How radical are Bahrain's Shia?
King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa of Bahrain (Getty images).
May 16th, 2011
02:17 PM ET

How radical are Bahrain's Shia?

Editor's Note: Justin Gengler is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan. This essay is adapted from data from his 2009 nationally-representative survey of political attitudes in Bahrain. For more from Gengler, visit Foreign Affairs.

By Justin Gengler

In an April 19 op-ed in The Washington Times, Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, wrote that his regime was forced into its ongoing brutal crackdown on political protest and dissent when “the legitimate demands of the opposition were hijacked by extremist elements with ties to foreign governments in the region” - that is, when the movement was hijacked by Shia revolutionaries with ties to Iran.

Such accusations first arose soon after protests began in Bahrain in mid-February. But they took on new momentum on March 7, when several hard-line Shia opposition groups formed an alliance called the Coalition for a Republic, which rejected any political solution short of the wholesale ouster of the ruling Al Khalifa family.

The very name of the coalition evoked the specter of Iran’s Islamic Republic, and seemed to leave Bahrain’s rulers with no choice but to act firmly if they wished to avoid a Shia revolution of their own.

Yet King Hamad’s argument implies that there is a significant proportion of the Bahraini Shia population that would favor an Iranian-style religious regime in Bahrain and would be willing to take up arms to achieve it.

At least as of early 2009, when I undertook the first-ever mass political survey of the country, this was not the case: the vast majority of ordinary Bahraini Shia joined Sunnis in rejecting a system of governance based on or limited to religion.

In my nationally-representative, 435-household study, which employed the widely used Arab Democracy Barometer survey instrument, citizens were asked to evaluate the appropriateness of various systems of government as ways of ruling Bahrain.

About a quarter of all Shia and Sunni respondents deemed a parliamentary system in which only Islamist parties could compete “suitable” or “very suitable.” Over half of each group rejected the option outright, declaring it “not at all suitable.”

A sharia-based system fared even worse among Shia, of which only a quarter felt it was “suitable” or “very suitable,” while 63 percent deemed it “not at all suitable.” Among Sunni respondents, just under half rejected a Bahraini state based on Islamic law, but almost 40 percent felt it would be “very suitable” or “suitable.” Contrary to King Hamad’s implications, then, Shia are no more likely - and, in fact, are somewhat less likely - than Sunnis to favor a religious state.

Even Bahrain’s most extremist Shia elements rejected Islamic-based government. For example, those who indicated that their political views most closely correspond to the al-Haqq Movement, the underground Shia group that is the main sponsor of the Coalition for a Republic, were no more likely to support an Islamist-only parliamentary system or a sharia-based system than were those who identified with the more moderate Al-Wifaq society, which, until a few weeks ago, occupied 18 of 40 seats in Bahrain’s parliament.

Far from supporting the idea of Islamic government, the vast majority of Bahrain’s Shia expressed their desire for an open parliamentary system - that is to say, democracy. Almost three-quarters of Shia responded that a parliamentary system in which leftist, rightist, Islamic, and nationalist parties all compete in elections would be either “very suitable” or “suitable” for Bahrain. Shia support for parliamentary democracy was some 15 percentage points higher, even, than that among Sunnis.

Thus, if Bahrain’s king was correct that the opposition movement had been overtaken by Iranian-backed “extremists,” then the political orientations of Shia would have moved appreciably toward more support for an Islamic-based regime in Bahrain in just two years. In 2009, a little more than half of Shia respondents who identified with a political society named Al-Wifaq as the one most closely representing their own views, while less than 20 percent identified with Al-Haqq. But survey responses also revealed mounting disillusionment with Al-Wifaq’s experiment with political participation, which critics say has achieved little in its five years and comes at the price of government co-optation.

The growing sentiment seized upon by such groups as the Coalition for a Republic, is that if working for reform from within the existing system has proved a dead end, then perhaps the entire regime must change before Shia can achieve political and social influence in Bahrain commensurate with their demographic majority.

Rather than looking to Iran, Bahrain’s rulers should look to themselves to explain Shia radicalization. Indeed, the more telling half of King Hamad’s statement is not the second half - “hijacked by extremist elements with ties to foreign governments in the region” - but the first: “the legitimate demands of the opposition.” The problem in Bahrain is not Iranian-inspired extremism, it is that the Bahraini government’s definition of “legitimate demands” excludes the most basic grievances of ordinary Shia.

