By Sharmine Narwani
I’m not arguing that Shiites have a lot in common with rodents and insects. But you wouldn’t know it by watching Bahrainis and Saudis snuff them out with barely a peep from Western and majority-Sunni Arab nations, both.
Shia-majority Iran, Iraq and the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah have been the most vocal in condemning the outrageous killings, arrests and beatings of Shiites in the Persian Gulf — but they have had to do so with a muffled voice. Each objection from Iran or Hezbollah unleashes a barrage of opportunistic rants by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the U.S. about “Iranian interference” and expansionism.
Which means as long as we can successfully infer a nefarious connection between these groups, one can simply yell “Iran” or “Hezbollah” and kill, torture and imprison Shiites with impunity — in much the same way that we yelled “al Qaeda” and buried hundreds of Sunni Muslims in Guantanamo for years. No matter that we have never ever proven a connection of significance between these coreligionists.
It’s the equivalent of saying all Irish Catholics have a connection to the Irish Republican Army. Or that all Jews take marching orders from Israel.
The Sectarian Bogeyman
To be fair, this isn’t really a sectarian battle — although some would like to spin it that way. This is about autocratic regimes stifling protest, and it just so happens that the largest disenfranchised populations in these places are Shiites.
At the very heart of the matter lies the growing battle for influence in the greater Middle East. These domestic Arab uprisings — while highly desired by their national populations — on a geopolitical level threaten to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the region toward the “Resistance Bloc” — state and non-state actors that reject U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the Mideast.
Shiite-majority Iran is a major influencer in this bloc, which is why it has been so important for Washington and Riyadh to keep the pressure on the Islamic Republic and deprive it of any opportunity to gain further footholds or popular support from non-Shia populations in the region.
When mass protests kicked off in Bahrain on February 14, the peaceful demonstrations in Pearl Square were decidedly non-sectarian. Sunni and Shia came together to demand reform across the board. Yes, the majority of protesters were Shia, but that number falls along demographic lines in a country of around 70% Shiites who have been marginalized politically, economically and socially.
When a brutal, regime-led clampdown ensued with killings and beatings, the mood changed and protesters called for the downfall of the Al Khalifa ruling family. Suddenly “Iran” was being invoked as an instigator for regime change and Saudi troops were “invited in” to quell the protests.
The past month has seen a violent clampdown of a different kind. Bahraini troops — many imported from other Sunni countries — and Saudi forces troll largely-impoverished Shia neighborhoods and villages, arresting activists and violently suppressing any signs of protest — or even normal Shia religious activity.
Hundreds of activists have “disappeared” in the small Persian Gulf nation of 600,000 citizens – one in every 1,000 Bahraini, by one count — and masked men storm into private homes regularly in the middle of the night to detain Shia human rights workers, bloggers and opposition members. (more…)