Loyalists or traitors? Perceptions and realities of the Bahraini Shi'a in the modern political history of Bahrain

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Hannah Smith- Salam for Democracy and Human Rights


The Shi’ite population of Bahrain have taken an active and prominent political role in modern post-independence Bahraini history. This includes the most recent political uprising, the so-called Bahrain Spring, in which a majority of opposition protestors and activists have come from the majority Shi’ite population and street protests have been largely concentrated in Shi’ite districts. Although varied in their recent political demands for change and reform, the contemporary political intentions of Bahraini Shi’a have been clouded by accusations of deception, disloyalty and treachery from royal family members, the state media, pro-Government factions, and anti-opposition groups have been roused by fear and mistrust. This paper will analyse the disloyal perception of Bahraini Shi’a and whether it concords with the realities of Shi’ite political movements from the independence of Bahrain in 1971 to the present day. The nature of the allegations made against Bahraini Shi’a, their interlocutors and wider historical, geopolitical and religio-political foundations will be examined and compared with the political aspirations and facts of the Bahraini Shi’a during major historical political movements including the independence of Bahrain in 1971, the Bahrain constitution of 1973, the uprisings of the 1990s, the National Action Charter of 2001 and the recent ongoing 14th February uprising.


During what has been termed by some, Bahrain’s “Spring”, the Shi’ite Muslim citizens of Bahrain have been the most active proponents of change since the uprising began on 14th February 2011. As would be expected to fit with their historically larger proportion of the populace and long-term political grievances, Bahraini Shi’ites have constituted the larger proportion in all aspects of the uprising’s political protest; in street rallies, in parliamentary boycotts and other calls for change, and the theatre of revolution has been largely confined to Shi’a majority areas of the archipelago. However the motivation and means of the Shi’a has not been clear to all viewers of the Bahrain escalation. Members of the royal Al-Khalifa family, pro-government supporters, and anti-opposition groups have all viewed the motivation of the Shi’ites for political change with deep suspicion and mistrust. This has led to vehement and malicious accusations of deception, disloyalty and treachery by royal family members and other pro-government actors, who have in turn been projected by the state-controlled media. This paper will explore the perceptions of the Shi’a by their detractors, the historical basis of the allegations and whether such perceptions bear any truth in recent and modern Bahraini political history.

Allegations of cooperation with Iranian agents and Iranian interference

The main allegation peddled at Shi’ite Bahraini protesters is loyalty to neighbouring Shi’ite Iran. Bahraini Shi’a have been accused of being agents of Iran, hell-bent on bringing Iranian-style wilayat-e-faqih democracy to Bahrain, and Iran has been similarly accused of interfering in the domestic affairs of Bahrain. Such assertions have been constant throughout the past five years of political crisis in Bahrain and are well-documented in independent reports such as the Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) (Cherif Bassiouni, N, B, Kirsche, & M, 2011). Even in February of this year for example, the Government of Bahrain (GoB) launched a new initiative to curb such alleged Iranian interference (Bahrain adopts steps to counter Iran ‘interference’, 2016). However such accusations are not new; they can be traced back to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which rattled Sunni power structures across the Middle East, and even further back to outstanding Persian territorial claims left over from Safavid times when Bahrain was under Persian jurisdiction. A popular insult thrown at Bahraini Shi’ites in the Bahrain state media is “Safavids”. In fact the GoB has claimed that recent unrest is part of a long-term ongoing policy of Iranian interference (Cherif Bassiouni, N, B, Kirsche, & M, 2011, p. 383).

The GoB has accused Shi’ite protesters in Bahrain of collaborating with Iran through their embassy and through commercial, financial and religious channels (Cherif Bassiouni, N, B, Kirsche, & M, 2011, p. 384). While Iranian operatives have been accused of inciting dissent through media outlets, social media and web applications. The state-controlled media has featured numerous programmes and articles portraying Bahraini Shi’a as traitors loyal to Iran. For example, in a report published in 2011 (Al-Wefaq, Harassment by Media Channels of Persons Taking Part in Protests and Demonstrations, 2011) (Al-Wefaq, The Targeting of Athletes when Exercising their Rights of Freedom of Expression, Opinion and Peaceful Assembly , 2011), Al Wefaq, the largest political party in Bahrain, documented numerous examples of state-sponsored media hate speech in which the uprising has been portrayed as a Shi’ite-led sectarian movement in which protesters want to import Iranian-style revolution, including a multi-episode series titled ‘Al Rased’ (YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HXd6UQ5MAds, 2011)  in which photographed protesters were described as ‘traitors linked to Iran and a liability to Bahraini society’ (Cherif Bassiouni, N, B, Kirsche, & M, 2011, p. 393).

