​ A Curious Form of Justice in Modern Bahraini History: Being Hard on Shi’a and Soft on Sunnis

26th Nov 2019 by Staci Strobl

​  A Curious Form of Justice in Modern Bahraini History:  Being Hard on Shi’a and Soft on Sunnis

This piece is taken from the SEPAD report ‘Sectarianism in the Longue Duree’ available here: https://www.sepad.org.uk/report/sectarianism-in-the-longue-duree

Since the Bahrain Arab Spring protests in 2011, human rights groups estimate that approximately one thousand Bahrainis, mostly Shi’a, have had their citizenship revoked under the banner of anti-terrorism enforcement.[1]  In reality, most of these people have participated in nonviolent political protest activity aimed at highlighting widespread civil and human rights violations at the hand of the state. 

Stripping citizenship is a shockingly illiberal measure that points to the enduring legitimacy problems of the Bahraini regime.  In February and April of this year, citizenship revocation was imposed onto dozens of people simultaneously through the use of mass trials.[2]  Daring to speak up about rights violations in this tiny kingdom unearths the apparatus of collective punishment of Shi’a and other marginalized Bahrainis.  Although King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah reversed the revocations in about 500 cases, several hundred Bahrainis remain newly stateless and have sought asylum in other countries.  Further, those restored were not the major opposition figures, such as Sheikh Isa Qasim, the spiritual leader of many Shi’a Bahrainis.[3]

Revocations have occurred in the context of documented patterns of police torture, illegal arrests and detentions, as well as a state master-narrative that excludes Shi’a stories from the life of the nation and perpetuates the false notion that Bahraini activists hope the country will be one day absorbed by Iran.[4]  Meanwhile, mostly Sunni loyalists operate with much more limited criminal accountability, a curious form of restorative justice that seeks to maintain loyal subjects in spaces of de facto immunity.

 Being hard on Shi’a and soft on Sunnis is one strategy employed to maintain Al Khalifah regime survival, but far from being merely instrumental, it is also symbolically rich for people within Bahrain whose cultural milieu has long experienced sect as a major marker of power or the lack thereof.[5]  The persistence of sectarian hierarchies normalizes the recently ramped-up patterns of collective punishment of an underclass, primarily Shi’a. Discrimination, practically and discursively, remains institutionalized. 

Collective punishment of Shi’a has long been the modus operandi of the Bahraini royal family when it comes to managing threats to its rule.  Although many look to the period after the Iranian Revolution or the Iraq Wars as the most relevant history,[6] in actuality, collective punishment is baked into Bahraini government systems, in particular criminal justice institutions.  Taking a wider historical approach makes clear that the Sunni privilege of restorative justice, and the corresponding Shi’a burden of criminalization and collective punishment, have been persistent features of Bahraini public life for at least a hundred years if not more.

The notion of a longue durée view of history suggests that permanent structures in society slowly-evolve over centuries.[7]  Despite change, the detritus of the past remains in the present.  Deep-seated cultural notions of who is dangerous live on-- even when dressed up in more contemporary practices of modern court systems and uniformed police.  Colonialism legitimized and exacerbated an existing Al Khalifah anxiety over Shi’a as the internal enemy, necessitating criminalization, to protect state formation and later, state survival. Meanwhile, tribal social networks rescued Sunni criminals from punishment, first as part of customary tribal negotiations on issues of justice, but then increasingly, as a means of shoring up Sunni solidarity and loyalty in the nation-state.

Although some scholars have questioned the focus on sect difference in Bahrain as merely a product of colonial divide-and-rule strategies,[8] it is clear that the nature of Bahraini society under the Al Khalifah regime before significant colonial involvement was sectarian, reflecting a Sunni tribal anxiety about losing the land they occupied to a majority Shi’a rafidha, or religious rejectionists (from the Sunni perspective) . That the British “noticed” a social division that was so natural to local people as to be rather unremarkable, created its own disruption, as the British alternately underestimated sect-identity, and then exacerbated and exploited it for their own ends.

