The benefits of civil society for Bahrain and for you

Sectarianism is the greatest threat facing Bahrain’s civil society

The sectarian tensions which emerged around the 2011 unrest in Bahrain were hugely damaging to moderate civil society. Here we tell the story of how sectarianism impacted civil society groups during the unrest and look at the role civil society can play in combatting sectarianism.

Attacks against civil society

As sectarian tensions began to grow during February and March 2011, moderate civil society groups tried their best to calm people down and call for unity. The message from many civil society figures was: Whatever your political aspirations, we are all Bahrainis and we should stand together, champion reform, and reject those who are trying to divide us.

Instead of heeding these calls, the response of hardliners on both sides was to attack those in the middle ground calling them “traitors” for not clearly taking one side or the other. When moderates supported the Crown Prince’s efforts to bring all parties into a National Consensus Dialogue, sectarian figures attacked the initiative and the main opposition groups refused to participate.

What happened to moderate civil society?

Why were liberals and moderates effectively driven underground during these tense months? Many social media activists became fed up with the sectarianism and attacks from both sides and simply closed down their Facebook accounts and disengaged from any kind of activity.

Many liberal, left-wing, progressive, secular and nationalist societies joined one side or the other. Some of these groups aligned themselves with Sunni Islamists within the Al-Fateh Coalition; and a few political societies firmly aligned themselves with the political boycott and the Shia opposition movement.

The choice for moderates was to either accept this reality and align themselves with these sectarian forces – or simply disengage from civil society activity altogether. 

When movements like Wa’ad and the National Democratic Assembly, affiliated themselves with the sectarian opposition, they lost hundreds of former supporters from among the middle classes, professionals and well-educated moderate Sunnis.

Even many charities and social organizations, as a result of which individuals led them and which community they were based in, effectively became divided along sectarian lines. When sectarianism takes root in a society it is difficult for any organization to remain unaffected.

Sectarianism encourages institutions to recruit and promote people based on their sectarian affiliation, widening the social divide and slamming the door on many talented and dedicated individuals. People come to vote along sectarian lines; educate their kids along sectarian lines; and socialize along sectarian lines. Sectarianism is a vicious circle. Once it has a foothold, it grows and becomes stronger.

How can civil society combat sectarianism?

We can see from the above account that civil society and sectarianism are mortal enemies of each other. Sectarianism is a barrier to civil society. But can civil society eradicate sectarianism? Perhaps:

Education: Education can either entrench sectarian prejudices or banish them. Through schools and in the home, children must be encouraged to celebrate diversity and respect other religious beliefs. Civil society should engage with schools and universities to support such efforts and empower teachers to combat sectarian attitudes.

Society: Civil society must sponsor initiatives to encourage interaction between communities and challenge sectarian prejudices. Mosques, youth clubs and other community centres should be hubs for combatting sectarianism, nit nurturing it.

Institutions: Recruitment and promotion processes must be on merit. Monitoring should be in place to ensure absence of bias based on sect, gender, social background, or other factors. Civil society should also play a part in ensuring that elections processes for trade unions, municipalities and Parliament are not manipulated by sectarian forces.

Online and the media: Civil society groups must work together through social media and the press to challenge sectarian prejudice and hate speech, raise awareness, and create an environment which is hostile to intolerance.

Sectarianism is a long term threat. Inaction only allows it to grow worse. Civil society and official bodies must work hand in hand to identify factors which drive sectarianism and fight against them; while ensuring that young people grow up in an environment where sectarianism is not tolerated.

We want a society where citizens don’t look at each other as Shia or Sunni – We should all be equally proud of our common Bahraini identity.

ABC of civil society

Media freedoms




Quality of life




UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Women’s rights



Zero-sum game

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