The lesson Bahrain (and others) should learn from Iraq

The role played by Maliki’s sectarian policy in leading Iraq to chaos should warn against the risks of sectarianism, and leave no doubt on the advantages that integration brings to both populations’ security and governments’ stability

The Arab Spring – occurrence that has changed forever our perception of the Middle East, of Islamism and perhaps of democracy itself – first reached Bahrain on 14th February 2011, when the capital’s streets got crowded by Bahraini Shias and Sunnis asking for greater political rights and freedoms. They were advancing those demands in one voice – testimony of how the Sunni-Shia divide is not always and not everywhere a clear-cut line of separation and hostility.

But those days were to be for Bahrain the last in which a single Sunni-Shia voice could be heard, the last in which being and feeling Bahraini came before being and feeling Sunni or Shia.

Such shifts in the perception of one’s identity are generally the consequence of some external pressure, and Bahrain made no exception. With protests going on and demands for change becoming more pressing, the country’s regime did what all non-democratic and non-liberal regimes do: ignore people’s demands, try to break the opposition’s cohesion putting one group against the other, and create the justification for a crackdown. In the specific, Bahrain’s government did so by denying that those protests were national and political (as they actually were) and tagging them instead as sectarian and religious. More precisely, as Iran-backed Shia uprisings. In this way, not only did the government create among Sunnis a certain suspicion against Shia protesters, but also justified the perseveration of its anti-Shia policy.

The al-Khalifa regime’s discrimination towards Shias (who though making up 70% of the population occupy no relevant positions) is indeed nothing new: it has always tried to marginalize them – economically, politically and socially – by encouraging conversions to Sunni Islam; by rigging elections in favor of Sunni candidates; by fuelling anti-Shia propaganda; and by preventing Shia professionals from holding high level positions. Since 2011 on, though, not only have all those measures intensified, but also new ones have been adopted – among which the most infamous and worrying is undoubtedly the control of citizenships. It means in fact that the government has the power to revoke Bahraini citizenship to those Shias (159 since 2012, and 128 in 2015 alone) accused of radicalism, terrorism, or of being Iran supporters, and to give instead Bahraini citizenship to Sunnis coming from various Arab countries – hoping to alter in this way the country’s demographics.

No surprise, then, that such a sectarian policy has exacerbated sectarian divisions within Bahrain. On the one hand, in fact, there is the Sunni minority that – increasingly suspicious of the Shias due to the government’s propaganda – fears their aim is to shape Bahrain on the Iranian model. Such a government-inducted fear has led many Sunnis to adopt an ever tougher stance towards non-Sunni compatriots and to support the government’s sectarianism – seen by many as the only way to avoid that the ayatollah’s influence reach Manama. On the other hand, there is the Shia majority, that feels (not without reasons) increasingly oppressed and discriminated against. Such a feeling of oppression and marginalization has led to the emerging of new Shia groups that no longer consider effective moderate stances and look for more aggressive actions – something that, in a vicious spiral, contributes to make Sunnis even more suspicious and unsympathetic towards Shias.

Such status quo has over the last years been strengthening the Sunnis’ position at the expense of Shias:

power, influence, wealth, opportunities and jobs mainly belong to Sunnis, and even those Shias who have managed to build themselves a career tend to be marginalized. So why should the regime change its policy and why should Sunnis want to share their privileges with Shias?

Not too far from Bahrain’s shores lies Iraq. If the al-Khalifa family stopped for a moment its anti-Shia senseless obsession and paid attention to Iraq’s tragic last years, it could realize how it was precisely Baghdad’s sectarian policy that dragged the country into a mortal vortex so serious, that it is now rising doubts on Iraq’s possibility to survive as united entity in the map of the Middle East.

Survived the destruction and death sewn by internal terrorist groups, and survived the brutal war triggered by OIF, what eventually condemned Iraq to disintegration was paradoxically (though not surprisingly) the element that had worried the least the international community: Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian agenda. It was indeed his sectarian approach to government – that finds a worrying reflection in al-Khalifa’s current rule over Bahrain –  that inevitably created an internal axis of division that spread outrage among the Sunni population, put into question the legitimacy of the government in Baghdad, and created a fertile soil of resentment that a terrorist group like ISIS could easily exploit to gain support.

Instead of using his powers to lead Iraq towards a future of democratic stability, to bring peace to an Iraqi population prostrated by years of war, and to create a climate of trust in the government, Maliki made the mistake of focusing on the short-term only. He failed to understand that if he wanted to hold on power and to create a permanent favorable environment for Shias, the only option was to build an open, inclusive, and legitimate political system. Through sectarianism, in fact, he only obtained short-term gains: he strengthened his own power and that of the Shia community but at the same time – through that same policy – he created the conditions and ignited the forces that would make the whole system collapse.

Had he paid more attention to the long-term, he would have made his government a credible institution (instead of a source of social disruption) and would have made Iraq a secure country (instead of a prey for terrorists).

Now al-Maliki is gone and Iraq is hoping to shred off his legacy.

But al-Maliki’s mistakes are not an isolated case, as they are shared by many regimes who lack a rational, long-term lecture of what the political and social reality is, and of how it tends to develop and react.

Al-Maliki’s mistakes are indeed the same that, made by Hadi, contributed to lead Yemen’s Houthi-Sunni divide to reach the point of non-return. And they are the same mistakes that are now threatening Bahrain.

But Bahrain can still learn from Iraq’s collapse and realize how integration is critical for everyone’s survival (even for those who today seem the strongest). If Shias are integrated in the country’s social, political and economic life in the same way – and to the same extent – Sunnis are, then Bahrain can not only enjoy stability and security but also retrieve and strengthen its national identity. And this feeling of being a nation, of being a same entity within the same reality, is the most powerful means a country has to save itself from mortal divisions.

It’s time for Middle East’s regimes to face the reality that sectarianism – like the mermaids who with their melodious chants attracted Ulysses’s companions just to eventually kill them – gives the illusion of power but is actually nothing more than an open door to civil war.


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Hi! My name is Marta Furlan. I am from Italy and was born in Milan in 1993. I speak five languages, my main areas of interest are the Middle East and Islamist terrorism and my great passion is traveling. I'm majoring in Foreign Languages for International Relations at the Catholic University. Last year I attended a summer course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the role of Israel in the Middle East, and have recently had been working in South Africa at the Chamber of Commerce in Johannesburg. I am currently completing my thesis on the development of jihadist terrorism by Al Qaeda in ISIS. Follow my blog if you have a strong interest in International Relations, especially Middle East.

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