Bahraini Shia have long sought an end to religious-based discrimination in public-sector employment, particularly their wholesale exclusion from the police, the armed forces, and the power ministries such as Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs. Shia (as well as some Sunnis) decry the state’s decade-old program of naturalizing Arab and non-Arab Sunnis for work in the security services as tantamount to demographic engineering.

Opposition figures in both religious communities complain that the country’s parliamentary districts are gerrymandered around ethnic lines to limit the influence of Al-Wifaq and secular Sunni societies. Bahraini authorities, of course, dismiss all of these accusations.

It is unclear, then, what exactly King Hamad would have been willing to offer the opposition in recognition of its “legitimate demands.” To be sure, it was not resolution of any of the fundamental grievances articulated by Shia. From the ruling family’s perspective, it was precisely the measures that caused these grievances which had limited the extent of the present crisis.

Although the opposition could draw hundreds of thousands to the streets, it had no legal avenue to initiate political reform, and it had utterly no access to weapons with which to fight for it. The authorities, meanwhile, enjoyed a manufactured pro-government majority in parliament and a ready-made force of largely non-Bahraini servicemen with loyalties to none but the state. Clearly, any revision of this status quo is a nonstarter.

In lieu of substantive political concessions, King Hamad followed the lead of other Gulf Cooperation Council countries and offered opponents (and would-be opponents) one thing: money. Shortly after the onset of protests, the government announced generous social welfare packages including increased salaries and benefits, cost-of-living stipends, and plans for new subsidized housing.

The GCC even kicked in a $10 billion aid package of its own, dubbed a “Gulf Marshall Plan” for Bahrain. But this overt attempt at political buy-off only enraged protesters further. As aptly summarized by Ebrahim Sharif, the imprisoned head of Wa’ad, a now-dissolved secular political society, “This is about dignity and freedom - it’s not about filling our stomachs.”

By blaming political opposition on foreign meddling, religious extremism, and socio-economic frustration, Bahrain like other Arab Gulf regimes has sought to obscure and delegitimize elementary sources of discontent, namely targeted political exclusion.

King Hamad’s “extremists,” then, are not Shia Islamists but simply those who refuse to accept the material wealth-for-political silence bargain upon which Bahrain’s ruling regime and those of other Gulf states rest. But in refusing to address the most fundamental demands of mainstream Shia - or indeed to acknowledge the legitimacy of their complaints - Bahrain’s rulers have created a class of citizen every bit as dangerous as the Iranian-backed revolutionaries they seem to fear.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Justin Gengler. For more from Gengler and excellent long-form analyses, visit Foreign Affairs.

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Topics: Islam • Middle East • Revolution

soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. RAJ

    very educative. what percentage of Bahraninans are Shia and Sunni ? Bahrain authority will find out or create all faults of Shia to control the power in there favour for long time directly or indirectly.

    May 16, 2011 at 2:47 pm |

      Contradictory to poplural beliefe, shia are not the majority in Bahrain. In fact, there is no official count. But, i believe it to be 57.24% Sunnis, 42.72% Shias and 0.04& Christians & Jews. Have a look here:

      May 17, 2011 at 1:05 am |
    • julzz

      i agree with you. im no muslim but some people can think that by studying others for short time gives them the right or concepts to make valiid inferences. Human cannot live satisfactory if no body is unsatisfy. trust me.

      November 14, 2011 at 4:43 am |
  2. jg

    The link in the introduction answers this question:

    May 16, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  3. Onesmallvoice

    This king Hamid al Khalifa is no more than another stooge for the right-wing thugs in Washington who needs to be brought to justice but won't thanks to right-wing fanatics in the International War Crimes Tribunal who keep bowing to the will of Washington. What's ludicrous here is that they're planning to try Mohammar Qadaffy who may or may not be guilty for the same thing that this bozo is guilty of!

    May 16, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • julzz

      The american want the oil.. yep, it the black liquid pearl under that hot desert and qudhafi was sleeping on one of it without moving.

      November 14, 2011 at 4:48 am |
  4. j. von hettlingen

    I doubt if the majority of the Shia Muslims are redical. Religion would only turn extreme if it were hijacked for political goals. It seems most of them just want to earn a decent living and enjoy life according to their financial and social expectations. At the end of the day, people everywhere yearn for peace and welfare.

