February 2011 marked the outbreak of protests in Bahrain, and the slow start of demonstrations in Syria. Despite the complex internal dynamics in these countries, the ruling regimes have largely written off these revolutions as “sectarian” in nature.
The Bahraini government has influenced media coverage and pushed a narrative blaming discontent on a supposed sectarian divide between the majority Shiite population and the minority Sunni elite. In Syria, the government has convinced various minority groups that the uprising is a sectarian battle pursued by Sunni insurgents – the rhetoric has made an impact, leading some far-right members of the Syrian opposition to pursue attacks against ‘Alawis and Christians.
While sectarian violence has been present in both Bahrain and Syria, claims that both revolutions stem from sectarian tensions are, nevertheless, overstated.
Most importantly, a purely sectarian understanding of these uprisings jeopardizes the momentum for change and restricts understandings of the revolutions’ goals. Classifying these uprisings as sectarian also delegitimizes the work of activists who have spent years striving for social justice and human rights.
To continue supporting these revolutions we must first understand them. This means appreciating the historical circumstances surrounding each revolution, recognizing who the participants are, and identifying the issues faced by activists. Only then can we appreciate the true nature of these conflicts.
Muftah.org staff-writer Yazan Al-Saadi has written that the Bahraini revolts were rooted in the events of 1999, with the appointment of then-emir, now-king, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa.
The beginning of King Hamad’s rule raised hopes for many Bahrainis. Many had faith in the King’s plans to reform prior government policies under the guise of the National Action Charter.
According to Al-Saadi, some of the planned reforms included “the removal of the State Security Law and State Security Court, extending voting rights to women, the freeing of political prisoners, and the reinstatement of the parliamentary system.”
Yet, through social and economic disenfranchisement, King Hamad’s rule increasingly marginalized Bahrain’s Shi’a population. The government’s anti-Shi’a policies included discrimination in government housing, lack of access to high-ranking jobs in both the public and private sectors, and limitations on free speech and religious practice.
More importantly, the Bahraini government—intent on reducing the Shi’a quota—recruited foreign laborers, generally Sunni Arabs and South Asians, and gave them positions in the security sector.
It was befitting, then, that activists chose February 14, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the passing of the National Action Charter, as the national “day of rage” and kick off for what would become the Bahraini uprising.
Nabeel Rajab, activist and president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, has described the protesters demands as a call for “political reforms, right of political participation, respect for human rights, stopping of systematic discrimination against Shias [sic][,]” and further noted that “[a]ll the demands are to do with human rights and nothing to do with the ruling family and their regime.”
The violence in Manama was best reflected at Salmaniya Hospital. Doctors and medical staff frantically worked around the clock providing treatment to the injured while security forces raided the hospital, beating staffers and doctors. Bahraini villages were swarmed by riot police, while security forces set up checkpoints and the government pursued mass arrests.
Bahrain TV, the state-run television station, began its own campaign to punish dissidents by identifying national figures who attended the protests at Pearl Roundabout, and asking viewers to use their Facebook accounts to report the names of protestors and their places of work. The television channel claimed that the protests were simply an expression of sectarianism, and that an outside force—Iran—was influencing the demonstrations by mobilizing Shi’a Bahrainis.
Blogger Ali Abdulemam and activist Ali Al-Yaseen called Bahrain TV during a live broadcast and accused the station of falsely attributing sectarianism to the uprising. In a later interview, Bahrain’s Coalition of February 14th Youth responded to the allegations of sectarianism and stated that the goal of the Bahraini revolution was to obtain equal rights for all Bahraini citizens. The group noted that one of the most important slogans of the Bahraini revolution was “we are brothers, Sunnis and Shias [sic], and we will not sell out this country.”
As these and other activists have repeatedly made clear, Bahrain’s uprising is not a sectarian phenomenon but rather a response to how the ruling family has treated Bahraini citizens—whether Sunni or Shi’a.
Like Bahrain, Syria’s protests were strongly influenced by historical factors, namely the 30-year rule of Hafez al-Assad. While Al-Assad initially gained popular support for bringing economic and social stability to Syria, his rule paved the way for a governmental system based on patronage and cronyism. Under Al-Assad, who was a member of the ‘Alawi religious sect, power was transferred from the military to the internal intelligence and security sectors. This was reflected in the creation of thirteen independent intelligence agencies, as well as the appointment of top ranking military and intelligence positions to fellow ‘Alawi officers.
After Hafez al-Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad became president. Because of his youth and marriage to Syrian-British investment banker, Asma Fawaz al-Akhras, many believed Bashar would be a reformist. Soon enough, he managed to gain significant support within Syria, and the larger Arab world, in part prompting U.S. President George Bush to label Syria as part of the “axis of evil” in an attempt to isolate the country.
Al-Assad also bolstered regional support for himself by rhetorically dedicating himself to the Palestinian cause, anti-imperialism, and the fight against Israeli hegemony. As soon became evident, Al-Assad’s dedication to anti-colonial movements was superficial. In reality, the Syrian regime suppressed protests against Western hegemony within the country, including arresting demonstrators marching in defense of Palestinian activists, as well as those who condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Despite these actions, the Al-Assad regime skillfully presented itself as serving the interests of the Syrian population and gained acceptance across the Arab world as a bastion of change. Inside the country, the regime built a thick barrier of support sustained by cronyism and nepotism. Because of the mukhabarat’s (intelligence forces) deep penetration into Syrian society, political dissent with Syria was virtually unheard of.
