Sectarianism and radicalization – Two sides of the same coin

During the previous chapters we examined how militant trends evolved in Bahrain throughout more than sixty years. Here we look at the various factors which have fueled radicalization and militancy, as well as examining the complex relationship between radicalization and sectarianism.

This discussion helps us to arrive at a number of recommendations for how militancy can be countered in the GCC region, in order to arrive at a society which is more tolerant, coherent and at peace with itself.

Previous sections

Part 1: Beginnings of militancy – 1950-1990

Part 2: Evolution of militancy – 1990-2011

Part 3: Eruption of militancy – 2011

Part 4: Expansion of militancy – 2012-2016

Part 5: Exporting militancy – Iran’s role

Part 6: Confronting militancy – 2015-2017


Learning lessons

One of the principle lessons learnt from the growth in militancy in the post-2011 period was how relatively easy it was for frustrated youths to cross the line from participating in rioting, to involvement in acts of violence and terrorism.

During the worst of the unrest in 2011 and 2012, boys as young as twelve were used to carry Molotov cocktails and build roadblocks. These young people are too young to properly comprehend the political cause they were supposedly fighting for; let alone the moral consequences of throwing firebombs designed to wound and kill. From this, it was just a small step away to helping build complex devices which were far more efficient at killing their targets. In this radicalized climate, involvement in militant activity was a means to impress peers and even earn money.

There is a generation of young people who have been exposed to radical ideas, with active experience of being involved in rioting, vandalism and criminal acts. The social consequences of failing to reintegrate them back in to society will be dangerous for us all.

Several of the most notorious militants like Hussein Sharaf who killed a policeman and died on the run while building new explosive devices were widely lauded as “martyrs” within pro-opposition communities. The normalization and celebration of such terrorist acts is a dangerous precedent. There must be greater efforts by the authorities and within such communities to demonstrate why terrorism can never be condoned.

These threats aren’t just limited to pro-opposition communities. Groups like Daesh and Al-Qaeda have actively sought to recruit supporters in Bahrain. Although the numbers of those who have travelled abroad or affiliated themselves with these entities is very small, we should not ignore the threat of radicalization across Bahraini society as a whole and more should be done to inoculate young people from this threat of radicalization.


Marginalizing the moderates

Perhaps the most thought-provoking lesson of 2011 was how political radicalism in many parts of the region quickly gave way to sectarianism and religious extremism; and how these forces acted collectively to banish moderates and liberals from the political scene.

The unrest had a destructive effect on centre-ground civil society as almost all entities allied themselves with one side or the other. Political divisions hardened along sectarian lines. Five years later, this polarization has led to the overshadowing of almost all centrist political societies.

As events took a sectarian turn, those calling for dialogue and unity were often threatened and denounced as traitors. In consequence, many moderates withdrew from the public sphere and deleted their social media accounts.

The sectarian turn divided families, friendships and the workplace. People on either side had different experiences, and established conflicting narratives. Regional tensions – most obviously the standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia – also heightened sectarian tensions.

In certain communities we find that Sunnis spend most of their time only interacting with Sunnis; and likewise for Shia. In pro-opposition hotbeds opinions became highly entrenched, with radicalized children, too young to understand the political dynamics, absorbing the grievances of their elders and becoming involved in rioting, vandalism and anti-social activity.

Many people note a generation gap, between a more moderate and tolerant older generation and a younger generation affected to various degrees by these radicalizing currents.



The rise of sectarian narratives

It is easy to be seduced into sectarian narratives: It is difficult to speak out for tolerance when everybody around you is angry about (real or imaginary) acts perpetrated by members of a rival sect. There are inevitable pressures for retaliation; not just against the perpetrator, but all those who share the same affiliation.

Sectarianism has a dangerous political logic. If you expect that other sects will vote for their religious parties, the smartest way to challenge this may be to vote for Islamists from your own sect; even if you’d rather vote for moderates. The result is a dominance of sectarian political trends.

In a country like Libya, sectarian differences are less of an issue, but similar divisions have arisen between tribes and localities, depending on different roles they played in the revolution. These divisions have proved fertile ground for fueling religious and political radicalization.

Whether sectarian, tribal or ethnic; the conflicting narratives which have arisen in our region over the past five years may take more than a generation for reconciliation to do it work – if they don’t give rise to new conflicts in the meantime.

