Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bahrain and Shi'a Islam: oppression giving an opening to Iran

Bahrain is governed by King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa and the Al-Khalifa family—Sunni Muslims ruling over a population that is overwhelmingly Shia. This religious schism is itself not the issue though. Rather, it is the complete political and economic marginalization of Bahrain’s Shia population and their lack of any meaningful representation within the government which is at the heart of all its problems.

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) has long documented the country’s human and civil rights abuses. It recently determined that of the 1,000 employees working for the country’s National Security Apparatus (NSA), over two-thirds are non-Bahraini, while the percentage of Shia Bahraini citizens employed is less than 5 percent (despite the Shia conservatively constituting over two-thirds of the population). They otherwise occupy low-level jobs or act as paid informants. The paramilitary Special Security Forces (SSF) acting under the supervision of the NSA, number 20,000—90 percent of whom are non-Bahraini, and without a single Bahraini Shia member.

By Royal Decree, the NSA and SSF may arrest and interrogate anyone they wish, are immune from prosecution, and are not under the oversight of any monitoring body. According to the BCHR, they are responsible for arresting hundreds of activists, torturing citizens, and running smear campaigns that result in the detention and imprisonment of anyone suspected of opposing Al-Khalifa family rule.

The Shia are also not found in any important governmental ministry and are poorly represented in the public sector.

In January, thousands of them peacefully protested against the kingdom’s citizenship laws which in effect, are the Arab equivalent of Israel’s infamous Citizenship Law. They permit Sunnis from other parts of the Muslim world to become expedited, naturalized citizens of Bahrain for the sole purpose of manipulating the confessional makeup and altering the sectarian balance of the country in favor of the Al-Khalifa’s natural constituency. The Shia population, and their demands, are thereby diluted.

What [the Arab] leaders fail to appreciate, according to Rannie Amiri, a shi'ite commentator, is that Arab Shia citizens are loyal to their own country, not Iran. Without being accorded basic civil and human rights though, and marginalized politically and socioeconomically, there is no way to demonstrate this. As a result, when Iran—a Shia Muslim nation—speaks up for their co-religionists, an artificial Arab-Iranian polemic is created.

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