Bahrain: Poverty down Sectarian Lines
As a result of this, the Shia community forms a substantive portion of the poor of Bahrain, resulting in Shia villages that appear run-down, shabbily-built, and lack basic amenities. The police force in BahrainBahrain in which they live. Religiously, the government has also cracked down on Shia religious centers and continues to practice close surveillance of Shia religious activities throughout the year. is also notorious for its harassment of the Shia community and is known to raid Shia homes, beat the inhabitants, and insult the women. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most native Bahraini Shias are easily recognizable by their surnames and the part of
The primary political goal of the Shia community in Bahrain, in conjunction with many Sunnis and leftist thinkers, has been a reinstatement of the parliament of Bahrain, which was dissolved in the 1970s. Unfortunately, a reinstatement of parliament and the representative democracy that it would entail is a frightening prospect for the regime, considering that the vast majority of Bahrain's population is Shia. The Shia community has accommodated this fear and asked simply for a 50-50 split in representation in parliament along Shia and Sunni lines. The al-Khalifa family rejected even this conciliatory demand. The crackdown on Shia political aspirations is illustrated best by the fact that all Shia political movements in the country are illegal by Bahraini law. The largest of the various Shia political movements is the Bahrain Freedom Movement, a group whose leadership was exiled and is now operating out of London. Today, this group seeks to put pressure on the ruling regime by publishing stories about the regime's brutality and abuse of the Shia community.
In response to growing Shia political aspirations in recent decades, the al-Khalifa family has effectively used the classic imperialist technique of divide and conquer to abet the growing tide of resistance against the regime. For instance, the regime has effectively labeled resistance movements against the regime – that include both Sunnis and Shias – as "Shia resistance", thus capitalizing on many Sunnis' fears of rising Shia power in the country. Another technique that the ruling al-Khalifa family has successfully used is to link Shia resistance to Iran, thus again manipulating Sunni fears of rising Shia dominance in the region.
Iran, to its credit, has attempted to advocate for Shia rights in the country. Immediately after the Iranian revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini sent a personal representative of his, Ayatullah Hadi al-Modarressi, along with Ayatollah Sadiq Rouhani, to Bahrain. These two stoked the Shia resistance, sparking protests in the summer of 1979 and eventually leading to their deportation from the country.
Today, unfortunately, some of the blame for the tragic status of the Shia in Bahrain also falls on the Shia community itself; over time, it has failed to remain united, and instead its splintering has resulting in its own weakening. For instance, among the Shia of Bahrain there is a group that chooses to stay out of politics and advocacy of Shia rights, instead seeing its residence in Bahrain as contingent upon the goodwill of the ruling al-Khalifa family. Similarly, relations between native Arab Shia and Shia in Bahrain of non-Arab origin have been somewhat cold.
In this is a lesson for Shia communities across the world, and especially in North America: without ethnic and cultural unity amongst ourselves, as well as religious unity with our Sunni brethren, we are prone to remain vulnerable in the eyes of oppressors. Let us pray that we educate ourselves and remain united as an Ummah.