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All aspects of the conflict in Bahrain can easily—and erroneously—be framed in sectarian terms: An overwhelming Shia Muslim majority is ruled by a Sunni Muslim royal family who bestow privileged, expedited citizenship on (Sunni) foreign nationals. These non-Bahrainis are then employed in the security sector to enforce authoritarian rule and skew the island’s demographics.
Doing so sidesteps deep and underlying political and socioeconomic grievances of the population however, and is exactly why the regime has made identification of sect a primary focus.
Opposition to al-Khalifa dynastic reign is longstanding but only recently gained international attention in February 2011 in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring.” At the time, protesters peacefully encamped in the capital’s Pearl Roundabout demanded not the overthrow of the government, but a freely elected prime minister, fair parliamentary representation, repeal of the citizenship laws and a new constitution.
The notion of limiting the sweeping powers of both the king and his prime minister (the world’s longest serving) sparked outcry and led the regime to reflexively characterize the standoff as one pitting Shia against Sunni. The subtext was alleged Iranian (re: Shia) hegemony jeopardizing the welfare of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and their Arab (re: Sunni) citizens. The opposition never invoked religion or engaged in such fear-mongering. Instead they spoke the language of justice, equality and dignity denied to Bahrainis of all sects.
Since the February 2011 uprising, Bahrain has distinguished itself in two areas: imprisoning children and demolishing mosques.
Children beaten, tortured and sentenced to lengthy terms in adult jails has not met with the outrage one might expect, especially from the two supposed beacons of civil rights (and two stalwart allies of King Hamad), the United States and United Kingdom.
Amnesty International’s December 2013 report entitled “Children in a Maze of Injustice” highlights the crimes committed against the nation’s youngest citizens:
“In the last two years scores of children have been arrested and detained in connection with ongoing anti-government protests in predominantly Shi’a towns and villages in Bahrain. In a number of cases children have reportedly been tortured or otherwise ill-treated to force them to sign “confessions” which were then used in court to incriminate them and others. Torture and other ill-treatment often takes place in police stations or at the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) in Bahrain’s capital Manama when children are interrogated following arrest.”
A list of children, their ages and individual stories are detailed in the document.
The perpetrators of such violence largely go unpunished. In its May 2014 report, “Criminalizing Dissent, Entrenching Impunity,” Human Rights Watch relates, “ … more than two years after King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa accepted recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to free peaceful dissenters and hold abusive officials accountable, Bahrain’s courts play a key role in maintaining the country’s highly repressive political order, routinely sentencing peaceful protesters to long prison terms. But members of security forces are rarely prosecuted for unlawful killings, including in detention, and the few convictions have carried extremely light sentences.”
To the deaf ears of the West, an exasperated human rights community continues to demand state accountability for children killed during protests. Kids now are routinely arrested, indefinitely detained and denied their education based on trumped-up charges by the state-controlled judiciary. One of many such cases is the plight of 15-year-old Firas al-Saffar.
The demolition of Shia mosques occurred right at the onset of the government’s crackdown, numbering over 30 in just a few months. This included the historic, 400-year-old Amir Mohammed Barbagi Mosque which was completely leveled. Bill Law reports for the BBC on the disparate views of why this particular mosque was bulldozed: “Opponents say that is because a Shia mosque in such a prominent location on a road much frequented by members of the ruling family and Saudis visiting Bahrain is an annoyance. For its part, the government argues that the mosque had encroached on a safety lane and was a hazard to traffic.”
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights has diligently chronicled the ongoing destruction of the island’s mosques, revocation of citizenships and the regime’s promotion of sectarian hate speech. All are efforts employed to demean and erase the identity of a people.
As clearly demonstrated, the dark specter of sectarianism is promulgated by one side alone. In a desperate attempt to safeguard their thrones, the al-Khalifa family has resorted to imprisoning and torturing children and razing mosques in manifest violations of civil liberties and human rights.
The King Fahd Causeway, the mere 16-mile bridge linking Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, was built exclusively for the purpose utilized when Saudi troops invaded Bahrain in March 2011: to crush any reform movement or revolt perceived to threaten the monarchy.
Based on the current intolerable, unsustainable repression, a day is not unforeseen when traffic will be forced to head in the decided opposite direction along the causeway: out of the royal palaces, and out of the country.
Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.