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Between 60 and 65 per cent of Bahrainis belong to the Shi’a denomination of Islam who, despite making up the majority of the country’s population, are socially and politically marginalized.

Historical context

The persecution of Shi’a can be traced back to when the largely Shi’a population of Bahrain was ruled by a Sunni dynasty. In 1861, the ruling family, the Al-Khalifas, brokered an agreement with the British for protection in exchange for ‘relinquishing conducts of piracy and slavery trading’. Bahrain’s British administration’s focus was on progressing the political power of the Al Khalifa dynasty; it paid very little attention to the situation faced by Bahrain’s Shi’a population. Thus, the persecution of Shi’a is seen as a direct consequence of colonialism and an absence of substantive change following the country’s independence.

Current issues

Shi’a remain disenfranchised in Bahrain in numerous ways: for example, Shi’a citizens are not allowed to work in the Bahraini army, intelligence agency or police force. Despite being an overwhelming majority in the country, they hold only a small portion of senior official positions in the country.

Following the 2011 uprising, driven by a widespread demand for equality and inclusion of all citizens, Bahrain’s ruling Sunni elite placed the blame on Bahrain’s Shi’a: in order to delegitimize the calls for reform made by protesters, the narrative of the uprising was shaped to claim that the Iranian government was supporting dissident groups in Bahrain, which in turn justified the violent crackdown on protesters. This framing of the protests in sectarian terms overlooked the substantial demand for democratic reform that drove them, concerns also shared by many Sunnis in the country.

Shi’a have also disproportionately been the target of political repression and even had their citizenship stripped as punishment for alleged charges of sedition against the state. In June 2016, for instance, amidst a crackdown on Bahrain’s political opposition, the spiritual leader of Al-Wefaq, Sheikh Isa Qassim, had his citizenship revoked arbitrarily and subsequently had charges of money laundering levelled against him. This decision triggered peaceful protests outside his home in Diraz that resulted in further crackdown against prominent Shi’a leaders, with more than 50 Shi’a clerics arrested in the aftermath of the demonstrations. The trial against Qassim opened in May 2017 amid widespread protests. The political leader of Al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman, was also prosecuted in 2016 on charges of inciting hatred and insulting the Interior Ministry, and is currently serving a four-year jail term.

The government’s stripping of citizenship from journalists, human rights activists and political opponents, particularly affecting Shi’a, effectively renders them stateless and has often been followed by forcible expulsions from the country. At the same time, the government has been accused of pursuing a policy of demographic change by allowing the naturalization of thousands of Sunni Muslims from other countries – a move that some have condemned as an attempt to bolster the regime’s position.

Minorities and indigenous peoples in
< Bahrain