A Sunni youth joining the “Caliphate” or a Shia militant attacking police are different manifestations of the same disease which is rotting our society from within. Arguably there is a failure to develop impoverished areas in a manner which gives young people hope and banishes the desperation and frustration which extremists exploit.


Radicalization and women’s rights

The first battlefront in imposing an Islamist agenda is fought across the bodies of women; determining how they dress and their freedom of action. Sometimes this was through subtle social pressures. Sometimes this was through influencing legislation or social media campaigns. Sometimes methods were less subtle, such as “immodestly dressed” women in Iraq having acid thrown in their faces or being the subject of threats and attacks.

In Bahrain Sunni clerics and their parliamentary allies sought to push anti-women legislation – most noticeably the unsuccessful campaign by Islamists against enhanced implementation of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Influential Twitter accounts told supporters that a Parliament vote for CEDAW meant abandoning Shari’ah law and casting women into prostitution and disgrace.

Prior to 2011 a coalition of Shia Islamist MPs blocked the Family Law for the Shia community – preventing a high proportion of Bahraini women from justice regarding divorce, inheritance and child custody. At least one Sunni society is opposed to any form of women’s participation in politics!

From the 1920s Bahrain was the first Gulf state offering schooling for women. Bahrain has been ahead of its neighbours in getting women into parliament, government and legal, medical, educational and other professional careers. It is vital that we protect and consolidate this progressive heritage.


Challenging hardliners in Parliament

The CEDAW example shows how radicals were energized by legislative campaigns by hardliners. Attempts by ideological MPs to submit legislation curbing tattoos, music lessons, non-Islamic banking and non-halal consumables demonstrate the relentless nature of their agenda. Even a small minority of Islamist MPs can be disproportionately influential, while liberals rarely form a coherent bloc with an alternative vision.

After several years of boycotting the elections, Islamist candidates won seats in the Jordan elections in September 2016 and in the Kuwait elections in November 2016. In October the Moroccan Islamic Justice and Development Party beat liberal opponents in the polls. Earlier this year Tunisia’s Al-Nahda announced that it was to stop branding itself as an Islamist political party. However, commentators argue that this is about reaching out beyond its core support base, rather than changing its orientation.

An obvious difference between parliamentary systems in the Maghreb region and those in the Gulf region, however, are that Morocco and Tunisia have better-organized liberal and secular political parties and civil society activists, meaning a more articulate moderate voice.

Note that in Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain it is often the political actors closest to the Monarchy which act as a liberal bastion of citizens’ freedoms: Protecting the tourism industry and encouraging investment; arguing in favour of the rights of women; and protecting the freedoms of all to live according to their own beliefs and inclinations. In the GCC, more should be done to support the emergence of moderates as a coherent voice.


Fueling sectarian grievances

Through social media: The inflammatory combination of radicalization and sectarianization has been a common pattern across social media platforms where we see a mix of religious rhetoric, political agitation and sectarian hate-speech. Hundreds of radical voices (including obviously fake accounts) can be quickly mobilized on social media to terrorize and overwhelm opponents.

There is no concerted liberal voice countering these fear-mongering campaigns for important legislative issues. It is unsurprising that people are often poorly informed and tend to be inclined to say that it’s better to be safe than sorry if there’s any doubt about whether changes in the law could be un-Islamic.

From the pulpit & religious discourse: Although it is easier to name and shame clerics who use openly sectarian or radical language – there is also danger in preaching which implicitly fuels a sense of difference and sectarian discord.

There has been a marked tendency to obsess over superficial differences; such as the political disputes in early Islam which produced the Sunni-Shia split. You hear people who should know better questioning (incorrectly) how barbaric it is that all Shia beat themselves with chains and swords during Ashura. Such issues are raised not to understand, but to reinforce divisions.

Sectarianism makes us hyper-aware of the physical manifestations of our faith: Different ways to pray, different places where we go to perform prayers, different festivals… We forget the values and spirituality of our faith – our unity before our creator and the innate value of each human life.

Socio-economic grievances: Sectarianism and radicalization are nourished by socio-economic frustrations such as unemployment, giving them a theological dimension and deluding frustrated young people that radical strategies offer a solution. In a post-oil era, these frustrations are in part the legacy of a culture of passive dependency on the state.

