Discrimination against Shia Muslims in the Gulf region; is it by law or based on prejudice?

Discrimination against Shia-Muslims in the Gulf region; is it by law or based on prejudice?By: Mohammed Serkal

U.N coordinator on Minorities issues

SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights – salam-dhr.org

Delivered at the U.N 8th minorities issues session – Geneva (24-25th November)

Download Pdf File


  • Does the criminal justice system treat people from religious minorities differently than others?
  • Are there stages in the process that — intentionally or unintentionally — disadvantage Shia and others?
  • How does the judiciary receive political covenants aimed at the protection of religious minorities?
  • Do judicial verdicts meet the international human rights norms?
  • Is the judiciary sufficiently insulated from political currents to guard against potential tyranny of shifting majorities?


“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”—Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Stereotypes – beliefs about attributes that are thought to be characteristic of members of particular groups
Prejudice – a negative attitude or affective response toward a certain group and its individual members
Discrimination – unfair treatment of members of a particular group based on their membership in that group
In this brief paper, we will shed a light on how stereotypes or prejudices against Shia-Muslims has affected their rights in terms of equal treatment in the eyes of the laws applicable in the Gulf region.
This paper outlines the first phase pattern between the impact of education, lack of knowledge, and misjudgment that leads to prejudice against Shia-Muslims.
Little or no racial discrimination is directly legislated in the criminal laws of Gulf countries. Rather, sectarian differences emerge from deeply rooted, self-fulfilling stereotypes and assumptions.
The term prejudice essentially denotes “prejudgment”. A person is prejudiced when he has formed an attitude toward a particular social group of people before having enough information on which to form a knowledgeable opinion. A negative prejudice is when the attitude is hostile toward members of a group. A positive prejudice is when the attitude is unduly favorable toward a group. Groups that are the targets of prejudice may be distinguished by any one of several characteristics such as religion, ethnicity, language, social class, gender, physical abilities, age, or sexual orientation. Frequently they are distinguished by specific inherited physical characteristics such as skin color.
As there are many causes of prejudice, there can be many forms of prejudicial expression, the most common of which is discrimination. Discrimination is the unfair treatment of people simply because they are different from the dominant group in society. An example would be a person, group, or company favoring one person over another on some arbitrary basis, such as gender or social class (groups of people sharing similar wealth and social standing), rather than on individual merit. Prejudice and discrimination essentially cause inequality, especially against minorities, such as people of colour, or religious minorities, such as Shia Muslims.

Institutionalized Prejudice

Institutionalized prejudice or racism refers to the notion that racist or sectarian attitudes are widely held by the majority of the population. If a society generally accepts stereotypes and discriminative practices as the norm, it will lead to citizens agreeing and identifying with prejudiced groups in order to fulfill expectations and gain acceptance.

Judicial stereotyping

Judicial stereotyping is a common and pernicious barrier to justice, particularly for Shia-Muslim detainees. Such stereotyping causes judges to reach a view about cases based on preconceived beliefs, rather than relevant facts and actual enquiry.  This can have potentially wide-ranging consequences.  It may, for instance, distort judges’ perception of the facts, affect their vision of who is a ‘detainee’, and influence their views about witness credibility. Ultimately, however, it compromises the impartiality and integrity of the justice system, which can, in turn, lead to miscarriages of justice and the victimization of complainants.

 On Being Shia in the Gulf

The “problem of the Shia” is not simply the usual issue of a minority in society. In fact the Shi’a are not even numerical minorities in several countries in the region: in Iraq and Bahrain they constitute a clear majority, but nonetheless they still suffer “minority” status. The Shi’a represent a plurality in Lebanon, where only in recent years they have gained a degree of political power commensurate with their numbers. Regardless of their numbers, the dilemma of the Shia is in many ways more complicated than a minority issue, because it is far more subtle, unstated and virtually unmentionable. Christians, for instance, are a recognized religious minority while the Kurds in Iraq are a recognized ethnic minority; they both occupy an acknowledged niche in society, however underprivileged and uncomfortable that may sometimes be.
Shia continued to face systematic discrimination and intolerance tied to a variety of factors, including historical perceptions and ongoing suspicions of foreign influences on their actions. While they coexisted with their Sunni neighbours in relative peace, most Shi’a shared general concerns about discrimination in education, employment, political representation, the judiciary, religious practice, and media
In Saudi Arabia Shia complain of prejudice and open hostility from the authorities’ security agencies instructors, who regularly refer to them as kuffar (infidels), mushrikuun (polytheists) or rafida (rejectionists) — the code word for Shia.
A copy of an exam recently administered to a middle school history class in Saudi Arabia asked students to discuss why “the ahl al-Sunna[Sunnis] prefer to characterise Shia as al-rafida”.
In a 2004 announcement calling for a public seminar to discuss discrimination in schools, Shia activists described an incident at a Riyadh primary school where a teacher “vilified” a Shia student and “described Shias as [guilty of] apostasy” (takfir).[1]
As for Bahrain, it is deeply influenced by the island’s close relations with Saudi Arabia. Although Bahrain’s leaders do not espouse Wahhabism or Salafist strains of Islam as stringently as Saudi Arabia, some of Bahrain’s jurisprudence, particularly family law, is based on Shari’a or Islamist legal principle.
As such, in Bahrain, the discrimination against Shia is largely based on stereotypes and prejudices, such as being considered external agents and loyal to other countries.

