[Read Part I here.]
On the afternoon of 17 March there was a government-supported demonstration in Baghdad`s Karada neighborhood. About 100 demonstrators were provided with police escorts who closed the road on their behalf, unlike the police resistance protestors usually face in Iraq. Protestors carried banners stating they were from the “Khafija tribe, Beni Sa`d tribe and the people of Karada.” One banner stated: “The Beni Sa‘d tribe condmens the Saudi intervention that is killing our brothers in Bahrain." Another stated: "Patience oh Sauds, the Mahdi Muhammad is coming." And another stated: "Oh infidels oh infidels why are you killing the free ones?"
The next day in Baghdad`s Sadr city, following an angry Friday sermon which addressed the Saudi invasion, calling them "Umayyads," (referring to the dynasty descended from Mu‘awiya, a figure in Islamic history Shiites revile for usurping the leadership from the descendants of the prophet Muhamad), prayer goers demonstrated nearby. A Bahraini Shiite cleric spoke of Bahraini security forces attacking a nurse. Protestors carried pictures depicting Muqtada al-Sadr in military uniform. “Bahrain will remain steadfast, Sayid Muqtada is victorious,” they shouted. They also chanted, “We are the ones who fought America and we`ll step on the Wahabis and we`ll step on the Saud”; “No no to the Saud”; “How can we sleep at night when we have issues with the Saud?” and “We`ll die before we give up!”
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the Sunni world`s leading clerics and president of the World Federation of Muslim Scholars, who had previously supported the Egyptian people against Mubarak and had called for Qadhafi to be assassinated, stated that the uprising in Bahrain was different than the other ones in the Arab world because it was sectarian and it did not represent the demands of Bahrainis as one nation. “There is no people’s revolution in Bahrain but a sectarian one,” al-Qaradawi said, “what is happening is not like what has happened in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, but it is the empowerment of some factions via foreign forces on others; thereby it does not include the demands of all of the Bahraini people ... the other Arab revolutions, with a common denominator of the oppressed against the oppressor, the Bahraini one is a sectarian, with Shiites against Sunnis.”
Ironically, for someone who supported violence in Palestine and against Qadhafi, he criticized the protests in Bahrain for not being so "peaceful." It was dangerous, he said, that some Bahraini protestors carried pictures of Iran`s Ayatollah Khamenei and Lebanon’s Nasrallah (if they were carrying pictures of Saudi king Abdallah he probably would not have criticized them). “They carried Khamenei’s and Nasrallah’s pictures as if they belong to Iran and not Bahrain, after all Bahrain belongs to the GCC, and we need them to show real citizenry.” He then praised the Bahraini ruling family.
On 19 March, Hizballah leader Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah gave a speech expressing his solidarity with the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen. Just before Nasrallah was to give his speech, Arab satellite channels suddenly stopped showing al-Manar, the Hizballah affiliated channel broadcasting it. This was a sign of how regimes feared the power of his speeches. “These are real popular revolutions coming from the people,” he said. After he expressed his support for the popular revolutions against dictatorships throughout the Arab world, Nasrallah concluded with Bahrain. The Bahraini people were “peaceful and longsuffering, oppressed,” he said. They came out to demonstrate peacefully and in a civilized manner for their legitimate rights. Instead the government shot at them, killing and injuring them. He spoke of the paradox that the Arab League and governments did not send their armies to defend Libyan protestors being massacred by Qadhafi but in Bahrain “they sent armies to protect a regime that was not threatened at all.” He compared the Bahraini regime’s tactics to those the Israelis use against Palestinians.
But the greatest injustice, he said, was to sully the sacrificed blood and the oppressed people by calling them sectarian. Nasrallah apologized for using the word Sunni but thanked Sunni scholars and movements who had supported the protests in Bahrain and singled out Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. Why were others in the Arab world denouncing the demonstrators in Bahrain, asked Nasrallah. “Is it only because they are Shiites?” he asked, and did that strip them of their human and civil rights? Nobody asked about the religion of Palestinians or the religion of people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Yemen. “We stood by them all,” he said. What was the difference between the Khalifas who ruled Bahrain and the house of Mubarak in Egypt or Qadhafi in Libya, he asked.
On March 21st Bahrain’s King Hamad claimed his country has foiled a foreign plot to target Gulf countries. “An external plot has been fomented for 20 to 30 years until the ground was ripe for subversive designs,” he said. “I here announce the failure of the fomented plot.” It was clear he meant that the thousands of Bahraini protestors his forces had crushed were actually Iranian agents and the plot dated back to the Iranian revolution. In Yemen the regime arrested four Shiites on trumped up charges to link them to Iran and prove the false notion that Iran is backing Zeydi rebels. In the ebullient period of the Egyptian revolt, a leading Facebook news group, RNN, or Rasd, trying to be democratic and inclusive, put up a sign of protest against those who considered Shiites as "unfit for civic rights." and protesting the way the oppression of Bahrainis was justified because they happen to be Shiite. Hundreds of comments disagreed and affirmed that Shiites indeed cannot be considered equal citizens or even human. Throughout the Arab world people are forwarding emailed articles about how Shiites are treacherous and cannot be trusted. One close Shiite friend of mine in Iraq received such an email from an old Sunni friend of his. “Even me?” he wrote back.