As in the case of Bahrain, Syrians called for a “day of rage” in early February 2011. Mass mobilization was initially unsuccessful, until mid-March 2011 when the Syrian regime arrested fifteen boys—all under the age of fifteen—in Dara’a for spray-painting anti-regime slogans taken from the Egyptian uprisings. The event sparked a series of growing weekly protests and hunger strikes among political prisoners. The government responded with violence, leading to deaths in several Syrian cities.
Al-Assad blamed the furor on “foreign conspirators” and began to offer concessions to appease protestors. By April 2011, the President lifted the 48-year old state of emergency law. Nevertheless, Syrian security forces, as well as mukhabarat and shabihah (government-hired thugs), continued to unleash violence and repression against the protest movement. In response, Syrians continued to stage peaceful protests and sit-ins at public spaces, which were typically dispersed by security forces.
The protest movement soon turned to mosques, where government forces sometimes overlooked demonstrations. In some cities, minority groups, such as ‘Alawis, Christians, and Kurds, would wait outside the mosques to join in protest. Unlike the Sunni majority, minority groups were unable to rely on their broader communities for social support in organizing protests.
Despite the involvement of minority groups, activists were concerned that sectarianism and violence would emerge within the opposition. Soon, journalists like Nir Rosen and the late Anthony Shadid, both embedded in Syria, started reporting on the growing presence of an armed resistance, as well as sectarian violence within certain cities.
Indeed, sectarianism was beginning to emerge inside Syria. Opposition activists argued, however, that the Syrian regime was responsible for this increased sectarianism, and had unilaterally labeled the protest movement as Sunni-Islamist. In June 2011, Shadid reported that Syrian officials were claiming that the collapse of the Syrian regime would lead to increased violence aimed at minority groups in Syria, suggesting that militant Islamist factions had “manipulated popular grievances.” Other Syrians Shadid interviewed stated that protests were being turned “into a sectarian battle” by the government, not activists.
Fears of sectarianism were further elevated with the creation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), formed by military soldiers who defected from the Syrian army. The FSA gained support for taking an active role in opposing the Al-Assad regime by responding to military attacks against protestors and civilians.
Reports have shown, however, that members of the FSA have been involved in mass executions. While they claim to have directed these acts only at members of the Syrian army and shabihah, their allegations have not been independently confirmed.
Leading members of the FSA and SNC are connected to far-right groups and individuals known for their sectarian ideologies, like the al-Nusra Front and Sheikh Adnan ‘Ar‘uur. There are also allegations that some SNC members are closely aligned with members of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. While these affiliations do not represent the beliefs of the SNC and FSA are organizations, they further support regime claims about the existence of a sectarian battle.
Human Rights Watch has issued an open letter to all members of the armed Syrian opposition, as well as the Syrian National Council (SNC), expressing concern over evidence of human rights abuses such as kidnappings, detention, torture, and execution committed by opposition members. The group called for the FSA and SNC to “work to ensure that all opposition members do not engage in these unlawful practices.”
Unlike events inside Bahrain, which went virtually unnoticed by the mainstream press, the Syrian uprising has received a fair amount of media coverage. The nature of events inside Syria continues, however, to be misrepresented in various media outlets, both in the West and the Arab world.
These outlets have overlooked the threat posed to minority groups by members of the armed opposition, and have relied upon sources, including YouTube videos and interviews with purported “activists” and “experts,” that have been connected with extremist groups aligned with the opposition inside Syria.
Mainstream media coverage has also failed to explore how the regime, particularly the security and intelligence sectors, have been incorrectly viewed as exclusively ‘Alawi. Coverage has failed to highlight how the armed opposition and minority groups have both been swayed by the regime’s attempts to deceive minorities into loyalty by raising the specter of Sunni vengeance. Minority groups and ‘Alawis in particular have been detained, tortured, and executed by opposition members because of inaccurate perceptions about their loyalties to the ruling regime.
Although the majority of Syrian government officials identify as ‘Alawi, the Syrian regime is not an “‘Alawi regime,” as it does not serve the interests of the ‘Alawi population.This is an important reality to understand, in light of the regime’s fear mongering.
The lack of a united opposition movement is likely the greatest challenge facing the Syrian resistance. In this regard, fixating on the prospects of sectarianism strengthens Al-Assad’s attempts to divide the opposition.
Overlooking the historical factors that have led to the uprisings in Bahrain and Syria is a crucial error for anyone trying to understand these events.
Bahraini activists are committed to a just Bahrain for all members of society. Syria’s uprising is more complicated, as more and more players vie for control and as the government’s narrative continues to influence how minority groups and members of the opposition view the on-going civil war.
The Bahraini and Syrian struggles have their own independent dynamics – these influences are crucial to sustaining these revolutions and counteracting regime narratives about the force and prevalence of sectarianism.
*Sarah Kanbar received her Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of California, Berkeley, concentrating on the relationship between the U.S. and Middle East. She recently published the chapter “Rooted in Our Homeland: The Construction of Syrian American Identity” in American Multicultural Studies (Sage, 2012). Sarah is the Current Affairs Editor at Kalimat Magazine. She can be reached via Twitter: @skanbar