Securing Sectarian Difference, or: The Failure of Desectarianization in Bahrain?

26th Apr 2022 by Simon Mabon

Securing Sectarian Difference, or: The Failure of Desectarianization in Bahrain?

Chapter 1, Article 1 of the constitution of Bahrain declares that “The Kingdom of Bahrain is a fully sovereign, independent, Islamic Arab State whose population is part of the Arab nation and whose territory is part of great Arab homeland”. Ensuing articles set out that Islam is the official religion of Bahrain, and that Arab and Islamic heritage are to be protected by the state. Islam is positioned centrally within the fabric of the state, providing “strength” for the family unit which is the basis of society, and serving as a “code of laws” and a way of life. While Islam is mentioned 26 times, there is no reference to different schools of Islamic thought, or sects. 

One of three Shi’a majority states in the Middle East, Bahrain is home to a complex melange of identities cutting across sect, ethnicity, class, tribe, ideology, and geography. These identities are often politically charged and, in the post 2011 political landscape, life in Bahrain is conditioned by the intersectionality of politics, identity, economics, religion, security, and geopolitics. 

Although the Bahraini constitution depicts a state that is inclusive and representative of its broader citizenry, the reality is far bleaker. As one Bahraini observed, “the state plays a role in stoking and capitalising on the ‘divide and rule’ principle established in history by the British […] The state magnifies the role of religion in order to stay in power.” Despite the presence of an elected chamber, efforts to facilitate political or constitutional reform were typically thwarted by members of the Al Khalifa, particularly when it tried to guarantee the denunciation of discrimination, even in fields such as housing and scholarship. For one Bahraini political observer, the parliament “is handicapped” if not “paralysed”. 

Fundamentally, legal processes have taken on a regulatory component, with sectarian identities becoming entangled within the mechanisms of sovereign power. As one Bahraini observed, the ruling family “plays a critical role in controlling and implementing law selectively. If two people from different sects went to the law as they commit the same crime, the judgement will be different”. This point was supported by a constitutional lawyer who observed that the constitution gives freedom to the ruling family, creating a problematic situation whereby constitutional processes “are obstructed by the ruling family.” One former Bahraini MP claimed that the Al Khalifa believe they “own the country and the constitution as well”, suggesting that members of the ruling family are free from prosecution, as the case of Eman Salehi suggests. 

Despite the desectarian moment of 2011 – facilitated by people coming together across Manama - spatial factors prevent the interaction of people from different communities, a point also made by Justin Gengler. Cross-communal engagement is long held to be a way of resolving societal divisions, yet the Reflecting on a conversation with Sheikh Khaled in the 1980s, one former MP recalled the Sheikh saying “we established housing to have mixed Sunnis and Shias living together but it did not work and the Sunnis and Shias did not want to live in one constructed city. It caused a lot of trouble for us”.

As one participant argued, Bahrain “lacks integration of societies living in different spaces”. One consequence of this is the failure of a cohesive political discourse to emerge and, from this, the absence of political assimilation amongst individuals from different backgrounds. Erstwhile MPs also bemoaned the failure to attract people from other communities to their political movements. This point was further highlighted by former politicians who acknowledged that the Al Khalifa were disinclined to hold meetings between representatives of different communities together, with former MPs bemoaning the lack of direct dialogue between the ruling family and parties from different sects in the same room. 

There is little doubt that political reform and desectarianization are intimately intertwined in Bahrain. To facilitate reform desectarianization is necessary in order to move beyond the politicised and securitised forms of religious difference, yet desectarianization appears possible only with some form of political reform. At the time of writing, despite being under pressure from international actors – the US State Department put out a tender for strengthening the rule of law and fundamental freedoms in Bahrain – there is little appetite for political reform amongst the Al Khalifa. Instead, reform takes place predominantly in the human rights sphere in support of a reframing of Bahrain as a state worthy of foreign direct investment. While such reforms are undeniably welcome, desectarianization – and with it substantive political reform – appears unlikely.