Discrimination in Criminal Law

The unequal treatment of Shias in Bahrain’s criminal justice system begins at the very first stage: the investigation of suspected criminal activity by law enforcement agents. Police departments disproportionately target Shias as criminal suspects, and too often the police employ tactics against Shias that simply shock the conscience.
These evidences opened the door to a debate about the doctrine of the army institutions and the indoctrination of those working in it. In an attempt to answer this question, a group of books issued from the Religious Guidance directorate in the Bahraini Defense Force was unveiled in June this year. In the context of sectarianism practiced by the Bahraini army, these books degrade Shia, who represent the majority of the Bahrainis, ideology and present it as Takfiri.[2]
“The light of Sunnah and darkness of heresy in the Qur’an and Sunnah”[3] book by the author Saeed Al Qahtani presented Shias as Takfiris with reference to their religious beliefs in visiting the tombs and shrines of the Prophet Mohammad and the Imams in Medina in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. In his book, Al Qahtani discusses that “going around the tombs to devour those buried inside” is among the acts of infidelity.
The Religious Guidance directorate in the Ministry of Defence also printed another book on its own account for the same author, Al Qahtani, under the title of “The light of monotheism and the darkness of polytheism in the light of the Quran and the Sunnah”. This book includes the same Takfiri implications and is one of the books being distributed to the officers in the Bahrain Defence Force.
One of many examples of such targeting was “State of National Safety” in 2011 during the uprising in Bahrain. The government overwhelmingly targeted members of the Shia community during the SNS, including activists and clerics.  The government and parastatal companies suspended or dismissed scores of Shia civil servants, as well as parastatal employees, although many were reinstated by year’s end. Though a proportion still remain unemployed.
The Minister of the royal court, Nasser bin Khalid Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, who is an officer in the Bahraini Army and the chairman of East Riffa club, gave another example of the Salafi incursion inside the ruling family. His twitter account @nasser_khalid is full of clear indications that reveal a fundamentalist configuration of the same national ideology adopted by “the Salafia Jihadia”.
Nasser bin Khalid Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa says in one of the comments, “Bahrain is not for all, it is an Arab Muslim country pursuant to the Constitution” adding that, “We don’t force the Magi (the Shiites) to monotheism, yet refusing their shirk is a duty and helping them to shirk in Allah is a great injustice”. He continues in this context, “Not calling Sunnis and Shiites, but only Bahrainis is a Jahiliyyah naming set by those calling for shirk.”
The government-run state television station broadcast programmes arbitrarily accusing Shia citizens of targeting Sunni citizens and questioning their allegiance to the country. The government specifically limited and controlled the use of mosques or matams (Shia religious community centers) for political gatherings and defamed Shia organisers and scholars.[4] An example can be seen on the Al Rassed (The Observer) programme, where the hosts argue that the Shia were targeting the Sunni sect in order to divide society into two groups: loyal and  honest (pro-regime) and agent and traitor (anti-regime). The Hewar Maftooh  “Open Dialogue” programme attempted to highlight alleged personal scandals of Shia opposition journalists, activists, and students.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report stated under section 1188: The majority of the detainees alleged that they were subjected to verbal abuse and insults while in detention. All of the  detainees, apart from one Sunni in detention in Al Qurain Prison, made allegations of routine sectarian insults, which included insults relating to Shia religious practices and their religious and political leader.[5]
All detainees alleged that they were subjected to some form of verbal abuse during detention. The majority of detainees were Shia and the alleged insults frequently related to Shia practices and religious or political figures. There were reports of the following insulting terms being used: ibn/bint al muta’aa (son/daughter of a temporary marriage); rafidi/a (deserters); safawi/a (relating to the Safavid dynasty); filth; animal; spy; and traitor. In addition, detainees alleged that insults relating to female family members were often used during interrogations.
We find that attitudes toward the occurrence and adequacy of these practices are largely shaped by citizens’ race, personal experiences with police discrimination, and exposure to news media reporting on incidents of police misconduct. The findings lend support to the group-position theory of race relations. Racial bias by the police includes such things as racial profiling of motorists, racial prejudice among police officers, and discriminatory treatment of minority individuals and minority neighborhoods. Little research exists on public perceptions of racially biased policing, though such perceptions may have important consequences. The perception of police practices as unfair or as racially motivated may lead to more frequent and severe confrontations between police and citizens and to greater distrust of the police.

