Apartheid Under the Mandate of Islam: The Case of Bahrain

by Samir Yousif (July 2011)


The Article: How Radical are Bahrain’s Shia? published by FOREIGN AFFAIRS[1] came across my desk. The author, Justin Gengler, clearly managed to reveal the true inner picture of the crisis in Bahrain. I was impressed by his conclusions, and consequently decided to go ahead in writing this paper. The case of Bahrain is unquestionably, an example of the existence of a well-developed Apartheid Regime.[2] This kind of regime was never alien to this area, and it has been practiced for decades, if not for the whole history of Islam, against specific groups of Muslims and non-Muslims. Since the very first days of the Muslim State, discrimination in different forms was practiced on religious and non-religious grounds (Muslims, non-Muslims, gender, and social status).  The originators of the present-day Apartheid Regime are the Saudi Wahhabi, and to a smaller or a larger extent, it has been applied in several Middle East countries. The victims are usually one or more of the various indigenous ethnic communities.

Original Islamic States practised discrimination by definition. The current article deals with present-day discrimination, which is Wahhabi-originated. Original Islamic systems differentiated significantly between its own citizens, and between Muslims themselves. Al-Ansar Wa Al-Muhagereen (The Migranters & Supporters) became a special class during early Islamic Rule. Later they represented the vested interest (using present-day terminology), which fought fiercely against the Fourth Khalifa (Ali Bn Abu Talib) when he tried to abolish discrimination between Muslims themselves, but kept discrimination against the non-Muslims and the slaves. Discrimination was legalised against Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims, but also against women and slaves.

The rulers of these Apartheid Regimes were convinced that any change in the status quo will ultimately lead to their departure from the throne. To stay in power, they practised all kinds of discrimination and ethnic cleansing. The presence of the British troops, and later the Americans, unwittingly enhanced such discrimination, and made it a fact of everyday life.

The recent, and surprising, Arab Spring poses a direct threat to such regimes, and cannot be tolerated by them. Ethnic cleansing is integral to all apartheid regimes, and it has been practiced by the Al-Khalifa Government of Bahrain as this paper will discuss later. The victims of such regimes are always the forgotten indigenous population who believe in a different understanding of the same religion.

Al-Khalifa Family

It comes to the surprise of many that the ruling family in Bahrain has no Bahraini origins. The implantation of the Khalifa family in Bahrain was a careful decision taken by the British colonial power.[3] Maybe this decision was made on strategic grounds; to create a permanent divide between the two sides of the Persian Gulf, Shia on one side facing Sunni on the other. But regarding this particular issue, I would argue differently. World War I created conditions that brought Great Britain to the Near East, and the Persian Gulf. During Britain's postwar administration of Iraq, Shia religious leaders called for Jihad against the British army, and issued several Fatwa’s for this purpose. That fact put the Shia on the wrong side of the equation. It was a strategic mistake committed by these short-sighted leaders. The Sunni were just waiting for this to happen. It was very natural that the British would bring the Sunni to the throne. This short story applies to both Iraq and Bahrain equally. The Shia lost the game, and came to realise that when it was too late. The religious leaders never admitted their error, and never accepted the consequences of this historic mistake, made against their own people. What caused the Shia in Bahrain to become second class citizens was the unwillingness of their leaders to cooperate with the British Colonial power. The British needed cooperation with the locals, and the Sunni were very ready to provide for this.

The eastern parts of Saudi Arabia are dominated by Shia tribes. The natural extensions of these tribes cover the Island of Bahrain. This fact may be another reason behind selecting the Al-Khalifa family to rule this Island. To have Bahrain run by Shia might have led to unexpected regional developments that could have complicated  British interests in the Gulf.

Writers like Shirin Sadeghi[4] limit the explanation to the need to preserve specific Western interests. Using Shirin’s own words: “The so-called sectarian divide of Bahrain is a manipulative simplification of a far greater divide: that of the colonially-installed government that has no connection with or compassion for the people of Bahrain. The Saudis are there to preserve Anglo-American power- as they do in Saudi Arabia. They are Sunni. The people they rule over are primarily Shiite.” Even if we agree with the logic of Shirin Sadeghi,[5] still there are issues that challenge the validity of her argument.