    May 16, 2011 at 3:32 pm |

      hellooo.... Here is sample list of the crimes these protesters have comitted till date:

      1- Organizing unauthorized demonstrations and riots since 14 February, which were deliberately organized on the 10 year anniversary of issuing the National Action Charter. 98% of the population agreed to it. This day used to be a joyous happy occasion in which we Bahrainis celebrate the birth of democracy in our country,
      2- They started attacking security forces by swords, which lead to the death of two protestors. News was spread regarding their obvious attacks on the security forces since the first day of the confrontation in case any of the protestors should be killed they would get the people's sympathy.
      3- The occupation of the GCC roundabout (pearl roundabout), disrupting the traffic movement in the most crowded streets in the kingdom, and assigning some of the occupiers as traffic police and check points near the roundabout.
      4- Organizing disgraceful activities in the roundabout like smoking "shisha". Alcohol and beer bottles were found, and news was spread that "enjoyment marriage" practice were going on there and “orgy”
      5- Giving inflammatory speeches from inside the round about which picture Sunnis as infidels, and asking to revive the Karbala battle as they represent (Al Hussain) and the others represent (Yazid).
      6- Occupying the largest medical complex in the middle east, which is the Salmanya hospital and committing many crimes which include:
      • Limiting treatment to the Shiite people only and expelling Sunnis, especially those who were of other origins and have been given the Bahraini Nationality. Tenths of people were rejected during two weeks time. The number of the hospitals visitors dropped from 1200 to 300 people because of the fear and dread that was spread in the hospital.
      • Deliberately harming Sunni patients by delaying or refusing their treatment. This lead to the death of a woman who just gave birth (Mona Al-Megahwi) because of the purposeful delay in her treatment, and (Fatima Al-Abbasi) because the ambulance refused to go to her on purpose.
      • The strike of doctors, nurses, and most of the crew in the hospital. Protest tents were set in the hospital and many of the demonstrators in the roundabout joined them.
      • Using government ambulance vehicles in disgraceful external activities such as smuggling weapons and criminals. What happened in the University of Bahrain is an example of that.
      • Stealing 16 out of 25 ambulance vehicles from the hospital. Some of them are found, and the rest are still to be found.
      • Stealing medical and health equipments from the hospital and using them in the roundabout activities. Especially oxygen equipments, which the hospital lacked later on and which are worth nearly BD100,000.
      • The retention of many expats who were tied, handcuffed, hit, tortured, and were photographed to support their intentions to mislead public opinion so they can accuse the government with using force.
      • The retention and torture of a security man inside the hospital.
      • Hiding light and medium weapons inside the hospital.
      • Creating a complete studio for Al-Aalam TV channel, and assigning a group of doctors and nurses as reporters for this channel who give false statements to deceive the people's opinions.
      • Contempt of the hospital rooms of the emergency section by letting TV channels in the injuries room.
      • The obvious acting to claim injuries. They even spread Magnesium hydroxide on the bodies of some protestors to show that they are ill. They also used tenths if not hundreds of blood sacks to claim injury for photography and video taping purposes.
      • Using the Salmanya hospital as an inflammatory platform by giving inflammatory speeches by the opposition leaders.
      • Closing and sealing the hospital's doors to prevent the security forces from entering.

      7- organizing unauthorized riots in the University of Bahrain, which lead to:
      • Hitting tens of Sunni students using white weapons, many of whom are still in hospital in very bad conditions.
      • Hitting Sunni girls. Twenty men gathered on one girl and hit her. She is now in the ICU the Defense Force hospital. This has been witnessed by my cousin, who is still very traumatized about the incident.
      • Harassing Sunni girls, ripping their clothes, and feeling their bodies.
      • The participation of some university professors (men and women), who approve the demonstrations, in these crimes by inducing and encouraging violence and the cease of study.
      • Throwing a handicapped from the second floor.
      • Breaking and shattering University of Bahrain's facilities and offices.
      • The betrayal of the security guard in the university, who joined the protestors and informed them where the Sunni students were.
      • Transporting many of the bullies from the roundabout with large buses, which can carry 50 persons, armed with swords, knives, sticks, and blackjacks.