Bahrain Judicial structure

It is significant that the original Bahraini Constitution, ratified in 1973, laid the groundwork for judicial independence.
Article 101 (a,b) offers that:
“(a) The honour of the judiciary and the integrity and impartiality of judges are the bases of rule and a guarantee of rights and liberties. (b) In the administration of justice judges shall not be subject to any authority. 98
It is divided into two branches: the Civil Law Courts and the Shari’a Law Courts. The Civil Law Courts deal with all commercial, civil, and criminal cases, as well disputes related to the personal status of non-Muslims. The Shari’a Law Courts have jurisdiction over all issues related to the personal status of Muslims.
According to the constitution of 1973, the judiciary is an independent and separate branch of government. However, the highest judicial authority, the Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs, is appointed by, and responsible to, the Prime Minister. The ruler, who retains the power of pardon, is at the pinnacle of the judicial system.
According to the new Constitution (2002), the King appoints all judges by Royal Decree, upon recommendation of the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs, headed currently by a member of the ruling Al-Khalifa family. Article 102(d), which has been suspended since 1975, provides for the establishment of a Supreme Council of the Judiciary, which shall supervise the functions of the courts and the offices relating thereto. “The law shall specify the jurisdiction of the said Council over the functional affairs of both the judiciary and the public prosecution”.
Once appointed, judges are civil servants who may work for the Government until the mandatory age of retirement (60 years). The King also serves as chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council, the body responsible for supervising the work of the courts and the Public Prosecution office. The Constitution does not provide a legislative branch confirmation process for judicial appointees nor does it establish an impeachment process. Article 106 provides for the establishment of a Constitutional Court to rule on the constitutionality of laws and statutes.
The King may present draft laws to this court before their implementation to determine the extent of their agreement with the Constitution, providing rudimentary judicial review. The Court’s determination is “binding on all state authorities and on everyone.”
Judges of the middle and lower courts are nominated by the Ministry of Justice and appointed by decree by the prime minister. The Supreme Judicial Council, chaired by the King, appoints the members of the Constitutional Court. [6]
Many of the high-ranking judges in Bahrain are either members of the ruling family or non-Bahrainis (mainly Egyptians) with 2-year renewable contracts. To secure renewal of these contracts, judges may be prone to consider it necessary to take decisions not unfavourable to the wishes or interests of the Government.[7]
In September 2000, the Supreme Council of the Judiciary (SCJ) was created, and has a main mission of supervising the Judiciary. According to the Constitution of 2002, the King is the Chair of the SCJ. The President of the Court of Cassation as well as Judges from the Highest Courts of Appeal, applying the civil law and the Sharia law, constitute the members of the SCJ.[8]

The Shia in terms of Constitutional Powers

Even though Bahrain’s Shia are a majority, they are represented as a minority in all constitutional, executive and administrative branches. They occupy a proportion of only 15% of the executive branch, 12% of the judiciary, 10% of government bodies and companies, and only 1% of the King’s guard and security apparatus, which includes the army. Between 2011 and 2013, positions for public office like judges, ministers and advisers have been directly appointed by the orders of the King. On the flipside, thousands of Shia have been made redundant from 2011, with discrimination against them evident in many facets of Bahrain’s society, including employment, teaching, health, and housing.
The credibility gap between Bahrain’s Shias and front-line law enforcement is deep, and it widens with every new report on racial profiling and every new account of police brutality. Closing this gap requires the following mechanisms to improve police accountability, and general movement away from prejudice and discrimination:

  • Incorporate accountability into the Exercise of Discretion by Police and Prosecutors.
  • The development of national standards for accrediting law enforcement agencies. No such national standard currently exists, leading to a patchwork of law enforcement guidelines throughout the nation. The national standards should include specific guidance on traffic stop procedures; the use of force; and interaction between police officers and multi-cultural communities. The standards should expressly prohibit racial profiling of any kind.
  • Improved training of current and incoming police officers to bring police departments into compliance with the national standards.
  • Improve the Diversity of Law Enforcement Personnel.
  • Much of the hostility between Shia communities and the police can be traced to the under-representation of Shias in law enforcement. In too many neighborhoods, the police are seen as an occupying force rather than a community resource. Police departments and prosecutors’ offices should redouble their efforts to recruit Shias. Police departments should encourage, and perhaps require, that officers live in the cities they patrol.
  • Sectarianism should not be tolerated in any Gulf media outlets.
  • Education curriculums across the Gulf should teach more about different religious interpretations and beliefs.

[1] The student’s parents lodged a complaint with the Ministry of the Interior, which called for an investigation and issued an order “forbidding this problem in all levels of education”.
[2] http://bmirror.ddns.net/news/19239.html
[3] http://madrasato-mohammed.com/ar_noor_assonna_wa_zolomat_albedaa.pdf
[4] http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/193091.pdf
[5] http://www.bici.org.bh/BICIreportEN.pdf
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judiciary_of_Bahrain – cite_note-POGAR-1
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judiciary_of_Bahrain#cite_note-POGAR-1
[8] Ref: http://www.nyulawglobal.org/globalex/Bahrain.html#thejudicialpower