The Shia in the Middle East never posed a threat to Western interests, especially before the Khomeini Revolution in Iran during the late 1970’s. To the contrary, the Shah of Iran was the closest ally to the USA, and Western Europe during the Cold War. One can further argue that the relationships that existed between Pahlavi's Iran and the West were much stronger than that between the West and Saudi Arabia.

One of the arguments used to justify the free stay of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in Europe during 1970’s, and his enhanced control and guidance of the revolution against the Shah, relates to the special circumstances of the Cold War. One theory goes on to claim that Khomeini had the indirect support of the USA in bringing down the Shah, and replacing it with an Ultra-Right-Wing religious regime that guaranteed the defeat and total liquidation of the Communist Part of Iran. Such a regime ended the hopes of the Soviet Union in ever approaching the Warm Waters of the Gulf.[6] This theory received strong support in light of the (temporary) success of the Communists in taking over Afghanistan in April 1978, and opening the doors in December 1979 for the Soviet Army. The Soviet presence in Afghanistan caused a total disequilibrium in the Balance of Power in the area.

But the collapse of the Berlin Wall in Nov 1989 changed international priorities, the Balance of Power, and made the Khomeini Regime no longer desirable or needed. It is this last development that influences the current events in Bahrain.

Elements of Apartheid in Bahrain

The success of Khomeini in taking power in Iran at the end of the 1970’s, and its attempts to “export” The Islamic Revolution to neighbouring Arab countries sent deep shocks to the existing political and social fabric in the Middle East. Members of Shia communities were accused of responding to such calls originating from Iran, and had to pay a high price. Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain represent good examples. But discrimination against the Shia in Iraq never developed into such an aparteid regime as it did in Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia. The Al-Khalifa family implemented clear policies that aimed at making the indigenous Shia population powerless politically, and barred them from having any important public office. The following summarises their well-articulated programme:

First. Shia were not allowed to assume a job in the Ministry of Interior (police, security, secret services..etc), nor in the Army (including the navy, air Force..etc). At the same time, the government secured these jobs to “loyal” Sunnis (most of them foreigners). By doing that the Bahraini government followed strictly the path of other apartheid regimes. It seems that this is a basic feature of apartheid: locals are not trusted by the system, but foreigners are. From the recent demonstrations in Bahrain one can learn that the security forces that were sent to crush the demonstrations were very indoctrinated, and brain-washed to become very anti-Shia. Foreign reports indicated how the security forces were treating the Shia as though they were not considered to be human beings, and that included the heath personal that treated the injured. The UN accused Bahrain of breaking International Law when the Bahraini Police stormed a hospital and arrested the Medical staff. The Medical Staff was subject to torture.

Second. Government Special Immigration Policy. Al-Khalifa tried to change the composition and the different percentages of the components of the Bahraini population. This policy is not alien to other apartheid regimes. Ethnic cleansing is practiced in different forms. Guaranteed Sunnis were imported from different countries (like Pakistan, and some Arab countries like Syria and Iraq) to serve with the government, and to increase the numbers of the Sunni minority. They were made aware of the purpose of importing them and granting them the Bahraini Nationality. They exhibit a very hostile attitude to the local majority becasue they have been informed that the Shia will send them back if they ever take power.[7]

Third. Through economic and commercial blockage, the Al-Khalifa family aimed at starving or at least keeping the indigenous Shia population very poor.[8] They believed that this policy, in the long term, will eventually lead to a reduction in the total Shia population, while increasing the favoured Sunni Minority.

Fourth. Contrary to what the Shia majority were facing throughout the years, the Al-Khalifa family were very generous with the Sunni minority. Free houses were allocated to both the Sunni Minority, and the Sunni immigrants. Other commercial measures “Sunni-Favoured” were introduced.[9] The aim was to create a “vested interest,” a new powerful class that runs the economy independent from the State. It is due to this fact that the Shia suffered from very high rates of unemployment. Both the State and the economy offered them no jobs. The workers were imported from Pakistan, India, Philippines, Indonesia and other Asian countries, while high qualified Europeans were treated as expatriates. As for the indigenous Shia they had no where to go to.

