Fighting Bahrain's Sectarian Threat

06/03/2015 11:08 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

Rocked by last week's bombings of Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia which killed dozens of people, Bahrain's government has responded with a series of statements against incitement and sectarianism. Interior Minister Lieutenant-General Shaikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa called for tolerance, saying "It is a duty to protect worshipping places from being involved in politics," that "mosques are the houses of God that should be respected and distanced from incitement against any sect or race."

He also warned against threats and rumors on social media promoting hatred. This is all good stuff, echoed by the Bahrain cabinet this week, who rightly identified that the targeting of houses of worship provides "holders of extremist and terrorist ideology [with encouragement] to carry on violence and explosions."

The shock waves of the Dammam mosque bombing sent tremors through Bahrain. Although in Saudi Arabia, Dammam is only about an hour's drive from Bahrain's capital Manama. Sectarianism hasn't much respect for international borders. Bahrain knows the threat of sectarian violence, from ISIS or elsewhere, is real.

But for those without amnesia the government's rhetoric seems disingenuous. Four years ago dozens of Shia mosques and other buildings were targeted and demolished by Bahrain's authorities in response to large scale protests for democratic reform. In a rare public rebuke to his Gulf ally, President Obama said at the time that "Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain." There has been some effort to rebuild the destroyed buildings, but no senior government official has been held accountable for the attacks and sectarianism remains ingrained in the Sunni-dominated government.

In its latest report on Bahrain, the United States International Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted that "In April 2014, the government forced Shi'a cleric Hussain Mirza Abdelbaqi Najati to leave the country after revoking his Bahraini citizenship in November 2012. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, the authorities expelled Najati on account of 'religiously motivated discrimination.' Furthermore, government and pro-government media continued to use inflammatory, sectarian rhetoric. New media laws that would curb anti-Shi'a incitement, as recommended in the BICI [Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry of 2011] report, have not been passed."

Although there is a substantial Shia majority in Bahrain, its security force personnel are drawn almost exclusively from the local Sunni community or from Sunni communities abroad. This lack of Shia representation in the military and police is likely to fuel extremism. When prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab alluded to this in a tweet last October, saying "many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator," he was sentenced to six months in jail.

The Bahraini government needs to address the sectarianism in its institutions if it wants to avoid fuelling violent extremism. This week, families of Shia prisoners in Bahrain's notorious Jaw prison told me that inmates are not being allowed to fast during the holy time of Shabaan, that the guards say they have no orders to allow them to fast. I was told that they throw away the prisoners' food and don't let them keep it until sundown.

A group of clerics and other religious leaders from across the Middle East has launched a new initiative to counter hate speech and sectarianism. The effort has broad civil society support and has been encouraged by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This new coalition includes civil society organizations from 17 Middle Eastern countries so far, and aims to fight incitement by educating those in governments and outside them on how to counter the sort of speech that leads to hatred and violence. The coalition's co-ordinator is Sheikh Maytham Al Salman from Bahrain.

"While national authorities carry the primary responsibility to respond to and prevent violence and violations of the right to life, and to respect and protect freedom of expression, civil society actors and the media play a very important role as well," explained Al Salman. "Civil society can be instrumental in addressing the root causes of intolerance and hate speech by encouraging constructive dialogue and by cultivating skills for peaceful resolution at the community level... the region has witnessed a proliferation of overbroad legal restrictions on hate speech, freedom of religion and incitement to violence, which have negatively impacted on the work of civil societies in the MENA region, considerably limiting their ability to influence legal and policy reform processes related to freedom of expression, diversity and tolerance. For example, men and women human rights defenders, activists and media professionals remain at risk of stigmatization, intimidation and even reprisals by State and non-State actors, including for their work on the promotion of tolerance and non-sectarian policies."

Sectarianism in the region is not limited to anti-Shia sentiment. In other parts of the region, including Syria and Iraq, Sunnis have also been the victims of sectarian violence. Incitement on government and social media has made many countries much more vulnerable to extremist attacks.

If sectarianism is to be defeated, countering hate speech while allowing legitimate criticism is essential. The Bahrain government should start by dropping charges against Rajab and all of those who have been prosecuted for exercising their rights to peaceful speech. For its part, the Obama Administration should stop training and equipping a Bahraini military that only recruits Sunnis, and defend a civil society that's trying to root out sectarianism from its government.