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The Shia Seek Justice: Bahrain Faces its Faceless

BahrainBy Dan Lieberman

The first reports came by email on February 14, two days before media and the U.S State Department acknowledged government attacks on the innocent Bahraini Shi’i.


I was at a peaceful protest and people were chanting legitimate demands asking for parliament, constitution, basic human rights, and etc... Out of nowhere, riot police then came charging down attacking the protesters with rubber bullets, tear gas and sound bombs. Despite foreign journalist present at the scene, more and more violence is being used at the moment. Officials need to be aware of the situation. International media must be told of this unfair, unjust situation of peaceful protesters being attacked by frequent violence.

The emails continued for several days, more frequently and with increasing despair. Finally on the February 17 night, police killed several protestors and wounded hundreds of those who were sleeping in tents in Pearl Square.
What is the reality of this once again suppression of a persecuted majority in an Arab nation? Due to the attacks being upon Shi’i, the aggression gains added importance. The Shi’is are unique. In Bahrain, they “have limited opportunities in the public sector, and are even more excluded in the military, where no Shi'is hold important positions, even if Shi'is serve as normal soldiers.” Persecuted in Saudi Arabia, second-rate citizens in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and present day Bahrain, where they are a majority, and downtrodden when the Maronites controlled Lebanon's politics, the Shi’i have never been a favored group in societies, and international communities have ignored their plights.  Why?
The reason is not religious. The masses of Islam are no different from the masses of Protestants, they don't care to whom and how their neighbor prays. Creating a conflict between opposing groups creates havoc and a reason to maintain control. By prompting, promoting and provoking a Sunni/Shi’i divide, western nations have contributed to preventing Arab nations from evolving into democratic, egalitarian and stable states. The Sunni/Shi’i divide, portrayed as a religious conflict, is actually an economic conflict. 
Similar to Northern Ireland, where Irish Catholics protested against their second-class citizenship and economic persecution by English Protestants, the deprived Shi’i minorities (majority in Bahrain) have legitimately protested their economic subservience – for decades. During these decades, the United States played a significant role in the continued repression of the followers of Ali. While supporting Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War, encouraging the Maronite and Sunnis in Lebanon, and having close relationships with Saudi Arabian and Bahrain monarchies, the U.S. government ignored the legitimate grievances of the Shi’i and implicitly allowed these grievances to erupt into challenges. Adding to the total collapse of U.S. policy, the U.S. has been antagonistic to Hezbollah, the organization that led the Shi’i to achieve equality in Lebanon, and despite contrary western propaganda, enabled Lebanon to evolve to a more democratic, egalitarian and stable state. American polices have forced Shi'i to turn to benefactors who will assist them in their plight. After soul mates from Iran naturally respond, the U.S. then accuses Iran of meddling and controlling, and exporting terrorism. Anti-Shi’i is one of the most punishing of the anti-isms and is aggravated by a western world that excuses nefarious anti-shi'i policies. Recognition of the rights of the Shi’i will diminish the Sunni/Shi’i divide.
Iran and Saudi Arabia most represent the divide, with each nation fearing that the other nation wants to overthrow its government. U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and U.S. administrations close relations with the Kingdom supports Iran's arguments. Arab hostility to Iran occurs from the Islamic Republic’s disregard of its Sunni minority and its contentious attitude with the Gulf State, its claims on Island territories and its supposed assistance to a rebellious Shi’i.

Middle East stability dictates reconciliation between the Arab world and Iran, between Sunnis and Shiites, and specifically between Saudi Arabia and Iran. By cooperating, Iran and Saudi Arabia can stabilize the Middle East. This does not mean that the two authoritarian nations should be excused for suppression of internal democratic movements and be able to avoid responsibility towards their own peoples. Nor does it mean that their accord should be allowed to prompt an arrangement that subverts other nations or constructs an anti-American coalition.

It only means that, by peculiarities of international politics, these nations happen to have significant power to resolve a crushing situation. The world should be aware of this unique power and use it to advantage. Trace the situation. It emerges from U.S. failures, which predict a U.S. loss of influence, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims will create a political vacuum, which will be filled by oil rich Iran and very oil rich Saudi Arabia, which merits a repair of the Sunni and Shi'i divide, and then leads to Middle East peace and stability. 

Support of autocratic monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf State nations has strengthened these regimes and delayed them from extending sufficient freedoms to their populations, including Shi'i. The latter ethnicity is important because U.S. proclamations of freedom of religion and minority rights, except for Iraq, are rarely applied to the Shi'i - just the opposite - the victimized and mostly powerless Shi'i, who have been attacked by Sunnis from India to Saudi Arabia, are constantly and falsely portrayed as aggressive, terrorist prone and always ready to seize control. This depiction disguises government corruption, reinforces Sunni domination and exaggerates a Sunni/Shi'i divide that seeks amelioration.

Bahrain is now a crucial focus for rights of Arab peoples. The outcome of the events in Peal Square will  portend the future of the Middle East and influence the political situation in Iraq.

A sectarian government in Iraq increases the probability of a continuous and crushing civil war between the Shiites and Sunnis. The strife could undermine and consume the opposing Islamic states; Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. A stable and non-sectarian Iraq at their borders relieves these states of responsibility to assist opposing factions and limits charges of neglecting brethren from attack. A non-sectarian government serves as a buffer between Shiite Iran and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. 

Is cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia far fetched? Major problems exist between Iran and the Arab states - territorial disputes, threats of closing the Straits of Hormuz, Arab states' alliances with the United States, claims that Iran supports a Shi'i uprising in Bahrain, and the Sunni/Shi'i divide. Nevertheless, previous events indicated that Iran and Saudi Arabia intended to diminish antagonisms and more eagerly cooperate in stabilizing their Middle East.

On March 4, 2007, the Iranian president and Saudi leaders had official talks in which they "pledged to fight the spread of sectarian strife in the Middle East, which was the biggest danger facing the region." Following this meeting, Iranian President Ahmadinejad, on Oct.4, 2007, highlighted what he has said is the emergence of a "power vacuum in the region," and indicated Iran's readiness to fill that vacuum, while encouraging cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia to achieve that goal. On August 18, 2008, seven Arab countries, including Kuwait, announced their intentions to reopen their embassies in Baghdad. The Arab Interim Parliament (AIP), which has been active in addressing Arab Nations' social and economic affairs, stated on August 25, 2000, "it was examining a proposal to have its chairman hold a dialogue between the Arab and Iranian nations."

A series of economic agreements between Iran and Gulf State demonstrated a recognized dependence. London-based economic weekly MEED reported on August 3, 2008 that UAE-based Quest Energy and an Iranian company are developing a project to build a 1,000 megawatt power plant in Iran. On August 17, 2008, the Saudi Press Agency reported that "Iran signed a deal to export gas to Oman that could open new export routes well beyond the neighboring Arab state."

A Bahrain that evolves into a non-sectarian and independent democracy initiates a hopeful path to stabilization of the entire Middle East. This task will fail if the western world does not recognize its role in aggravating the problems of the Arab world. Instead of inciting division and hatred, and juggling Middle East lives to favor their own interests, isn't it preferable that western agencies and governments encourage a Shi’i/Sunni rapport? Start with Bahrain.

Dan Lieberman is editor of Alternative Insight, a monthly web based newsletter. He can be reached at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it   

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