Dubai, Asharq Al-Awsat- It did not take make much for the situation to escalate in Bahrain’s highest legislative body, the Chamber of Deputies as a fight broke out between Sunni and Shiaa representatives. Although the dispute was primarily political, the representatives of the Bahraini nation portrayed elements of sectarianism through their disagreement causing one to question whether this incident is reflective of wider Bahraini society.
Whilst Bahrain is considered the Gulf country in which dispute between the two major sects of Islam is most apparent, many would argue that this is not reflected in relations between Sunnis and Shiaa of Bahraini society. Undoubtedly, marriage between members of either sect is normal and demonstrates that there is harmony between the two groups. Nevertheless, others argue that the sensitive issue needs to be tackled now by resorting to practical means before the situation deteriorates and is more difficult to contain.
One of the tools of sectarianism that has become widespread in Bahrain is the exchanging of lists of employees from certain ministries classified according to sect. These lists are compared and are often used to demonstrate unjust treatment of one sect or another.
Sheikh Abdullah al Ali, a Shiaa Member of Bahraini Parliament acknowledges the existence of “early signs” of sectarian conflict in the country. He explains that many Shiaa are still affected by the period preceding King Sheikh Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa’s reign, before political reforms, during which the Shiaa “were treated unjustly and deprived of many privileges that the Sunnis would enjoy. The Shiaa sect felt oppressed and it is natural that that period still has an effect today.” He adds, “The cumulative effects of that experience caused reaction and disappointment amongst the Shiaa and the feeling that injustice still persists. This is a matter that cannot be ignored at all.”
The Shiaa MP continues, “It is not possible for anybody to claim that discrimination against the Shiaa members of society has been eliminated and this is evident through the limited number of posts and the fact that leadership positions are confined to Sunnis. This is what maintains resentment and this is something that cannot be removed easily.” However, al Ali states that in all societies in which there are numerous sects, “incidents occur that can be interpreted as sectarian conflict due to the unfamiliar cultures, similar to the sectarian conflict taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan. Naturally, there are those who sympathize with either sect, however, I can confidently say that Bahraini society is a cohesive, and has only been slightly influenced by this alien idea.”
Shiekh Abdullah al Ali has highlighted what he calls “the beginning of sectarian conflict,” however has stressed the harmony of Bahraini society, the Sunni and Shiaa sects of which will “overcome any issues whether internal or external.” He adds, “This is displayed through the numerous marriages that I, as an Imam, solemnize between Shiaa men and Sunni women or Sunni women and Shiaa men.”
Shiekh Jasim al Saidi, a Salafist MP agrees that there are signs of sectarian dispute between “some” Bahraini citizens. He notes that everybody is discussing the issue “in whispers, although what is reported in the press indicates that sectarianism in the country is apparent and not hidden.” Sheikh al Saidi warns against the dire consequences in the next parliament when those who previously boycotted parliament will participate, “this is when sectarianism will be provoked,” he said. Al Saidi continues, “Those who boycotted will unmask their ambitions. I hope that nobody will stir up sectarianism in the next parliament as the scene will then be much worse.”
Sheikh Jasim al Saidi states that Bahraini leadership has sought to eliminate sectarianism, “as evident from the opportunities that are available to everybody. Human rights activists and politicians have noted this. There are fellow Shiaa who hold senior positions in ministries and others who have become ministers in a number of leading and important ministries.”
Abdul Hadi al Marhoon, deputy speaker of Bahraini parliament has expressed regret that sectarianism has reached the Chamber of Deputies. He considers sectarianism part of Bahraini society and states, “it is natural that what happens in society is reflected in parliament and vice versa.”
Al Marhoon states that it is the duty of MP’s and the responsibility of the Chamber to strengthen national unity and social accord, as “disagreements are not confined to Parliament therefore MP’s should think carefully about their comments so that it does not affect the Chamber’s work, the citizens and the relations between citizens.” He says that the Democratic bloc (headed by al Marhoon) has exerted great efforts in cooperation with other blocs to contain the crises. He says, “Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail, especially with the new phenomenon in parliament in which there is a question and a counter-question. I believe that an MP is entitled to express his viewpoint and to pose a question to whomever he wishes to obtain information or to identify any weaknesses in the administrative and financial performance of state apparatus. However, what we have witnessed recently, of MP’s asking a specific question only for another MP to ask the same question in another way, has pushed me to request that this does not continue as such practices do not benefit anybody and is detrimental to social cohesion.”
Abdul Hadi Marhoon concludes, “I was warned of what has happened. I felt some our MP’s were drifting in another direction to the extent that there is real friction. However, I believe that Bahrain has come far in overcoming sectarianism and is currently experiencing peaceful coexistence that must be safeguarded.”