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Religion in Bahrain

Shia Islam in Bahrain

Shi'ism, which came to Bahrain in 1500, is the island's dominant religion. Between two thirds and three quarters of the Shia population is native in origin, the remainder being of Iranian descent. This division is social as well as cultural. The Iranian Shia, known as Ajam, are well represented in the middle class professions and politically inactive. They see their relative privilege as contingent on the good will of the ruling Sunni al-Khalifas and are reluctant to jeopardize their position. Their native counterparts, known as Baharna, occupy the lowest strata of society and constitute ninety per cent of the labour force. The two communities inhabit separate districts and there is little intermarriage between them. Defining themselves in opposition to the Ajam as well as ruling Sunnis, the Baharna have retained a strong Arab identity. Despite the segregation of the the two communities, antagonism arose in the 1950s and 60s as the schism between conservatives and Arab nationalists came to mark not only a division between Arab and Persian, but between rich and poor across the Arab world.

Soon after their rise to power in the late eighteenth century, the al-Khalifas invited the Dawasir tribes from the mainland to send forces to the Western side of the island to help displace the resident Shia. The 313 Shia villages that then existed are reduced to fifty today, while the encouragement of selective immigration as a counterweight to the Shia population has sincebeen a constant feature of al-Khalifa policy.

A 1928 uprising went some way to break the feudal bond between Sunnis and Shia, after which the Shia began to prosper under more egalitarian British rule, which allowed them greater access to education and the civil service.

Shia political activism began in earnest with the democratic movements of the 1930s. At the outset, these contained both Sunni and Shia were aimed at ending colonial rule. Despite periods of Shia unrest in the early 1950s. Revolutionary Arab nationalism, always Sunni in orientation, was equally attractive to wealthier Sunnis and disenfranchised Shia. It was not until the arrival of political Shiism in the shape of the 1979 Iranian revolution that a wholly Shia opposition arose.

Labor disputes in the 1970s weakened the security of Shia employment. In the following years, as Shia opposition gathered momentum, the proportion os Shia in the armed forces (all enlisted men, not officers) was reduced and with the crash in the oil price in the mid-eighties, unemployment rose further. The government was the major employer and, as elsewhere in the GCC, there was no private sector to take up the slack. The Shia, of course, bore the brunt of the recession. The huge influx of oil wealth after 1973 had widened the gap between rich and poor, while the revolution in Iran had radicalized Shia across the Arab world. Iranian backing of a growing number of dissident groups grew after 1981, less as a consequence of revolutionary ideology and more through necessity of discouraging GCC support for Iraq. All Shia opposition in this period was viewed through the prism of the Iran-Iraq war, which provided ample excuse for government repression.

In recent years, Shia opposition has been one of two political currents in Bahrain, the other being a general push toward democracy, which has the support of a cross-section of society. In 1992 a group of fourteen reformers, most of them Sunni, presented to the Emir a petition calling for the restoration of the abortive 1975 parliamentary constitution. This was summarily dismissed. In 1994, a mostly Shiite group of reformers presented a second, longer petition. Largely secular in nature, the petition nevertheless had the support of two Shiite clerics, Abd-al-Wahhab Husayn and Sheikh Abd -al-Amir al-Jamri. The second petition provoked a much fiercer reaction form the government, with raids, arrests and confiscation of property, accompanied by polarizing propaganda to deoict the movement as purely Shia in conception. Sunni families were harassed into retracting there support and al-Jamri was jailed. Al-Jamri's moderate stance prevented him being labelled a fundamentalist, however, and bi-confessional support for the petition movement continues.

Tens of thousands of people crowd into the narrow streets of central Manama during the night to mark Ashura, the Shia commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Karbala in 680 AD. Tens of thousands of men from Bahrain's predominantly Shia villages were joined by large contingents from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, and South Asia. Shia community leaders work with Bahraini authorities to ensure that the emotional processions took place without incident. Aside from a few traffic police who kept vehicles out, there is no visible police presence in the warren-like streets of the Maharqa neighborhood of Manama where the main processions takes place. Emotional but organized processions ranging from hundreds down to several dozen men moved through the streets. Even the humblest groups were armed with ear-splitting sound equipment. Most of the chanting mourners strike their chests lightly with their fists; others used scary-looking but harmless ceremonial flails of light chains on their backs and chests. Only a few mourners had drawn their own blood during more than three hours of processions, a marked change from recent years.

