REPORT – The unspoken Bahraini Shia apartheid

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SHAFAQNA – In Bahrain it is not uncommon to hear talk of the government perpetuating a “Shia genocide” against its people. Such statements are either political hyperbole or grossly misinformed; although the government has committed extrajudicial killing  – largely against Shia – in the past, government violence has never approached that which occurred in Rwanda or Srebrenica. Yet the fact that the Shia population in Bahrain speak in such terms denotes that the most substantial swath of the Bahraini population feels like its own country considers it the enemy.

That feeling appears to be accurate. It’s been over 200 years since the majority population of Bahrain effectively ruled itself, and discriminatory policies against the Shia have largely been the hallmarks of the Al Khalifa dynasty since it conquered the island nation in the late 1700s. In the 1990s, it appeared that the government might turn a new leaf when the-Emir Hamad announced a return to a constitutional monarchy. The ten years that followed were perhaps the least violent in recent Bahraini history, as the government curtailed its use of arbitrary arrest and torture against the Shia opposition. As the political situation stymied over the next decade, however, tensions rose within the Shia population promised but never receiving a substantial voice in the government.

These feelings culminated in the protest movement in February 2011, which, while not exclusively manned by Shia, significantly fed off Shia resentment.

The Al Khalifa dynasty responded to the protests by going back to its old bag of tricks. While the early 2000s were marked by government restraint in at least its security policies towards the Shia, the period after 2011 has been anything but, and allegations commonly arise that the government has arrested and detained political leaders, tear-gassed Shia villages, and tortured Shia youth. In 2011, the government went so far as to dismiss several thousands Shia from their jobs, and even bulldozed 38 Shia religious structures, including some 30 mosques. Shia remain almost wholly outside the decision-making and legislation-authoring sections of the government, and are barely represented in government emergency sector personnel, including the government security forces and military.

“Shia genocide” is a mischaracterization of the situation in Bahrain. Shia are not killed wholesale, and there are no concentration camps in the country.

However, Shia are kept separate from the political structure, and often forced to live in small villages, are routinely targeted by the security forces for arbitrary detention an torture, are fired for expressing their political views, are arbitrarily rendered stateless by Bahraini courts, and have seen their places of worship destroyed as part of a government sponsored campaign of violence and intimidation.

Were the Shia considered a race instead of a religious sect, their situation would almost exactly fit the definition of apartheid promulgated by the 1976 convention on the subject; while “Shia genocide” is political hypoerbole, “Shia apartheid” is closer to the truth than the Bahraini government would want to admit.

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