21 March 2018 – Today, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) observes the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination as established by the United Nations, calling on all countries to combat hate and prejudice. Specifically, ADHRB takes this opportunity to call on the Government of Bahrain to address the kingdom’s embedded systems of ethnoreligious inequality and to end ethnoreligious discrimination in all its forms. To that end, ADHRB is also pleased to publish its official submission to the List of Issues Prior to Reporting (LOIPR) for Bahrain’s upcoming review by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Systematic discrimination against the majority Shia Muslim community remains widespread in Bahrain, and the country’s Baharna and Ajam ethnoreligious groups, in particular, face discrimination based on the intersection of faith and heritage. The Baharna are Bahrain’s indigenous Arab Shia community while the Ajam are a group of Persian descent who also predominantly ascribe to Shia Islam. Both official and unofficial prejudice against these communities is longstanding in Bahrain, but in recent years – particularly since the emergence of the 2011 mass pro-democracy movement – the government has overseen an intensification of sectarian divides, generally, and ethnoreligious discrimination, specifically. The authorities have ultimately proven unable or unwilling to eliminate such discrimination against the Baharna and Ajam in most aspects of daily life, from hiring practices to social services, contravening their obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
Dominated by the Sunni Al Khalifa royal family, Bahrain’s government has used a variety of methods to interfere in traditional Shia religious practices and infringe on the community’s rights to free belief, assembly, and association. In the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, Bahraini authorities damaged at least 53 Shia mosques and religious institutions, 28 of which were entirely destroyed. Though it made initial progress toward a recommendation from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to restore these places of worship, to this day the government has only partially fulfilled this commitment. In many parts of Bahrain, Shia communities continue to hold religious services in damaged mosques or makeshift structures, while other sites are arbitrarily cut off by police cordons. Additionally, authorities frequently disturb Shia religious ceremonies, especially during the Islamic calendar month of Muhurram.
The Bahraini government has also increased its harassment and prosecution of prominent Shia religious figures. Leading cleric and opposition politician, Sheikh Ali Salman, was arrested in December 2014 and ultimately sentenced to four years in prison on charges of “inciting disobedience and hatred in the kingdom” for giving political speeches. He is now facing a new set of arbitrary charges that could yield the death penalty, and his trial has been repeatedly postponed. The government ultimately dissolved Al-Wefaq, Sheikh Salman’s political group and the country’s chief opposition society, in 2016. Likewise, in June 2016, the Ministry of Interior arbitrarily revoked Bahraini citizenship from Sheikh Isa Qassim, the kingdom’s preeminent Shia spiritual leader, and confined him to his home under de facto house arrest. In May 2017, a court convicted him in absentia on charges stemming from the Shia religious practice of khums and sentenced him to a one-year suspended sentence. Sheikh Isa Qassim could be forcibly expelled at any time, and the house arrest has had deleterious effects on his health.
The Shia community also disproportionally faces extrajudicial violence and police harassment, including excessive force and torture. On 23 May 2017, a peaceful demonstration protesting the denaturalization of Sheikh Qassim in his hometown of Diraz was violently dispersed by security forces. Five demonstrators were killed, hundreds were injured and at least 286 individuals were arrested. From the start of the sit-in until the 23 May raid, the authorities also judicially harassed at least 80 Shia religious figures and activists, while interfering in local prayer services. When interrogated or detained, Shia individuals consistently report experiencing sectarian or ethnoreligious abuse, and some Shia prisoners report being targeted for attempting to engage in certain religious practices.
While Sheikh Qassim is one of the most high-profile cases of denaturalization in Bahrain, the government has punitively revoked the citizenship of nearly 600 Bahrainis since 2012 – a majority of them Shia Muslims of Baharna or Ajam heritage. Arbitrary citizenship policies have been used by the government to suppress dissent and manipulate the country’s demographics, with foreign Sunni nationals offered expedited citizenship and other benefits to join the almost exclusively Sunni security forces. Moreover, institutional discrimination against the Ajam has already created a large number of stateless people in the community, which has forced them disproportionately into lower socioeconomic conditions. Being both Shia and stateless, these individuals are even more likely to be denied access to social welfare or assistance programs available to other Bahraini citizens, or targeted for forced expulsion. By depriving Baharna and Ajam Bahrainis of their citizenship and engaging in broader demographic engineering policies, the government is violating its obligation to guarantee equal enjoyment of the right to nationality.
Bahraini Shia also face discrimination in social welfare, employment, education, and culture. Shia families face institutionalized obstacles to acquire state-owned housing or to pursue public sector employment, with the attendant benefits, that are not existent for the Sunni community. The vast majority of Shia children are unable to receive a Shia religious education in school and there is an anti-Shia bias when distributing scholarships. Meanwhile, the authorities have also worked to systematically exclude Shia culture from the country’s official history, media, and educational curricula. State-sponsored textbooks and museums typically downplay or outright ignore the importance of Shia – and specifically Baharna – communities in the history of Bahrain, focusing instead on the royal family and the period following their arrival in the country. Many government officials and supporters have publicly referred to Shia Bahrainis as “Safavid loyalists of Iran,” “Zoroastrians,” or other derogatory terms that frame the community as intrinsically foreign to official Bahraini nationality and religion.
“In Bahrain, religion and ethnicity coincide, and the authorities have increasingly targeted specific ethnoreligious identities to sow conflict and undermine the popular pro-democracy movement since 2011,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director. “Simultaneously, the government has deepened the problems of structural inequality and general political disenfranchisement that plagued Bahrainis of all backgrounds long before the Arab Spring. With Bahrain due to come under review by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, it is imperative that the international community hold the government to account for its continued refusal to curb growing ethnoreligious discrimination.”
On the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, ADHRB calls on the Government of Bahrain to uphold its commitment to the CERD and end systematic discrimination against Shia Muslims, including the Baharna and Ajam ethnoreligious groups. We further call on the international community to press Bahrain to take concrete measures to reduce prejudice and open civil society space for all Bahrainis, such as by releasing prisoners of conscience like Sheikh Ali Salman, abolishing arbitrary citizenship revocation, and ceasing all judicial harassment of peaceful religious leaders.