Allegations of other foreign interference

The GoB has also accused largely Shi’ite dominated political groups in Bahrain of collaborating with other Shi’ite opposition groups around the world including Hezbollah in Lebanon (Kinninmont, 2012).

Evidence of Iranian interference in Bahraini politics since 14th February 2011

BICI, a major independent inquiry driven by international investigators, found no evidence of Iranian interference in the uprising of 2011. And despite various accusations by the GoB, no credible evidence of Iranian interference has come to light during the past five years of political crisis (Kinninmont, 2012). Iranian political figures have, however, not been silent interlocutors. Iranian politicians, including the Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, have on a number of occasions spoken up for protesters in Bahrain and condemned their human rights abusers much to the chagrin of the GoB. Examples of inflammatory comments have been recorded in BICI following the invasion of GCC forces in March 2011, including the statement by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “those who sent their forces to Bahrain to learn the lesson of Saddam Hussein’s fate” and various officials referring to the invasion as a “massacre” (Cherif Bassiouni, N, B, Kirsche, & M, 2011, p. 385).  This has been interpreted by the GoB as sufficient evidence of Iranian interference, although other stakeholders such as British diplomats do not agree with them (Kinninmont, 2012). And historically Iranian officials and MPs have a habit of periodically mourning the loss of their “fourteenth province” (Kinninmont, 2012).

However when asked about their alleged sectarian interference, the Iranians have strongly denied any. For example, in March 2011, the Supreme Leader rejected accusations that Iran was “supporting the people of Bahrain because they are Shi’ite” and affirmed that the policy of the “Islamic Republic of Iran is predicated on defending the people and their rights against all dictatorial and egotistical rulers without distinguishing between Sunnis and Shi’ites” (Cherif Bassiouni, N, B, Kirsche, & M, 2011, p. 385).

Historical evidence of Shi’ite loyalties and Iranian Interference

The loyalties of Bahraini Shi’ites have been questioned since the days of the Safavids when Bahrain was a province of Safavid Persia. This question has resurfaced with greater urgency during the modern period of Bahrain as an independent nation state. A number of events can be used as a strong gauge of the loyalty of Bahraini Shi’ites during the period of modern Bahraini political history.

The ‘Referendum’

The first of these events occurred prior to the declaration of Bahrain’s independence from British protectorate status when a plebiscite carried out by the United Nations (UN) investigated whether Bahraini people preferred independence or Iranian control following long-term territorial claims by the Shah of Iran (Katzman, 2011). The accompanying UN report found that “the overwhelming majority of the people of Bahrain wish to gain recognition of their identity in a full independent and sovereign State free to decide for itself its relations with other States’ (The Question of Bahrain, 1971). Consequently Iran promptly renounced its claim to the island in the same month that the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 278.

Bahrain Constitution of 1973

In 1973, the first Constitution of Bahrain was promulgated following the approval of amongst others a Constituent Assembly elected by the people of Bahrain. The articles of the constitution clearly defined the new Bahrain nation as a firmly ‘Arab’ state (Constitution of the State of Bahrain, 1973) with a clear prohibition upon any discrimination on the grounds of religion; thus further establishing the Arab rather than Persian identity of the Shi’ite-majority population of Bahrain.

Iranian Revolution of 1979

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 significantly changed the political landscape of the Middle East sending shockwaves across Gulf Countries including Bahrain. Having moved on from ancient Persian territorial claims, the royal family and the GoB now perceived a new threat from Iran, that of revolutionary Iranian expansionism or an internal Shi’ite coup d’etat to impose an Iranian-style wilayat-e-faqih theocracy. Bahraini government fear and vulnerability was subsequently further enhanced by the Iran-Iraq War between 1980 and 1988. The government’s fear was not unfounded, as a number of radical groups emerged in Bahrain in the years succeeding the Iranian revolution. And on 16 December 1981, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, established in 1979 by the Shia cleric Abdulhadi Almadrasy, attempted to overthrow the regime by force. Further opposition groups emerged during the 1980s, some of whom advocated establishing an Islamic Republic like Iran, while others advocated much less radical reform such as re-enacting the 1973 constitution, reassembling the National Assembly or addressing inequalities between Sunni and Shi’a. Many of the groups, but not all, were led by Shi’a Bahrainis and some by religious clerics. (Cherif Bassiouni, N, B, Kirsche, & M, 2011, p. 29)

Uprisings of the 1990s

Civil unrest in Bahrain escalated during the 1990s when a largely Shi’a-led movement surfaced demanding ends to domestic socio-economic problems affecting mainly Shi’a including anti-Shi’a discrimination, deprivation of civil and political rights, rampant corruption, lack of economic opportunities and rising unemployment. In 1996, the GoB claimed that an Iranian-funded organisation called Bahraini Hezbollah had planned and launched a terror attack upon a number of civil localities in a suburb of Sitra including the murder of a number of South Asian expatriates. (Cherif Bassiouni, N, B, Kirsche, & M, 2011, p. 30)

National Action Charter

The unrest of the 1990s was brought to an end by the enactment of a new National Action Charter which reiterated the Arab Muslim identity of the Bahraini people and state and the promotion of principles such as equality of opportunity, liberty and peace, as per the constitution of 1973. The National Action Charter was voted in by a phenomenal 98.4 % of the Bahraini population, suggesting that the Shi’a population’s demands of the 1980s and 1990s were genuinely motivated by a desire for better rights and an end to anti-Shi’a discrimination. The almost unanimous support for the National Action Charter also demonstrated the willingness of the Shi’a community of Bahrain to support a democratic constitutional monarchy and the royal family, rather than seeking to establish a new political system.

Evidence of Iranian-influenced activities of Shi’ites in Bahrain since 14th February 2011

The current wave of protest, launched on 14th February 2011 to mark the tenth anniversary of the reneged National Action Charter, is once again being driven largely by Shi’ite citizens. Protesters, however, have been careful to avoid sectarianizing the conflict, with protesters chanting “no Sunni, no Shi’a, just Bahraini”, and opposition leaders building cross-sectarian alliances (Kinninmont, 2012). Once more, the political dynamics of the opposition groupings continues to evolve as has been the case for the past thirty years in Bahrain. While five political opposition parties including the largest political party, Al Wefaq, put forward a statement known as the ‘Manama Document’ (Manama Document, 2011) in 2011, demanding, once again, reform of the existing political structure and a correction of long-term socio-economic and rights issues, a new opposition bloc emerged representing largely disenfranchised youth whom called for total regime change. This time however, the opposition bloc, loosely labelled 14th February, and born after the Iranian revolution, demonstrate no allegiances to any political party, religious authority or existing leadership structure, but instead base their demands upon their lack of faith in the capacity of the existing royal family and government to change the status quo. Predictably according to some commentators, the calls for a republic by the Coalition for a Republic, did alienate many Sunni supporters, whom feared ‘republic’ meant a Shia Islamic republic. (Kinninmont, 2012)

Religio-political allegiance of Bahraini Shi’a

Finally, it is also worth examining the religio-political allegiance of the Shi’a in Bahrain. As is typical of Shi’i Muslim communities across the world, the Shi’a Muslims of Bahrain look to transnational leaders or maraji’ al-taqlid for religious guidance. Although some Shi’a in Bahrain emulate Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, the majority look to clerics in Iraq in religious affairs, especially Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani who is not a proponent of clerical rule. Notable opposition figures similarly vary in their allegiances: for example Shaikh Ali Salman, like so many Shi’ite Bahrainis, follows an Iraqi-based cleric, Grand Ayatollah Abu-Qasem Al-Khoei, predecessor to Ayatollah Sistani. (Kinninmont, 2012)


Therefore in conclusion, the combination of evidences that I have examined in this paper, including the recent political crisis, long-term political protest movements and Shi’ite religio-political allegiances, suggests that for the majority of Bahraini Shi’a their motivations and democratic will has little changed during the past thirty years centring around the demand for greater civil and political rights, socio-economic empowerment and anti-Shi’a discrimination. Bahraini Shi’a have also consistently demonstrated since gaining independence in 1971 that they are committed and loyal to an independent Arab state based upon amongst other things equal rights, and equal opportunities for all citizens. I have been unable to uncover any evidence for the claims of the GoB; that the recent protest movement beginning in February 2011 has been fuelled by Iranian or other Shi’ite militant interference, although this is not to suggest that Iran has been silent on the matter of Bahrain, and that there has not been elements of marginal radical Iranian-influenced Islamist activity in Bahrain’s modern history.


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