1- Do you view the current crisis in Bahrain as being sectarian?
The situation in Bahrain is similar to that of non-democratic Arab countries across the Middle East, with citizens purely seeking freedom, democracy and eager to see an end to ongoing systematic human rights violations. Thus, I would like to emphasize that the crisis in Bahrain is purely political, however religion was and still is being instrumented by hardliners and some politicians to create a climate of distrust and hatred between social factions. Unfortunately, the government of Bahrain was clearly driven by a social fragmentation strategy to create sectarian alignments locally and internationally and make ethnic, tribal and sectarian identities superior to the national identity and citizenship.
Yes, the existing 42-year-old government in Bahrain was fairly successful in fragmenting society in order to delay democratic reforms as long as possible. However, Bahrain have a long history of Sunnis and Shias living in harmony, thus we are confident that soon they will all reach to a stage of realization that democracy, political/economic stability and social harmony is best for all regardless of race, religion, sect, tribe or political aspirations.
It is unfortunate that the road towards political compromise and meaningful reform seems to be blocked; this is clearly illustrated in the persistence of the government in refusing to create space for meaningful dialogue. It is also clear today to the international community including the United States of America and the European Union member states that the current dialogue fails to discuss the aspirations of Bahrainis to live in a democratic civil state whereby social justice is achieved. However, the recent dialogue initiative headed by the crown prince to begin serious talks in January 2014 was well received by the international community, the opposition, and social leaders but strongly opposed and slammed by pro-government hardliners.
I believe the roadmap towards re-establishing positive rapport in Bahrain needs clear realization that the crisis in Bahrain is 100% political, while sectarian identities are utilized to upsurge tensions and create alignments to delay democracy as long as possible. In simple terms, Bahrain is undergoing rivalry between two groups, one demanding democracy, comprising of people of all walks of life and diverse ideologies with another group struggling to maintain the status quo despite the need for undergoing a democratic transformation to address the political, economic and social challenges facing Bahrain.
2- Many argue that although sectarian discrimination and sectarian hate crimes were reported in Bahrain, the government does not adapt a systematic strategy in sectarian discrimination?
The government of Bahrain has unfortunately adapted a pre-determined sectarian framing strategy in dealing with nationals. International observers have clearly noted that the democratic parties and societies have explicitly rejected sectarianism and emphasized on democratic reforms and national unity in all their literature, slogans and protests. Although the majority of reformists are from the Shia sect like Bahrain itself, their core demands are democracy, social justice and respect of international human rights laws. On the other side, the Bahraini government has responded to the peaceful democratic demands by encouraging sectarian polarization and motivating hardliners to frame the democratic movement with sectarian frames. The goal behind this strategy was to divide the society and create domestic and regional alignments to legitimize the crackdown on the pro-democratic movement. Anti-Shi’sm has spread in a very short time frame in Bahrain due to a governmental strategy which created grounds to frame the Shia majority in official media as faithless, traitors, Safavids etc. etc.
The clearest indicator of sectarianism being a governmental strategy was the demolition of 5% of Shia mosques registered in the Jafari directorate. This is a clear sectarian genocide committed by the government. It is no accident that 38 Shia mosques were demolished, tens of other Shia places of worship were attacked, scores were killed, thousands expelled and suspended from their jobs, thousands still imprisoned. This clearly indicates that sectarianism in Bahrain is a governmental strategy.
3- Does the government of Bahrain still practice sectarian discrimination until today?
The government of Bahrain practices 3 levels of sectarianism today; sectarian discrimination, sectarian marginalization and sectarian cleansing. Today, governmental bodies adapt a strategy of cleansing organizations from Shia figures. A recent report presented by the Religious Freedom Unit at the Bahrain Human Rights Observatory to the United Nations Human Rights Council has revealed striking facts about the ongoing sectarian cleansing strategy in Bahrain.
4- What do you think is the role of the international community in dealing with sectarianism in Bahrain?
We believe that the international community needs to exert considerable pressure on Bahrain to immediately put an end to all forms of sectarian, religious, and ethnic discrimination. Bahrain should be pressured to reach to a state of religious neutrality in political and social rights. The government of Bahrain is bound by its international commitments to not engage in any act or practice of sectarian discrimination against individuals, groups of persons or institutions.
It is the responsibility of the government of Bahrain to ensure that public authorities and institutions do not sponsor, defend or support sectarian discrimination by any person or organization. However, the Bahrain Independent Commission Inquiry (BICI) clearly found that the Ministry of Information, official press and government-financed media was responsible for sectarian framing strategies and igniting sectarian mistrust. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found that employees from the Ministry of Interior Affairs has demonstrated sectarian hatred in their behavior in dealing with the opposition especially during arrests.
Many observers found the government of Bahrain responsible for backing up hardline extremists to spread fatwas and propaganda that promote sectarian superiority, sectarian hatred, sectarian mistrust and sectarian suspicion.
It is the role of the international community to exert effective pressure on the government of Bahrain to take preventive measures to ensure that all Bahrainis and expats living in Bahrain, regardless of religion and sect, have full and equal access to human rights and fundamental freedoms.
5- Do you fear that sectarian tensions in Bahrain could mature into sectarian violence?
Sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis will not take place in Bahrain due to the maturity of social leaders who denounce all forms of violence and who insist on creating a climate of harmony between all Bahrainis regardless of social background, political inspirations or religious belief.
It is crucial for all Bahrainis to believe that nonviolence, tolerance, democracy, development, diversity respect and full respect to all human rights and basic rights for all citizens are inter-related.
It is also very important for social figures especially religious leaders to denounce all forms of violence. Violence will never be a meaningful tool to contain the democratic aspirations of Bahrainis nor will it be a legitimate and effective tool to achieve democratic transformation in Bahrain.
Until today, the vast majority of sectarian hate crimes were not instigated, neither motivated or conducted by the non governmental organizations and bodies. On the other hand the government of Bahrain has utilized excessive force and violence to stop Bahrainis from exercising freedom of speech, holding peaceful gatherings, and assembly to demand basic human rights.
We believe it is the responsibility of all factions within Bahrain to develop a culture of nonviolence, create space for meaningful dialogue and acceptance of political, social and ideological plurality. Thankfully the majority of political, social and religious leaders calling for democracy in Bahrain today refrain from upsurging sectarianism, denounce all forms of violence and call for creating space for meaningful dialogue to achieve the democratic aspirations of Bahrainis.