      8- Desecration of 4 Sunni mosques in Manama, closing their doors, and preventing the Sunni call for prayer. Also, attacking a Bengali Muezzin (the person who calls for prayer) by beating him, torturing him, cutting his tongue, and breaking his skull. This person died, and his roommate said that the Shiite told him "Bahrain is a Shiite country and the Sunni call for prayer cannot be raised here".
      9- Attacking a taxi driver (Rashid Al-Moamary, 70 years old) by purposefully running into his car and breaking it, and then hitting him and torturing him until he died.
      10- Attacking about 15 Asian expats, which lead to the death of one and the rest are still in the hospital.
      11- Kidnapping 5 Asian laborers, torturing them, and video taping them.
      12- Running over 3 policemen more than once in a barbaric way, which everyone has seen. They all died.
      13- Sending inflammatory and threatening letters against the foreigners inside Bahrain.
      14- Tempting young children from elementary and intermediate schools to organize demonstrations and call for overthrowing the government. They were taken out by trucks, which were not suitable even for animals, and threw them in the streets, endangering their lives.
      15- Sunni students were attacked by the Shiite students (boys and girls) and their teachers (men and women). They even attacked a girl by ripping her clothes. Many eyewitnesses spoke of seeing them carrying knives
      16- Attacking and threatening men and women volunteers in the education sector, and purposefully distorting their reputation and image.
      17- Organizing a civil strike to harm the countries economy and tourism. Especially in the vital sectors such as oil and economy.
      18- Many employees in companies and ministries, who are with the opposition, stole and used the companies' cars for the demonstrations.
      19- Many of the Shiite employees escaped from their work in collusion with their bosses, and their works were assigned to the Sunni staff.
      20- Anyone who wants to go back to work is threatened to be killed, beaten, or burning his house.
      21- Entering some companies and ministries and threatening their staff.
      22- Harassing and cursing a woman near the Financial Harbor. She was surrounded, and they did not allow her to move while she was in her car.
      23- Blocking King Faisal's road, where the most important companies and ministries in the economic sector are, and throwing sand and stones is threatening to the Pedestrians.
      24- Tampering with lampposts in King Faisal's road to harm anyone who tampers with them.
      25- Digging trenches near pearl roundabout and hide weapons there, and making ambushes for them.
      26- Deliberately provoking and threatening the residential areas with Sunni majority.
      27- Cursing security and police forces, and pretending to give them flowers.
      28- Killing and torturing every person who doesn’t implement their demands. They killed two Shiites ( Radhi Al-Radhi, and Abdul Rasool Al-Hujairy) because they exposed the work of the opposition and refused to go on a civil strike.
      29- Ordering to kill or run over whoever comes in their way.
      30- Using car horns to create a provocative tone, which implies the overthrowing the king.
      31- Five women from the opposition entered a mosque and terrorized a young girl. They followed her and forced her to call for overthrowing the government.
      32- Smuggling and using many white weapons, automatic weapons, and Molotov.
      33- Opposition people pretended to be reporters for Al-Aalam and Al-Manar TV channels.
      34- Painting the houses of military and Sunni people to threaten, kill, or harm the residents.
      35- Making an agreement with the Iranian Ambassador to smuggle weapons and intelligence.
      36- Seeking to make a coup on the government; this is the greatest treason.

      Now Sir.. imagine if this happened I the United States.

      May 17, 2011 at 1:07 am |
      • Manal

        says who ? Bahrain TV ?

        May 17, 2011 at 5:19 am |
      • mohammed

        Every one know the truth except Bahraini rulers and their dogs.

        May 17, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
      • KingOfQatif

        You have just turned the facts around!
        More than 30 females are still in jail.

        Doctors are to be tried in military court after the lost their jobs.

        All pictures and videos show SMASHED heads of protestors and bodies full of live amunition.

        If you live on this planet, you must have seen tge crackdown of the roundabout using fire and bombs.

        More than 2000 employees were fired losing all their benifits.

        Shia Mosques were demolished.

        Did you see the police riots smashing cars of protestors then taping them to say it was act by protestors?

        Going to bed, I have to end this but with a question:
        Why are Saudi Shia not allowed to enter Bahrain?? Is it fear that they might knock out your multi-national cowards?