 A look at the structure of criminal justice on the eve of deep colonial reform, shows that Al Khalifah fidawi, or tribal enforcers, were entrusted with the legitimate use of force.  They collected Shi’a-discriminatory taxes, perpetuated the stealing of Shi’a lands and were notoriously violent.  Many of them supported themselves through the spoils from this activity.  However, reform would take the legitimate use of force from the fidawi and give it to the new state police (save for a few fidawi for the Emir’s retinue) under the purview of the political agency, and then the British political advisor, Sir Charles Belgrave.  In one administrative swathe the Sunni fidawi lost both their enforcement authority and their legitimate access to Shi’a as a subordinate class from which they could both perform Sunni hegemony and gain loot.

Unmoored former-fidawi are a dangerous predicament— perhaps akin to the firing of the Sunni military and police in post-war Iraq in this century.  A period of lawlessness, including arbitrary massacres in Shi’a villages, routine at-a-distance shootings of police headquarters, and police murders ensue.  The political agent at the time, Major Clive Daly, receives numerous complaints from Shi’a victims and communities gravely afraid of being the next victims of Sunni violence.  By the late 1920s, the new criminal justice system criminalized this behavior and imposed a rule of law in the Orders-in-Council.  Yet, the Al Khalifah dragged their feet in reining in the violence.  Instead, records show that Emir Hamid walked the fine line between pretending to favor prosecutions of Sunni perpetrators, and negotiating an important place for the criminal Sunni notables no matter how grievous the crimes.  In the tribal calculus of the time, maintaining power meant striking a delicate balance of Sunni alliances, and among those tribes, animosity toward local Shi’a was a part of life.[9]  

From the point of view of the Al Khalifah, Sunni loyalty can be controlled because conflicts are workable within customary negotiations of tribal tributes and alliances.  The danger, then resides in a Shi’a majority underclass who frame the Al Khalifah as brutal conquerors, and had been appealing forcefully to the British for more rights: economic opportunity, land ownership, and fair determinations of citizenship. It is very possible that the violence of the 1920s directly stemmed from a situation in which many local Bahrainis and the British momentarily dared to envision a Bahrain that would be relatively less sectarian, but that the Al Khalifah and Sunni allies feared this as the potential end of their rule.  

From this point forward, there is a clear nexus between Al Khalifah and Sunni survival in the archipelago, and Shi’a violence and subordination.  Ruptures along the way, when Shi’a asserted their rights--whether through petitions, social movements, poetry, or burning tires—are dangerous moments for regime survival because they question the very social and political order in a symbolically powerful way.  The legitimacy of the Al Khalifah vis a vis their Shi’a subjects is a living critique, but one that can be quenched by using the power of the state to criminalize and punish.

Historically, Bahraini rulers have extended olive branches of forgiveness for serious crimes, an opportunity for restorative justice that has been extended to Sunni wrongdoers and not Shi’a ones, almost down to a person.  Restorative justice refers to an umbrella of criminal justice responses that are alternatives to merely seeking punishment for criminal behavior.  Philosophically, it involves focusing on the harm done to victims and the community and working toward repairing relationships rather than punishing offenders.  Although it represents a wide group of practices, restorative justice includes diversion from court processing and even forgiveness.

In the volatile 1920s, for example, members of the ruling family, Sheikh Ibrahim Khalid and his two sons, home-invaded and murdered Shi’a villagers in Sitra, killing dozens.  Although the British political agency convinced Emir Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to prosecute the royal murderers and their accomplices, within a few years these family members were restored to full rights as members of the royal elite, their confiscated lands returned, and a royal campaign of restoring their reputation ensued.  Today, the descendants of these perpetrators form the hardline, or Khawalid wing, of the royal family.