When the Shia-led demonstrations[10] started in Bahrain as a continuation of the Arab Spring, the Bahraini government claimed that it was part of an Iranian plot and called for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to send its troops to defend Bahrain against an imminent Iranian invasion. The whole government argument is baseless as the American 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain. Therefore, the real aim of the Saudi-led troops was very clear. The demonstrations were crushed, leaders of the opposition were arrested[11] (many of them died in prison from torture), religious places belonging to the opposition were destroyed, students studying abroad had their scholarships cancelled, and government employees were fired. The situation became even worse than before. What is most interesting here is that fact that all this happened without any international condemnation. The Leaders of USA, Great Britain, France and Germany made no press statements as they did in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen.

There are no hopes of introducing any real political reforms in Bahrain without outside pressure. The only country that can play a positive role is the USA.[12]

The Deceptive Role of Mass Media

It is very interesting to discuss, in this very context, the role played by the mass media, specifically Al-Jazeera Satellite TV, during what is known today as the Arab Spring. Hillary Clinton[13] on Wednesday March 7th, 2011, commented on the important role played by al-Jazeera in providing direct coverage – compared to local American Channels – for both the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions.

Actually the picture is completely different when one tries to make a comparative study of the professionalism exhibited by Al-Jazeera on two specific recent cases. This comparative study will show how Al-Jazeera is un-professional in both its coverage, and focus. Relationships between Qatar and Libya (as well Syria), and Qatar and Bahrain are very different.[14]

As the situation in Libya during February 2011 started warming up, and the demonstrations became nation-wide, Al-Jazeera presented a situation where the Libyan dictator Kaddafi was about to collapse. According to the coverage of Al-Jazeera, change in Libya was imminent, and in a few hours the dictator would be overthrown. This false message encouraged Western leaders to make urgent calls based upon reactions to incorrect Al-Jazeera daily news. NATO got involved, and the UN Security Council intervened. According to Al-Jazeera coverage, a non-fly zone was required to overthrow Kaddafi. That was done, but Kaddafi was not overthrown.

Now after three months of NATO air strikes Kaddafi is still as powerful as before.[15] It is in Qatar's national interest that Kaddafi disappear. Therefore, we find that Al-Jazeera exhausted its full powers to achieve, or cause a collapse of Kaddafi regime, and by doing that it implicated the whole world.

On the other side, we find that the role played by Al-Jazeera and Qatar during events of Bahrain do not coincide with its declared role of defending freedoms, human rights and liberty. The demonstrations, arrests, torture and killings were not covered by Al-Jazeera. To the contrary, Qatar sent its military troops to join in crushing the demonstrations in Bahrain, instead of helping them in gaining their legitimate rights.

Western journalists managed to register many of the terrible events that took place in Bahrain. No calls were made to help the demonstrators, or to provide them with military help as the case of Libya. The UN was not involved although the crimes committed in Bahrain were worse than Libya taking into consideration the fact that the demonstrators in Bahrain were unarmed. Barak Obama himself talking on May, 19th, referred to the situation in Bahrain,[16] and mentioned the destruction of Shia religious places by the Bahraini government. Such a crime did not take place in Libya, Syria, Egypt or Tunisia.

This is a live example showing how the mass media is pushing hard to defend an existing Apartheid regime.

Bahrain and Western Journalists

A number of Western correspondents managed to stay in Bahrain during the recent demonstrations. I have selected the following examples. Amir Madani writing in the HUFFPOST[17] on April 27th, 2011 referred to events in Bahrain as “modern tragedy” and quoted what Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times' most authoritative columnist, had to say: ”In Bahrain in recent weeks I’ve seen corpses of protestors who were shot at close range, seen a teenage girl writhing in pain after being clubbed, seen ambulance workers beaten for trying to rescue protestors- and in the last few days it has gotten much worse. Saudi Arabia, in a slap at American efforts to defuse the crisis, dispatched troops to Bahrain to help crush the protestors.” Kristof goes on to say that he spoke with another reporter on the field: “My New York Times colleague Michael Slackman was caught by Bahrain security forces a few weeks ago. He said they pointed shotguns at him and that he was afraid they were about to shoot when he pulled out his passport and shouted that he was an American journalist. He said the mood then changed abruptly and the leader of the group came over and took Mr. Slackman’s hand, saying warmly:” don’t worry! We love Americans!”. We are not after you, We’re after Shia, the policeman added. Mr. Slackman recalls:”It sounded like they were hunting rats.” And finally…