In the home and in schools we must generate a greater sense of self-reliance in shaping our destinies, while contributing for the betterment of our communities. However, combatting sectarian attitudes also requires us to combat sectarian realities in the workplace and elsewhere.


Sectarianism – An unwelcome alien import

While I am primarily concerned here with fighting sectarianism as a route towards fighting extremism and radicalization – we should nevertheless combat sectarianism for its own sake to enhance community cohesion and national unity.

Bahrain in many ways stands out from its neighbours. This is a land where churches and Sunni and Shia mosques stand peacefully alongside each other. Intolerance and religious extremism are strange to our shores. As a small island nation dependent on trade, historically we thrived by engaging with other cultures.

Bahrain’s new law banning clerics from politics is a commendable step for distancing politics from religion. We could also argue that a Constitutional Monarchy system with two houses of Parliament has many advantages in its favour for balancing the interests of a diverse society of multiple sects and protecting the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution; while preventing any single faction monopolizing the levers of power and imposing its ideology on others.

In order to neutralize the forces of sectarianism and extremism we have to rediscover this tolerant Bahrain; where to be Bahraini means to embrace diversity. This inward-looking and retrogressive sectarian mindset is strange to our heritage. We should see it for what it is – an alien import which can only do harm to our society.





The growth in sectarianism represents a failure of the education system to create a sense of common identity and respect for difference. The values of respect for common humanity and national identity should be at the core of Bahrain’s approach to education.

Celebrating diversity: Children in schools should be taught directly and through practical activities to value and understand cultural and religious differences; with respect for diversity being identified as a central tenet of the Bahraini national identity (“an island nation welcoming all cultures to our shores… We are Bahraini before being Sunni, Shia or otherwise…”).

Thought-provoking programmes: Govt and NGOs should reach out to areas where youth are begin radicalized and attempt to cure the problem through productive programmes. These initiatives should visit schools, mosques, universities and youth centres for programmes which reinforce these values. These programmes should be fun and thought-provoking in a manner which has a long-term impact in the way children view their society.

Non-sectarian schooling:  Initiative to reduce sectarian divides in schools, avoiding where possible classes which are exclusively from a particular sect, with a diversity of teaching staff. Sporting and cultural activities should also encourage mixing between schools from particular communities.

Support for educators: Teachers and youth-workers should be given specific training and support for challenging sectarian and intolerant attitudes within a constructive educational environment. This shouldn’t be about demonizing certain students, but rather about helping them understand the social consequences of such attitudes and language.

Moral & religious education: Schools should start teaching student moral sciences; along with more information about other religions, which could enhance religious tolerance in younger generations.


Media and communications

There should be initiatives to challenge extremism and sectarianism through the social media:

Centre for Countering Extremism: Such a centre should be established to spearhead and coordinate anti-radicalization efforts. Bahrain could set an example for other countries in the region in this field, while working closely with other GCC states.

Zero-tolerance for sectarianism: Extremist views should be challenged, whether on social media, mosques or wherever. Civil society groups could coordinate to mobilize supporters to help make online sectarianism socially unacceptable. This can operate in parallel to online initiatives which emphasize national unity and common humanity; to be Bahraini means embracing diversity.

Social media ethics: Schools and public awareness campaigns can play a role in teaching ethical social media use: Avoiding dangerous sites, respect for other users…

Monitoring online abuse: There should be a monitoring initiative to identify the most influential drivers of sectarianism within Bahraini and regional social media outlets. This can lead to a variety of actions to minimize the impact of these outlets.

Social media guidelines: The Govt should create clear and straight forward policies for the use of social media and communicate it with the public. There’s a high level of confusion among youth as to what is legal or illegal on social media channels.

Independent media: Media is one of the best ways of influencing tolerance and challenging radicalism. The government should encourage the creation of independent radio and television channels while providing a clear guideline to media freedoms in the Kingdom. The press in Bahrain is either inclined to the govt or opposition with hardly any newspaper that publishes views that are non-biased. NGOs and businessmen should come together and establish an independent newspaper that brings moderates together and helps in influencing youth and challenging radicalization.  State media should have a clear strategy for countering radicalization. 