Also, during this time period, colonial records show a Sunni rapist was released from police custody at the Emir’s behest, and a Sunni man who murdered his sister had his sentence of 5 years cancelled at the one-and-a-half year mark.  In addition, two ordinary Sunni criminals, an anti-colonial activist and a thief, were restored to good standing, their banishments and other punishments cancelled by the Emir. In most of these cases, Sunni notables negotiated leniency for their criminal brethren directly from the Emir, undermining the work of the recently-implemented colonial-style rules of law (Orders-in-Council, 1919).[10] 

The importance of this forgiveness goes beyond the immunity it provided for elite Sunnis.  It also represents a way in which the Emirs of the colonial era navigated British power and influence.  They often reluctantly conceded to British demands to prosecute members of their family and people from Sunni allies.  When they were unable to outright resist, they would undo those convictions later.  Much ink was spilled as the British colonial officials conceded to Emir Hamad’s demands for the return of murderous allied of the Dowasir, but tried to do so in a way that appeared to uphold the prior criminal convictions, even as all punishment was being cancelled: a return from banishment, a return of confiscated lands, and a reimbursement of lost rent from those lands (the latter of which the British re-packaged to the public as a government grant for development of the property).[11]

A contemporary example of this type of state forgiveness is that of the cabinet minister at the center of the infamous Bandargate scandal.  Ahmed bin Ateyatalla Al Khalifah, an advisor to the cabinet affairs ministry, has never been brought to justice despite repeated calls from Al Wefaq, Shi’a Bahraini political party, as well as many international observers, for a public trial.[12]  According to the whistle-blower report by Dr. Salah Al Bandar, the Al Khalifah advisor spent $2.7 million to hire a secret intelligence cell to spy on Shi’a, create bogus NGOs friendly to the regime, foment sectarian strife on social media, pay Shi’a converts to Sunni Islam, and rig elections for Sunni candidates.[13]

Additionally, lesser members of the royal family have been fingered in personally torturing opposition activists in 2011, including a Swedish citizen.[14]  The Shakhura incident, in which police brutally beat a group of Shi’a young men on a rooftop, was filmed by six different onlookers, going viral in 2011 on social media.  The young men had their hands bound and at the time were not even under arrest.  Police in Bahrain are overwhelmingly Sunni with a majority of them hailing from other Arab countries, what some have called a “mercenary” force.[15]  Despite the inability of the Minister of the Interior to defend the incident, no criminal charges were brought up against the police involved.[16]

Underlying these long-standing patterns of de facto royal and/or Sunni immunity is the possibility that it is actually state policy to actively pursue these abuses, no forgiveness necessary.  Although this would be reading beyond the data, many who have experienced the brutal reach of the regime have long felt that it exudes a kind of silent pride at being brutal toward its underclass.  Indeed, by the late 1960s the regime had doubled-down on its brutality hiring Britain’s Ian Henderson (“the butcher of Bahrain”) as head of Bahrain’s Security and Intelligence Service (BSIS) to run a long-standing anti-Shi’a and anti-opposition crackdown, involving beatings and torture of Bahraini citizens suspected of regime disloyalty.[17] 

More ordinary examples of Sunni leniency and forgiveness are harder to ascertain in the current era due to the lack of transparency of Bahraini prosecutorial decision-making.  Gossip in the archipelago, however, often revolves around stories of Sunni elites abusing their privilege in a variety of ways by failing to be held accountable for more everyday criminal transgressions, such as patterns of abuse of sex workers and drug abuse.

An interviewee in this author’s fieldwork in 2005 confessed to personally running a guest worker scheme for an elite Sunni co-conspirator, bringing in women to work as prostitutes by forging paperwork that they were expert  “metallurgists” for employment in the aluminum and oil refining industries.  According to the interviewee, this type of fraud and corruption was commonplace, and he and his co-conspirator had never been challenged by the criminal justice system because of their loyalty to the regime and their sect-identities.

The same year, this researcher also witnessed police observing and comprehending that an illegal scheme to bring in prostitutes from Thailand was reforming during the process of deporting a group of approximately 30 Thai women for precisely that scheme.  The male, Sunni unindicted perpetrator visited a detained Thai woman to allegedly say a fond farewell, but in addition, openly discussed her and others’ future return to the country and to the same criminal operation.  Two policewomen told this researcher that due to the notable identity of the unindicted perpetrator, it would be allowed to stand.    