        May 19, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  5. Ahmed

    All opposition leaders were clerics and their chants was religion related and they protested only in from of sunni ministers,
    they hijacked main hospital killed 4 police 7 citizens, 391 injured and kidnapped 4 police and as I remember 2 expats, even a recorded video showing hostages are being taken to roundabout and a clerics saying "For our peaceful protest the hostages should not be touched or hurt" peaceful in their dictionary is very different from the one that we know, their leaders threatened the government to have iran military support if they have GCC support.
    these statistics if they were correct it represents the people who wants reforms which the majority and no one here to deny that but those protesters were minority and were media focused thinking their protests was pro-democracy, while the real pro-democracy requester (shia and sunni ) asked in very civilized without hurting anybody and media ignored them. what happened in bahrain is simple, few extremist to overthrow government focused by media and showed them as pro-democracy and hiding all their sabotaging actions and majority wanted the regime with reforms in civilized way but total media ignrance

    May 17, 2011 at 2:08 am |
  6. Bahraini guy

    wow !! what a silly report !! this guy will not get his PHD for lying you know! the Shia in Bahrain are the most radical Shia maybe more than the iranians .. of course they will tell you that they don't want a religious country .. but why they backed up with these radicals for the Islamic republic when they announced it in the pearl roundabout?? thousands where there but we didn't see any one refused the idea !! these people are so good liers and our writer over here is fooled .. so no Ph.D for you my friend lol

    May 17, 2011 at 2:17 am |
  7. lizardo

    Don't mind the silly comments ppl. The pro-govs. have added this article's link and asked everybody to comment! Any witness (Amber Lyon of CNN for eg.) can prove this PHD essay.

    May 17, 2011 at 5:04 am |
    • Bahraini guy

      lol very funny .. u say Amber lyon ! with her dirty mouth! she is maybe worst than this Gengler guy ,, so the pro-govs have no right to express their opinions also? defend their belief? what a strange opposition ,, this so called essay is worthless because it is full of contradictions and it didn't consider the other parts of the Bahraini society the Sunnis !! worthless ! if this essay is for his PhD .. they will sure throw it out of the window !!

      May 17, 2011 at 5:36 am |
    • eb

      phd .... do know about shia full information ... did you read there books you live with them to see how they behave .. do you diploma first in there history ... then comment

      May 21, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  8. nasser

    Excellent article.. Thank you

    May 19, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  9. lansat

    Bahrain'shia are pranch of Hizballah party which is tge most violence trerrosim people in the world with expand plane to invation the worldn they are most denger than osama bin Laden and autonic bomb, and the next invation after Iraq,Lebanon, syria, and Bahrain, will be america and EU . Just be reday for them

    May 19, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  10. KingOfQatif

    Thank you for the report.
    Don't listen to the "Baduins" as they don't believe in democracy.
    They are brainwashed to follow the leader even if he was a dectator. Read the Islamic history and see how they blindly followed "Yazeed" and killed the grandson of Prophet Mohammed "Imam Hussain" in Karbala.
    The same thing is happening in Bahrain. They would kill women and children to fight after their dectator. And this simply because without him they are useless and minority.

    Please HELP Bahrain

    May 19, 2011 at 6:38 pm |

      Nice.. Clearly not religiously motivated i see.

      January 4, 2012 at 6:22 am |
  11. in my50s

    Our king hs bssed this to us
    let others speek thair thoughts and respct each other belev ,but when it comes to Hesb allh nd Iranian Teror , we are sorry ,things hs to be in the right order to rescue the nation and humnety from extremest .

    May 20, 2011 at 2:59 am |
  12. www

    Dr.Justin Gengler l think you are bised as most of amirecans you belive that sunnis should be kicked awt just this what you did in iraq .. im aginst sadam husien but you ( the american) killed one million sunnis in iraq .. the price is very high

    May 21, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  13. Ali Khan

    Bahrain is just the Starting of Shia Dream of Global Evil Empire - OIC must declare IRAN non Muslim Munafiq Country and all Muslim Countries Must Declare Shia as Non Muslim Munafiqs -

    Then Muslim Countries can have a better chance -

    Remember how Jewish and Shia Prayers are Similar - Jewish Rabbis sit around their priest and Cries and beat their heads - Same thing Shia do in Muharram

    How Jews take over Media + Government and Resources and than practise their Worst Dictatorship of these Resources

    Shia also Captures Media + Government + Resources of MUSLIM COUNTRIES

    infact all the MEDIA in MUSLIM COUNTRIES is already strictly CONTROLLED BY SHIA - who are not even paying the Worker Cameraman other staff for more 6 months at a time - Cuz these Shia and Jews have ZERO Talent

    If only Muslim Countries Strictly separate Shia Munafiqs - Muslim Empire can Rise again

    given the Fact that USA and Europe is already gone --

    October 22, 2011 at 8:28 pm |

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