by Mohammed Al Sayed
إقرأ هذه المقالة باللغة العربية
Does sectarianism create conflict or does conflict breed sectarianism? Countless academic papers have been written going round in circles on the theme of how sectarian tensions emerge and whether they are the product of conflict; or whether these tensions are the engine that gives rise to further conflict.
Below, we will look at recent experiences of conflict and sectarian tensions in the region. The conclusion we will arrive at is that one does not necessarily precede the other, but rather, the two are interrelated in a vicious circle where conflict creates sectarianism and sectarianism in turn fuels further conflict.
Modern conflicts and sectarianism
In our recent memories, the earliest and most dramatic explosion of sectarian tensions came after the Iraq War in 2003.
During the 2003-2006 period in Iraq, groups associated with Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists targeted Shia-majority areas and Shia mosques. Meanwhile, Shia militias linked to Iran attacked Sunni areas and abducted and murdered Sunni civilians.
Both sides were seeking to stir up sectarian tensions in order to advance their own primarily political agendas of consolidating their power and influence across Iraq and undermining the new Iraqi administration. Sectarianism at that time was foreign to most of Iraqi society, with Sunnis and Shia living together and intermarrying.
Conflict in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere has recently followed a sectarian logic. In all these cases, sectarianism doesn’t spontaneously erupt. Sectarian consciousness only gradually emerges after sustained efforts by extremist groups to provoke sectarian consciousness for political ends.
Historical roots of sectarianism
Sectarian figures will try and portray the Sunni-Shia split as going back almost to the time of the Prophet, dividing the Muslim world up into “true” Muslims and “deviant” Muslims. Such people will spend hours explaining current political events in the context of incidents that occurred between early Muslims nearly 1,400 years ago.
In reality, most of these 1,400 years is a history of coexistence and sharing of ideas and ideologies. Large numbers of Muslims for most of this history would never have recognized the Muslim world as being fundamentally divided into Sunni and Shia. That is certainly the case for Bahrain for much of its history.
Many historians would claim that our modern understanding of the sectarian divide goes back to the conflict between the Ottomans and the Safawis around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
For the most part, Shia and Sunni clerics across the Arab world before that period recognized that they had to live together and avoid inflaming divisions. It was only when the Safawis and Ottomans identified their sectarian orientation with their political goals that this Shia-Sunni polarization took shape and acquired political dimensions.
Sectarianism and the desire for an “Islamic State”
Prior to the Iranian revolution, we find that most Shia clerics rejected and opposed Ayatollah Khomeini’s principle of Welayat al-Faqih (rule by clerics), because they thought it was a theocratic innovation and they realized its potential for stirring divisions.
Prior to Khomeini, most senior Ayatollahs preached coexistence with Sunnis and with rulers who were not Shia clerics. Therefore Khomeini’s Iranian revolution was not just a revolution against “godless” rulers, but against the long-established principles of Shia Islam. Even today, many Shia clerics in Al-Najaf and elsewhere reject Khomeini’s teachings; even though Iran has created a generation of clerics for whom Welayat al-Faqih is a central principle.
We find the same process with Sunni extremists. Many extremist groups adopt the principle of “takfir”; rejecting as non-Muslims all those who think differently from them. Such extremists believe in the necessity of establishing an Islamic state based on the teachings of their intolerant principles. We see this happening in parts of Syria, Nigeria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. Such Sunni extremists generally view Shia as non-Muslims and would go as far as saying that Shia should be killed.
One of the many problems with all projects that have sought to establish a state where Islam and the state are inextricably linked and religion is made central to all aspects of society, politics and economics, is that the proponents inevitably hold a very narrow interpretation of Islam. Such projects thus tend to be just as intolerant of other Muslim sects as of non-Muslims. In Iran, there are countless examples of the marginalization, discrimination and persecution of Sunnis and other sects.
Sectarianism in Bahrain
From the outset of the unrest in February 2011, it wasn’t immediately obvious that it was of a wholly sectarian nature.
Both Sunnis and Shia went to Pearl Roundabout (Duwar Al LuaLua) urging reforms. However, it was the radicalized Shia organizations that were best able to mobilize their support bases and drive the unrest in a more extreme direction, calling for revolution and an end to the monarchy. Almost immediately, most Sunnis distanced themselves from the protest movement and the result was the sectarian polarization of the movement.
The most radical Shia groupings like Haq Movement and the Islamic Freedom Movement united in a “Coalition for a Republic” calling for protesters to forcibly overthrow the Monarchy and establish an Islamic Republic along Iranian lines.
The Sunni segment of Bahrain’s population saw this as very dangerous and in the eyes of many, the removal of the Monarchy amounted to a theocratic Shia takeover.
The result was that the unrest took a strongly sectarian turn, with both anti-Sunni and Shia incitement being witnessed in mosques, social media and various media outlets. By mid-March 2011 Bahrain was on the verge of serious sectarian conflict, as different localities set up road blocks and checkpoints guarded by vigilante groups.
It is credit to Bahrain’s leadership that we were able to take a step back from this brink and that there have been serious efforts towards dialogue and reconciliation. New laws have outlawed sectarian hate speech. However, Bahrain is certainly a more divided society than it was just five years ago.
Reconciliation and national unity
I have been lucky enough to attend more than one reconciliation programme in Northern Ireland as part of efforts to empower Bahrainis to take action to consolidate national unity.
It was instructive for me to see that Ireland is gradually healing its wounds after far worse sectarian violence and divisions than we ever experienced in Bahrain.
As levels of violence and unrest diminished in Bahrain over the past four years we can see time slowly healing these sectarian tensions. It may take years to get back to a situation of peaceful coexistence, but with each year that goes by without a major outbreak of renewed tensions there is hope that we can make progress.
This teaches us the degree to which conflict and sectarianism are related: Conflict inevitably gives rise to sectarian tensions, which further fuels the conflict.
However, reconciliation doesn’t just happen naturally. As the experience of Northern Ireland demonstrated; consolidated efforts are needed and genuine political will is required to bring the sides together in order to overcome the hatred and mistrust.
In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere; continued conflict results in worsening relations between sects. In Bahrain there are grounds for optimism that the worst is behind us and that Bahrainis have the desire and the maturity to find a way of peacefully living together.
Mohammed Al Sayed has over 10 years of experience in the field of media. Previously a journalist for one of Bahrain’s top English language newspaper, he later joined the Supreme Council for Women as a Senior Media and International Cooperation Specialist and has worked on several national women’s empowerment programmes including Bahrain’s official report of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Currently, Mohammed heads “Citizens for Bahrain”, an organization dedicated to reflecting the views of ordinary Bahrainis and ensuring that the full spectrum of opinions get a fair hearing locally and internationally. You can contact Mohammed and Citizens for Bahrain on Twitter @citizensforBH.