Unchecked criminality, though problematic for the rule of law, would not exhibit the problem of sectarianism if sect-identity did not matter in who could get away with performing it.  However, the kinds of breaks the Sunni elite receives from the criminal justice system are almost never extended to Shi’a, nor anyone allied with them in political activism around a human rights agenda.  In fact, the criminalization of Shi’a speech, that in the absence of the regime’s sectarian anxieties would not be problematic-- such as Friday sermons calling for generalized social and economic justice- show that Shi’a bear a heavy burden of being labeled the dangerous class in Bahrain.  That Western allies, in particular the UK and the US, maintain their cozy relationship with the regime, and the enduring influence of Saudi Arabia on local Sunni politics, means that this state of affairs is unlikely to change soon.

[1] France 24. “King restores citizenship of 551 Bahrainis after global outcry,” France24.com, April 16, 2019. Fhttps://www.france24.com/en/20190421-king-restores-citizenship-551-bahrainis-after-global-outcry (accessed October 6, 2019).

[2] Amnesty International. “Bahrain mass trial revoking citizenship of 138 people a mockery of justice,” 

Amnesty.org, April 21, 2019. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/04/bahrain-mass-trial-revoking-citizenship-of-138-people-a-mockery-of-justice/ (accessed October 6, 2019).

[3] Reuters. “Major opposition figures not among those given back Bahraini citizenship,” Reuters.com, April 29, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bahrain-security-idUSKCN1S50PC (accessed October 6, 2019).

[4] Kasbarian, Sossie, and Simon Mabon. “Contested spaces and sectarian narratives in post-uprising Bahrain.” Global Discourse 6, no. 4 (2016): 677-696; Simon Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East (London: I.B.Tauris, 2013).

[5] Staci Strobl, Sectarian Order in Bahrain: The Social and Colonial Origins of Criminal Justice (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books: 2018). 

[6] See, for example, Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel.  “Sectarianization: mapping the new politics of the Middle East.” The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 15, no.3 (2017): 1-13; see Frederic M. Wehrey.  Sectarian politics in the Gulf: from the Iraq war to the Arab uprisings(Columbia University Press, 2013).

[7] Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein. “History and the social sciences: the longue durée.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center; 1958; 2009): 171-203.

[8] See, for example, Omar H. AlShehabbi.  Contested Modernity: Sectarianism, Nationalism, and Colonialism in Bahrain (London: One World Academic, 2019) 17-25.

[9] Staci Strobl, Sectarian Order in Bahrain: The Social and Colonial Origins of Criminal Justice (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books: 2018).

[10] Staci Strobl, Sectarian Order in Bahrain: The Social and Colonial Origins of Criminal Justice (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books: 2018), 79-80.


[11] See official correspondence of which this memorandum is a part: Lieutenant Colonel L.B.H. Haworth to Foreign Secretary to the Government of India, Confidential memorandum No, 138-S.  May 1, 1927 (British Library, India Office Records, R/15/1/346).

[12] Steven Wright. “Fixing the kingdom: Political evolution and socio-economic challenges in Bahrain”, Georgetown University, Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) Occasional Papers (2010).

[13] Bandargate Reporthttp://www.bahrainrights.org/node/528 (Accessed October 15, 2019).

[14] Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “Some members of the Bahraini royal family beating & torturing political prisoners,” Bahrainrights.org, August 11, 2011. http://www.bahrainrights.org/en/node/4516 (accessed October 6, 2019).

[15] Marc Owen Jones. “Police deviance” in Bahrain’s Uprising, edited by Ala’a Shehabi and Marc Owen Jones (London: Zed Books, 2015), 221.

[16] It is not known if any internal disciplinary action was taken against the officers.  Marc Owen Jones, 2015, 207-209.

[17] Emile Nakhleh. “Ian Henderson and repression In Bahrain: A forty-year legacy.”  Lobe Log. https://lobelog.com/ian-henderson-and-repression-in-bahrain-a-forty-year-legacy/ (accessed October 15, 2019); Naomi Sakr. “Reflections on the Manama Spring: research questions arising from the promise of political liberalization in Bahrain”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 28, no. 2 (2001): 229-231.