Political awareness

The drift towards extremism and militancy is in part a rejection of conventional politics. Young people need to understand how they can have a positive influence on local and national politics. This includes not having unrealistic expectations of what MPs and officials can achieve within the political cycle:

Transparent politics: Young people need to see fair opportunities in the public sector, such as merit-based promotion and active efforts to root out corruption and mismanagement. It is not enough for the Govt to improve its record; the Govt must prove to the public that it is serious about doing this.

Parliament: MPs should receive extensive training on the principles of democracy and respecting diversity. Many hardline proposals are raised in Parliament by a few vocal conservative MPs who aim at imposing their ideology on others and these issues and opinions are rarely directly challenged by so-called moderate MPs, even when these proposals go against the tolerant vision of the Constitution.

Progressive candidates: Civil society movements should work together in promoting parliamentary candidates and building election programmes that would serve and promote the moderate segment of the society, while raising political awareness. This programme should specifically aim to raise the profile of female candidates.

Youth voice: Government should appoint more youth in decision making posts, based on merit. This can be a motivating factor for young employees in the public sector.


Civil society & youth

Bahrain needs a stronger civil society which empowers moderates and progressives and provides an outlet for young people to constructively use their energies.

Promoting moderate voices: Moderates need to be encouraged to put their views forward. A network of liberal and moderate civil society movements should be established to encourage each other’s work and promote moderation in the face of extremism when required.

Supporting civil society: Bahrain should establish an independent body that regulates the work of civil society and acts as a link between the Ministry of Social Development, government bodies, local NGOs and international organizations to enhance the work of civil society which would therefore lead to countering radicalization through different programmes. The Ministry of Social Development should have easier regulations towards establishing NGOs as their current policies are complicated.

Youth activism: Youth parliaments and other practical workshops can help introduce young people to democratic politics, which there should be more subsidized programmes for encouraging volunteer activity and constructive use of free time, including youth and sports initiatives. The govt should setup programmes that target youth in all areas. We have very good Government-sponsored programmes funded by organizations like Tamkeen; and NGOs like the Youth Pioneer Society. These should be given more support in reaching out to young people. Some young people are averse to govt-funded programmes; but attempts should be made to encourage them to have confidence to engage.

Debate platform: Providing an independent forum for debate where young people are encouraged to openly discuss a broad range of social and political issues in a moderated environment which pushes the debate away from radical and simplistic solutions to complex problems.

Role-models: The use of influential figures through events and the media can help advocate an anti-sectarianism message, encouraging young people to put their energies to constructive use. This can include musicians, artists, media commentators and even moderate clerics.


Main references

Other references found as hyperlinks within the text

Ali Alfoneh, 2012: Between reform and revolution: Sheikh Qassim, the Bahraini Shi’a, and Iran

Anissa Haddadi, 2012: Bahrain Uncovered: Divided Political Landscape

Faleh Jabar, 2003: Shi’ite Movement in Iraq, Saqi

Mansour al-Jamri, 2010: Shia & the State in Bahrain: Integration & Tension

Abdulhadi Khalaf, 1998: Contentious politics in Bahrain: From ethnic to national and vice versa

Fuad Khouri, 1980: Tribe and State in Bahrain, University of Chicago Press

Jane Kinninmont, 2012: Bahrain: Beyond the Impasse

Laurence Louer, 2008: Transnational Shia Politics; Columbia University Press

Falah al-Mdaires, 2002: Shiism & Political Protest in Bahrain

Helem Chapin Metz, ed, 1993: Persian Gulf States: A Country Study: The Constitutional Experiment

Khaldoun Nassan Al-Naqeeb, 2012: Society and State in the Gulf and Arab Peninsula; Routledge

Katja Neithammer, 2007: Avenues of Political Participation in Bahrain

Barry Rubin, 2013: Crises in the Contemporary Persian Gulf; Routledge

A.   Rush, ed, 1991: The Ruling Families of Arabia

Bahrain Wikileaks:

Guide to Bahrain’s politics

Reform in Bahrain: Mansour al-Jamri (re. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja)

Wafaa: New Shia rejectionist movement

Bahrain’s Shia opposition: Managing sectarian pressures

Some potential new leaders in Al-Wefaq

Bahrain al-Wefaq hails Iran Supreme Leader’s support

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