The Washington Post,[18] on May 10th, 2011, published the editorial “Applying pressure on Bahrain.” While the paper confirmed the arrests were “another ugly campaign of repression,” it made it clear that “there is no evidence that Tehran had anything to do with the mass protest or their secular, pro-democracy agenda. Those on trial are accused, implausibly, of having ties to “a terrorist organization abroad working for a foreign country.” As the afore-mentioned examples indicate, the attention was focused on the protestors, not on the regime that the protestors were trying to change.

[1] Justin Gengler, How Radical are Bahrain’s Shia? FOREIGN AFFAIRS, May 15, 2011.

[2] The crime of apartheid is defined by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as inhumane acts of a character similar to other crimes against humanity committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” On 30 November 1973, the United NationsGeneral Assembly opened for signature and ratification the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (ICSPCA). It defined the crime of apartheid as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” See: United Nations (30 November 2006). “International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid”. Archived from the original on 1 October 2006. Retrieved 8 October 2006.

[3] In 1820, the Al Khalifa tribe came to power in Bahrain and entered a treaty relationship with Great Britain. This treaty granted the Al Khalifa the title of Rulers of Bahrain.

[4] Shirin Sadeghi, “The Fabrication of Bahrain’s Shiite-Sunni Divide,” HUFFPOST WORLD, March 16, 2011.

[5] In 1927, Rez? Sh?h demanded the return of Bahrain in a letter to the “League of Nations”. Britain believed that weakened domination over Bahrain would cause her to lose control all over the Persian Gulf, and decided to bring uprisings amongst the people of Bahrain under control at any cost. To achieve this they encouraged conflicts between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Bahrain.

[6] The Shah did not only face strong opposition to his throne, but actually he failed in containing them. As time went by, those political movements gained strength and popularity. The only hope of stopping a change to a Communist regime, as happened in Afghanistan April 1978, was the right-wing Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. 

[7] This might explain why many demonstrators recently died under interrogation from torture. 

[8] What is interesting is that such discrimination is practiced before the whole world without proper reaction. Add to that the presence of the American 5th Fleet in Bahrain did not change this picture.

[9] One of the famous examples was the land granting, and buy-back policy. The government offered pieces of free land to Sunnis, then bought them back at very high rates per meter. The aim of this policy was to create a rich Sunni class, and it did.

[10] Shia-Led demonstration against the Apartheid regime in Bahrain has a long history, and did not start in 2011.

[11] Ali Abdulemam is among the activists who disappeared. He was known for his call for personal liberties, and freedom of speech. He was the young man who inspired a whole generation.

[12] Foreign observers can assume that Bahrain successfully convinced the USA of not giving the its citizens their legitimate rights in order to contain the Iranian influence in the region.

[13] Hillary Clinton speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee referred to Al-Jazeera as providing “real news”.

[14] GCC countries are against both Libya, and Syria, but not Bahrain which is a member of the GCC.

[15] According to statements made by NATO  during May 2011only 98 tanks were destroyed after more than 2000 air strikes at a time when Qadafi possesses more than 2000 tanks.

[16] Obama delivered a speech, on May 19th, defining the role of the USA before the developing events of the Middle East. He mentioned Bahrain several times.

[17] Amir Madani, “Arabian spring:The Hidden Tragedy of Bahrain,” in HUFFPOST WORLD, April 27th, 2011.

[18] The Washington Post, “Applying pressure on Bahrain,” May 10th, 2011.

To comment on this article, please click here.

To help New English Review continue to publish interesting and thought provoking articles such as this one, please click here.

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more by Samir Yousif, please click here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

Order here or wherever books are sold.

The perfect gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend