Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sunnis, Shi'is, and the Third Sect

Since things seem to have gone quiet in Bahrain apart from hunger strikes, continuing Iran-GCC recriminations, deportation of random Lebanese nationals, the trial of Mansur al-Jamri, and perhaps soon that of Nabil Rajab, I thought I would take a moment to address one issue that's been raised often, both in general commentary on Bahrain and by those who've written in to this site.

Particularly in reference to my Bahrain survey results, a standard retort is something like the following: "Your view of the Bahrain conflict in terms of Sunnis against Shi'is evidences both your misunderstanding of the situation and your having been duped by the Bahraini government, which uses the false Sunni-Shi'i dichotomy for its own political purposes--i.e., to ensure its own survival--when it fact no such thing exists. If you really looked hard, you would see that the basis of political conflict in Bahrain is [insert favorite topic] and not a difference between ordinary Sunnis and Shi'is."

And with this sort of sentiment I would tend to agree--to a point. I would agree and indeed it's indisputable that it is a useful thing for governments--not just Arab Gulf governments or the Bahraini government but all essentially non-democratic governments--to accentuate latent social divisions like ethnic/religious affiliation to foster competition for its patronage. In fact, Bahraini rulers make little secret about the fact that they attempt to play each group off the other. In the words of Justice Minister Khalid bin 'Ali in the run-up to the 2010 elections, the Al Khalifa position themselves a "buffer zone between Sunni and Shi'a." That is to say, the Al Khalifa ensure that neither group gains too big an advantage over the other that it begins to focus its energy on the government itself, just as the U.S. aided both sides of the Iran-Iraq War depending on who seemed to be winning at the time.

Yet at the same time, it makes little sense to deny that the latent social division exists in the first place, to say that Iran and Iraq were essentially not at odds with each other but only went to war as a result of some U.S. scheme to divide and conquer. A women can pit two potential suitors against each other and make them enemies, but that does not mean that they were not essentially in competition to begin with.

Thus it is, I would say, in Bahrain. The "third sect"--the Al Khalifa and their longstanding tribal allies (also known in parliament as "independents")--may be skilled in maximizing societal differences to their own ends, but we shouldn't therefore conclude that there is otherwise no independent source of these differences.

How then would we explain why some cars in Bahrain display the prominent sticker decal "اللهم صلّ على محمد وآل محمد", while others not? Why some houses fly black flags or those exclaiming, "يا حسين يا شهي", while others have the red and white flag of Bahrain? Why the 'Isa Town Mall has separate Sunni and Shi'i mosques at either end? Why each of Bahrain's three main political societies is based on religious affiliation? And so on. The point, again, is not that Bahraini Sunnis and Shi'is are locked in some epic war to decide good and evil, but that it's equally nonsensical to deny altogether any basis of societal division apart from political puppeteering.

Political scientists have long recognized that in patronage-based societies such as describe the Arab Gulf, the only real basis for political coordination is ethnicity or religion. "Consider," says Yates of a rentier society, "the following options for class-based politics: a declining rural-agricultural sector; a state-sponsored industrial sector; a booming service sector. Whence the revolution?" And Luciani, writing in 1989, predicted that in regimes such as Bahrain "parties will develop only to represent cultural or ideological orientations. In practice, Islamic fundamentalism appears to be the only rallying point around which something approaching a party can form in the Arab allocation states."

In the Bahrain of the 1960s and 1970s, socialism/Arab nationalism was (and for Wa'ad supporters perhaps still is) an alternative ideology around which political coordination could occur. That this function has since been overtaken by religious ideology is not unanticipated, and those who point it out are not automatically "sectarian" thinkers "reading from the script that [they] are regurgitating parrot fashion from the Shi'ites," to use the expression of one recent commentator here.

Finally, with specific regard to the results of my Bahrain survey: the Sunni-Shi'i differences that manifest themselves in the answers to survey questions, and that are often highlighted in my analysis, exist. Whether they exist because of machinations by the Bahraini government is another matter entirely. The point is that in Bahrain today ethnicity/religion has become a proxy for the extent to which one supports (tends to gain from) or opposes (tends not to gain from) the socio-political status quo. Most Shi'a oppose the regime on principle insofar as they are outsiders looking in; Sunnis support the government on principle, in order, as 'Adel al-Ma'awdah said in attempting to spur Sunnis to the polls in 2002, "to counter probable harm" that would come from not supporting it. This is the primary lesson of my Bahrain survey, and we continue to see the consequences of it today. So let's stop chalking it up to "sectarian thinking" or lack of familiarity with the "real" bases of politics of Bahrain.

(Also: in the spirit of survey research and not unrelated to this point anyway, don't forget to vote in the new poll I've opened: "Why do you hate this blog?" You have many fine options to choose from.)


  1. I honestly didn't get anything of what you said. What is your point anyway? 50 words or less.. However if that helps, recently I have posted a question on facebook that might interest you:

  2. So what if they come from different sects? Countries like Canada have exploited differences between the many sects/ideologies/religions of their citizens to build a stronger country. They have statistically proven that citizens from different countries/sects/religions create better projects/work. The moral of the story? Governments either can exploit the difference of different sects to build a stronger country or they can exploit it to make a weaker country for them to divide and conquer.

  3. What you stated is acceptable;but u have to admit that there is a quarrel btw the political Islamic Shia'a and the political Islamic Sunnist(I mean the dominant trend within both sects). Both are derived and based on a long and rich heritage extending for more than 1400 years. The quarrel had never ended, and it took different shapes and forms ; nowadays it is more clear and obvious in the way both approach the Palestinian cause, Lebanon and the whole region.As for me, the defeat of Israel in the 2006 war on Lebanon by the Lebanese population had a strategic impact on all the regimes in the region.Since then, the regimes r engaging in one plot to another to contain the consequences of what happened. Then came Gaza and its victorious standing against all the objectives of the Israel's invasion. The majority of d Arabs , sunni's and shia'a r completely aware of all the facts concerning 2006 war on Lebanon and invasion of Gaza on 2008 and they r awakened from their deep hybernation throughout the past years and they have hope now for a new future where all these regimes no more exist and where their dignity and human rights r preserved and their wellfare is developed.Here you can say that the regimes will use sunni-shia'a ancient and "ignorance based" conflict or Persian-Arab conflict or secular-religious conflict or outsiders-insiders propaganda etc...to stop the strategic consequences occuring since 2006 and their downfall with all their foriegn allies in the region. The events will continue and develop and take lot of forms but at all times Palestine will be the focal point and the "dinamo" or the reactor from which its radiants will affect all the region and will shape the future we all look and strieve for.

  4. keep in mind that in Lebanon , it is the majority of the Lebanese Shia'a who defeated Israel;and in Gaza, it is the Sunnites who defeated Israel in 2008. In Iraq, it is both who crumbeled,paralyzed and defeated the American era in the region.(i.e. you can be a sunni or a shia'a or anything else and belong to the school of always saying "NO" to all kinds of injustice no matter what the consequences are .So,all in all,those who r on one side , sunni and shia'a, belong to the Islamic political Shia'a school of thought whose roots stems from Karbala and beyound..on the other side r those who seek for power,accumulation of wealth, and tyranny and they are ready to go to extreme measures and force to attain their objectives even if it meant to kill the only beloved prophet's grandson remaining on earth Imam Hussien and his newborn baby ,Ali Alasghar, who was slaughtered by an arrow thrown upon the firm request of the high commander of Yazeed's army while his father was trying to get some water for the baby to drink.This shows to how extent all those tyrants and dictators with their followers can go in commiting crimes ,atrocities, tortures,frauds and mass killings in order to preserve their regimes and benefits. This also shows us that no matter what happens or no matter how few or plenty we are, our demonstrations and struggle to attain our dignity and freedom should not cool down or deviate..we should continue on and preserve the legacy of all those free men and women who gave us the most precious belonging they have, their Soul, in order to offer us a better future where no injustice is found and all humans are equal in rights and obligations..where we all can live together, sunni and shia'a..Christians, Jews and Muslims and all kind of faiths ...where we all live in peace and in justice and strive for what we are born for which is ultimate knowledge of our creator Allah.

  5. I would like to comment by slicing and dicing from a different angle.

    The following broad groups determine how people get polarised in society:

    1. Beliefs (Religion)
    2. Values (secular)
    3. Material (economic well being)
    4. Physical (Race)
    5. Emotional (Fear)

    Values is fuzzy because it's hard to profile people based on it, and the other 3-4 typically shape it in a crisis. But when Values is strong and the driving factor, all other elements drop out of the equation. A strong Values is typically found in the "intellectual types" of the population, whereas a strong Beliefs is found in the average person.

    During a crisis - people rush first to the tightest fit from above and then gradually embody the largest common denominator of which the other group is not part of - which in Bahrain's case is sect - this is basic survival instinct. To draw a quick parallel, recall right after 11/9 White Americans saw Black Americans as their "brothers" for once. Democratic "Values" got hijacked by "fear" when survival is threatened, which explains why the patriot act was passed so easily in the same period.

    In the list of 5 above, lack of economic well being (and injustice) is the main trigger for an uprising. Since an uprising occurred, assume a 20/80 wealth concentration or even a more generous 40/60, this should cause 60-80% of the people to rise up. Assume also Beliefs is generously split 50/50 and race is negligible since Bahrain is a melting pot. Values are in the passenger seat because they are still underdeveloped in our society (also reason why Waad is yet to win in elections). Clearly the driving factor here is Fear. Fear of the "reformed" government, fear of where the socio-economic pivot will lie, and fear of the unknown.

    The best portrayal of fear was when a middle-class group appeared on TV chanting praises for the PM. Truly a bizarre scene, considering the PM could care less about them nor did he do anything to deserve their loyalty, but an understandable one nevertheless.

    When you are in survival mode, you need to bifurcate and belong to the biggest Clan, and the easiest way is across a belief system. You then try to rationalise your emotions (fear) by finding or accepting certain "anomalies" in your bifurcated world to feel better and satisfy your Value system.

    The government has eased the dichotomy jig-saw through socio-economic engineering.

    How do you resolve it:

    1. Clan A needs to understand why Clan B rose, and accept that the Clan B has largely been opressed in various forms (Safety and Esteem in Maslow's pyramid) and hence the reason for their uprising.

    2. Clan B needs to understand that the same suppression they are experiencing is what Clan A fears and hence the reason for their counter-uprising. (Safety in Maslow's pyramid)

    3. New blood in the ruling family - who can take full initiative to make the required fundamental changes to reflect the majority, protect the rights of minorities, organise a truth and reconciliation committee, accurately write and teach events and history for the next generation.

    4. Multi-cultural integration similar to South East Asian countries.
    Thanks for blogging and keep writing!


  6. Thanks everyone for your comments. I'm glad this place has turned out to be a forum for reasonable discussion.



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