A young man, his face masked by a red cloth so that only his eyes are visible, strides defiantly at the head of a crowd of protesters down the street in the Shia village of Nuwaidrat in Bahrain. The people behind him look edgy, as if they expect an immediate confrontation with the police. Some wave red-and-white Bahraini flags, which have become the symbol of the pro-democracy protesters, and one of them carries a cement block in each hand that he probably intends to place in the road as an obstacle to police cars. “Soon the police will start shooting,” warns an onlooker as two blue-and-white police vehicles screech to a halt at the entrance to the village and soon afterwards we hear the thump of tear gas canisters being fired.
Signs of revolt simmering just beneath the surface are everywhere in the island Kingdom of Bahrain over five months after protesters first demanded democratic reform. Inspired by the Arab Awakening, thousands of demonstrators had taken over Pearl Square in the centre of Manama, the capital of Bahrain, and it became their rallying point. A month later, on March 15, the government security forces, backed by a military contingent from nearby Saudi Arabia, drove out the protesters, bulldozed the elegant monument at the centre of the square, and launched a pogrom of extraordinary ferocity against the majority Shia community which had overwhelmingly supported the protests.
Bahrainis, both Shia and Sunni, are still traumatized by what happened. “I was expecting the government to thank us for treating so many people during the crisis,” recalls one doctor of previously moderate political views, but instead found himself subjected to prolonged beatings, sleep deprivation and was forced to stand up for four days. A 64-year-old man, active in defense on human rights, named Muhammad Hassan Jawad, who is still in jail, gave details to his family about how interrogators had tortured him with electric shocks to his genitals, legs, ears and hands. They made him bow down before a picture of the Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and told him to open his mouth so they could spit in it, adding that “unless you swallow the spit we will urinate in your mouth instead.” His family, allowed to see him for only brief supervised periods, noticed that his toe nails were dead and black from the electric shocks.
Bahrain, a small island with a population of 1.2 million, half of them Arabs, should have been the one place in the Arab world where compromise was possible between rulers and ruled and between Sunni and Shia. Instead it has joined a handful of places like Beirut and Jerusalem where communities are totally polarized and hate and suspicion fill the air. It is like Belfast at its worst in the 1970s when Catholic and Protestant saw each other only as enemies to be feared. The shock of what happened is all the greater because Bahrain regards itself as one of the most liberal and best-educated countries in the Gulf. Unlike nearby Saudi Arabia, women drive cars and hold important government jobs. Manama was previously better known for its gleaming ultra-modern buildings than its prisons.
The simple explanation for the human disaster that is consuming Bahraini society is that the government panicked and over-reacted. The al-Khalifas felt that their rule was under serious threat as long established despots across the Arab world were overthrown or under threat. They treated moderate reformers as if they were professional revolutionaries. Without any evidence, the authorities demonized Iran as the hidden hand behind the demand by the majority Shia for an end to discrimination and lack of civil rights. “The Sunni community here,” says one Shia political activist, “were told that they faced an existential threat and equal citizenship for Shia meant an end to the Sunni.” They believed it.
Bahrain has always been divided between the Sunni ruling elite centred on the al-Khalifa royal family and the Shia, but since March this has turned into something closer to an anti-Shia pogrom. Evidence of official sectarianism is all too evident. After watching the beginning of a riot in Nuwaidrat we drove to a quieter part of the village where ten Shia mosques had been destroyed in a single day three months earlier. A local man, who is writing a history of Shia mosques and holy sites in the neighborhood and did not want his name published, pointed to a heap of rubble saying “this used to be the Mo’min mosque where 200 to 300 people worshipped. There has been a mosque here for 400 years though the present one was rebuilt 15 years ago.”
He described how, on April 19, military and police had surrounded the area and, at about 3pm, had moved in with demolition equipment. By the time they withdrew eight hours later ten out of 17 Shia mosques in Nuwaidrat had been leveled. At the site of the Mo’min mosque only a green tree was left standing beside a pile of broken concrete. Mosques were not alone in being targeted. Shia revere the burial places of their holy men, but in two places in Nuwaidrat the graves had been dug up by soldiers or police. The local historian, who was guiding us, pointed to a hole in the ground marked by a yellow cloth tied to a fence, saying this was the site of the grave of a Shia holy man called Mohammed Abu Kharis who died 200 years ago adding “they dug up his bones and threw them away.”
The official Bahraini government explanation of the destruction of at least 35 Shia mosques and religious sites is that they had been constructed without building permission. It seems unlikely that in the midst of political upheaval the government could suddenly have been possessed by an overwhelming desire to use the army and police to enforce building regulations. Many Shia suspect that the Saudis were somehow behind the destruction since this is in the tradition of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia. One Shia leader has a different explanation, believing that the purpose of government backed sectarianism is to intimidate the Shia community as a whole. He says the government wants to say that “we have no limits when it comes to dealing with the Shia.”
Official policy may not be so carefully or malignly calculated. Lubna Selaibeekh, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, says she is “appalled” by claims that students were being denied scholarship funding because they are Shia or had taken part in protests. She adds that students in UK who lost state funding because they joined demonstrations had got it back again. “There was an announcement but it was suspended.” She agrees that 6,500 out of 12,000 teachers in Bahrain took part in a strike to support the demonstrators at Pearl Square, but said only those who broke civil service rules would face punishment. She asserts that the ministry had “no statistics on who is a Shia or who is a Sunni”.
The government may claim not to keep sectarian statistics, but its opponents certainly do. Nabil Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, has precise figures about discrimination showing that “in 2003 18 per cent of top jobs in Bahrain were held by Shia, by 2008 it had fallen to 13 per cent and today is 8-9 per cent.” He believes the government is seeking to change the demography of the island by sacking Shia and bringing in and naturalizing Sunni from Pakistan, Jordan, Yemen and other Sunni majority countries. He says the “government is creating the ingredients for a civil war” because the more the Shia are marginalized, the angrier and more extreme they will become as “they have nothing to lose.”
Some 2,500 Shia have been fired though King Hamad has promised they will get their jobs back. It may not be that easy. Hussain, an IT specialist in the semi-state Batelco telecommunications company, was one of those who lost their jobs. He says that there is now a layer of Sunni officials who do not want Shia to return whatever the king says. “They are treating us like Red Indians in America,” he says. “We are the majority now but maybe not for long. I’m looking for a job in Qatar or Dubai.”
King Hamad claims to have offered compromise and national dialogue, but this still hovers uneasily between real concessions and PR. The National Dialogue that has just ended was heavily promoted by the government but turned out to be an unrepresentative talking shop. “The dialogue was a monologue,” says Abdul Jalil Khalil Ibrahim, a negotiator for the main Shia party al-Wifaq, which withdrew from the dialogue. He says his party won a majority of all votes in the last election for the largely powerless Council of Representatives, but had just five members out of 320 attending the National Dialogue.
Much more serious is the investigative commission into what happened in Bahrain since February, headed by the famed human rights lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, which has just started work in Bahrain. Given that the loss of life is so much smaller than Rwanda or Bosnia he sounds bemused by the degree of half-concealed loathing with which the two different Bahraini communities regard each other. “The two have almost totally different narratives of what happened,” he says. “This reflects a polarized and radicalized society.”
Mr Bassiouni is optimistic that the king and the crown prince sincerely want him to work as if he was leading a truth commission, fairly apportioning blame between government and protesters. Overall, what happened in Bahrain persuades him of a darker truth. “The primitive nature of man starts just beneath the skin,” he says resignedly. “When you scratch the surface the worst of human kind appears.”
Patrick Cockburn is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq