x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Sectarianism 'threat to Bahrain's stability' says report

A leading think-tank says that an increase in discrimination is hindering Bahrain's development.

Sectarian tension is reflected in the security situation in Bahrain including violence, such as an incident last April in which Shia youth leave burning tyres on the roads of Sehla protesting at the lack of political change in the country.
Sectarian tension is reflected in the security situation in Bahrain including violence, such as an incident last April in which Shia youth leave burning tyres on the roads of Sehla protesting at the lack of political change in the country.

MANAMA // Sectarianism is one of the leading challenges imperiling social stability and hindering the development of Bahrain, a report by the Bahrain Centre for Studies and Research, one of the country's leading think tanks, said last week.

The 157-page Bahrain Strategy Report, made public last Thursday, dedicated a 14-page chapter to the issue, documenting a sharp increase in sectarianism over the past few years and warning of its implications. The report also warned against the failure of the public-political groupings and individuals alike to identify the real causes of problems facing society and of seeking instead an external "scapegoat" by blaming colonialism, Zionism or the United States to avoid self-criticism.

"Escalating sectarianism which has made many individuals and political groupings interpret every event and every act with a sectarian perspective adapting facts according to the individual's or grouping tendency," the report, the second strategic report to be released since 2003, said. The centre is an independent research body funded largely by the public sector. Four of the nine members of the board of trustees are ministers in the present cabinet. At one point the crown prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, was the chairman of the board of trustees.

The report, which covers the 2008-2009 period, found that the problem of sectarianism was made complex by regional developments in the late 1970s, an indirect reference to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran that toppled the shah and brought to power Islamists seeking to export their revolution. "By the end of the 1970s and influenced by the changes witnessed by the Gulf region and their neighbours a new sectarianism tendency began infiltrating Bahraini society. And despite official efforts to limit that tendency, it has imposed itself on many of the political, social, and even sport activities spanning until the present time," the report said.

According to the report, sectarian sentiment had spread to the print media, where criticism of the executive branch ministries or organisations - where both Sunni and Shiite ministers serve - flourished. Such sentiment, it said, was based on the sectarian origins of the individual media outlets and not based on any political aspect or performance of that government entity. It also found that job discrimination based on sectarian beliefs - in both the government and private sectors - was carried out on an unofficial, individual level by those responsible for hiring regardless of whether they were Sunni or Shiite.

"This unofficial sectarian discrimination, which dominates the social and political situation, has led to the weakening of civil society and the political movement, hindering the ability of many of those able to give back to the country to reach their full potential," the report said. The report also criticised the embedded sectarian divide in parliament, where a continuing power struggle between Sunnis and Shiites, who control the overwhelming majority of the 40-elected seats, impedes achievement of the hopes of citizens.

The report also found that the sectarian tension is reflected in the security situation in Bahrain including occasional violence. The report did conclude that the problem of sectarianism was not unique to Bahrain but one affecting many Gulf and Arab states, with grave consequences, as has been witnessed in Iraq and Lebanon. "It's a serious problem, and if Bahraini people and thinkers are more willing to admit that the problem does exist, we still have other countries who continue to hide the facts and allow the fire to rage silently," the report said. It also urged that more attention be paid to the increasing number of Arab Christian immigrants, particularly in Iraq and Lebanon, because of a growing sense of a lack of security in those countries.

Abdulnabi Alekry, an activist who heads the Bahrain Transparency Society, welcomed the report despite some of its shortcomings and said that more organisations need to carry out in-depth, comprehensive strategic studies and not just depend on ones that come from abroad. "In addition to raising the issue, we need to discuss and analyse it. Any healthy society cannot ignore or hide the problems facing it," he said.

"Sectarianism is one of the biggest problems facing the government and society alike and, as the report raised, it has affected all aspects of daily life, including employment, the government sector, parliament, civic society bodies." Mr Alekry, who pointed out that the situation was more complicated than the picture painted by the report, added that the responsibility of fighting sectarianism is mostly the government's, but political bodies and individuals also need to take a similar stand to combat its spread.

"You cannot limit the problem to wrong actions taken by some, be it from the political groupings or individuals," he said. "The bigger picture includes the government policies, corruption, and the unbalanced development of some areas in Bahrain where there are parts you seem to think you are in Manhattan, New York, and other parts where you seem to think you are in African villages." He also said one cannot delink regional developments and US policies from existing sectarianism.

"The report says that the US or Zionism should not be blamed for everything and I agree, but at the same time we are part of this nation and you cannot overlook the impact of these policies in Palestine or Iraq on the region and its people," he said. "We have examples of where the issue of sectarianism was not addressed in Lebanon and Iraq and which led to civil war. We need to learn from those lessons."

@Email:mmahdi@thenational.ae