Shia religious leaders have increasingly discouraged "tatbir," the practice of drawing blood with swords or heavy flails, and encourage instead participation in the Red Crescent's Ashura blood-drive. Most of the marchers are Arab men from Bahrain's majority Shia population, but a number of processions consist of Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Omanis; Persian-origin Bahrainis; and Shia of South Asian origin. Posters lionizing Iranian or Hizballah clerics were once common at Ashura. Since 2006, when the mainstream Wifaq party agreed to participate in elections, they have become less prominent.

Bahrain's Shi'a, known for their large annual Ashura mourning processions, have begun to emphasize happier holidays over the last several years. Of these celebrations, Nasaf Al Sha'abeen, the birthday of Muhammad al-Mahdi, the twelfth Imam, is the most important. Shi'a from Bahrain and from Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province converge on central Manama on August 16. Matams (Shi'a community guilds) and Manama families set up tables and offered sweets and sandwiches to the attendees. Children, bearing sacks, knocked on doors and were given candy and change. Teenagers showered passers-by with rosewater. Shops stayed open late and played loud, upbeat music.

Sunni Islam in Bahrain

Nearly a quarter of the inhabitants of Bahrain adhere to Sunni Islam, and more specifically the Maliki school of jurisprudence. The majority of Bahrainis (60%) belong to Shia Islam. Despite the fact that Sunnis are indeed a minority, that have historically dominated both the political and economic landscape of Bahrain, including the ruling family, the Al-Khalifa family.

Generally, Sunni enclaves have developed in and around urban areas, most likely as a result of political and economic activity, whereas the Shia'a are located in more rural locations throughout the country. While the standard of living in Bahrain is quite high, several sectors of the population have suffered from unemployment, particularly the Shia majority.

The regime has often accused Iran of inciting opposition amongst the Shia. Conflicts between the ruling Sunnis and the majority Shiites have been a longstanding and continuing source of internal conflict in Bahrain. The Shia have continued to work for more political and economic representation, and minor revolts have led to nearly 25 deaths since 1994.

Though there are exceptions, the Sunni minority does enjoy privilege within the government. Sunnis are often employed of Shiites in management and sensitive positions in the Bahraini civil service, and there is a noted absence of Shia Muslims in the defense and internal security agencies. In the private sector, Sunnis tend to have more skilled orientated and higher paid jobs. Sunni communities also tend to have superior educational, social, and municipal services and facilities.

Despite being supportive of the first Gulf War and allowing allied forces to use the country's military facilities, the regime was critical of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. The assumption of the formerly oppressed Shia majority in Iraq of strong political and economic roles has certainly been a concern because of Bahrain's similar socio-political paradigm.

Other Religious Minorities in Bahrain

Approximately 1/3 of the population of Bahrain is international. Like many Gulf countries, Bahrain also relies on an influx of foreign labor to fuel its economy. There are large communities of Indians, Iranians, Pakistanis, as well as sizable American and European communities. Those adhering to Christianity comprise 9% of the population, with Hinduism following at 8%, and adherents to the Baha'i faith comprising roughly 0.1%. Other faiths, such as Judaism, Buddhism, and a small community of Sikhs are scattered throughout the population as well.

The constitution states that Islam is the official religion and also provides for freedom of religion; however, there were some limits on this right. In the past, the Government did not tolerate political dissent from religious groups or leaders; however, in 2001 the King pardoned and released all remaining political prisoners and religious leaders. Members of other non-Islamic religions who practice their faith privately do so without interference from the Government and are permitted to maintain their own places of worship and display the symbols of their religion. Every religious group must obtain a license from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to operate. Depending on circumstances, a religious group also may need approvals from the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Information, and the Ministry of Education (if the religious group wants to run a school). In the past, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs had repeatedly denied a Baha'i community's request for a license to operate. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs stated that the Baha'i Faith is an offshoot of Islam. According to its official interpretation of Islam, the Government regards the core beliefs of Baha'is to be blasphemous and consequently illegal, and therefore the Ministry refuses to recognize the religion, but it allows the community to gather and worship freely. The Baha'i community has not sought official recognition in many years.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:39:39 ZULU