An Egyptian-based channel called Safa had a Bahraini flag in its corner with the slogan “God keep Bahrain.” Its host discussed Iranian oppression of Sunnis in that country’s Baluchistan, criticized Iraqi Shiites for oppressing sunnis and then criticized Bahraini Shiites. He warned of “Shiitization” in Egypt and expressed his hopes that Egypt remained 100 percent Sunni. Callers condemned Shiites. The host mocked demonstrators in Bahrain for not being peaceful. A caller blamed Hizballah and Iran. The host called the government of Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki a “collaborator government.”
Similarly, a Saudi owned channel called al-Wesal showed a Sunni rally in Kuwait “in support of our brothers in Bahrain.” A speaker condemned Iran’s repression of its demonstrations and its suppression of demonstrators in Baluchistan, Khuzistan, and Arabistan. “What is called Hizballah,” he said, or the Party of God, was really “Hizb al Shaytan,” or the Party of the Devil. Hizballah had branches in Iraq and Kuwait, he claimed, but it was the same party in all countries. The free Kuwaiti people would not accept to be a follower of Iran. He called for Kuwaiti forces to deploy to Bahrain along side the other forces as soon as possible. Another speaker claimed the GCC liberated Kuwait in 1991. He omitted the role western forces played in that conflict. “We are all Bahraini, he shouted. He warned against whoever threatened overthrowing the state of Bahrain in the name of Iran and spoke of a “Safavid swamp.” He called for the resignation of the Kuwaiti prime minister and spoke of a video showing a car running over a Bahraini policeman. There was a “Safavid plan” that succeeded in Iraq and was taking Yemen via the Houthis (Zeydi tribal rebels). He demanded Kuwaiti armed forces enter Bahrain and defend its institutions. Another speaker called for “victory for our brothers in Bahrain. Its not about reforms its about targeting the regime and state in Bahrain for Safavid reasons. He condemned the Kuwaiti government for being weak and not sending troops into Bahrain. The rally imitated the popular anti-regime protests of the Arab world, with crowds shouting about what the people demand.
Wesal TV had a headline about “showing the mysterious secrets in the religion of the rafida.” It showed the image of a wounded Bahraini policeman and asked, “and who is the terrorist?” It played marshal chants; it showed the Saudi military convoys driving to Bahrain. “Peninsula Shield forces for cleansing the kingdom of Bahrain. “Armies of the free nation,” the chants went, “The Saudis will lead us to victory.” It showed a picture of smiling Saudi soldiers above the slogan “lions of the Sunnis.” The Saudi satellite channel al-Arabiyya juxtaposed footage of Bahraini demonstrators with footage of Nasrallah praising the Iranian leadership as if proving a conspiracy. Even the Washington Post got in on the sectarian game. One article claimed Bahrain was “a Sunni Muslim bulwark against Iranian influence in the Gulf.” It did not explain how a tiny island could be a bulwark against anything. And if Bahrain wasn’t there then Iran would sweep into the Gulf? And what is the threat of Iranian influence exactly?
Kuwait was becoming increasingly divided as well. The Kuwaiti Shiite channel al-Anwar showed Kuwaiti Shiites demonstrating in support of Bahrain, and shouting, among other things, “no to sectarianism!” Serendipitously, the Kuwaitis claimed to have uncovered Iranian spies and the GCC announced investigations into alleged Iranian intervention in the region. It was a good way to tar demonstrators as fifth columnists for Iran.
Meanwhile demonstrations started in Dar‘a, a Syrian border town close to Jordan. Its residents are chicken farmers or else they work in the Gulf. The town has a history of smuggling. Now demonstrations have spread and the government has responded as harshly as others in the region, killing dozens. Sunnis are the majority in Syria and the regime has crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in the past. The demonstrations have also spread to other parts of Syria and the regime responded clumsily and brutally, with violence and the usual accusations of foreign conspiracies. While it is not inevitable, it is very possible that a sectarian civil war will break out in Syria, with all the bloodletting of Iraq. I believe it is likely, should the Syrian regime collapse, and almost guaranteed given the regime’s response to demonstrations. In the end, each side in the confrontation will be increasingly identified with a sect, as in Bahrain.
Across the border, Jordan has a very large proportion of Salafis with a strong social base. Many are jihadists and hate Shiites. Jordanian jihadists who had fought in Afghanistan and Iraq told me that they expected the final battle to occur in Sham, historic Syria. I’ve heard the same thing from jihadi Salafis in Lebanon and Iraq. They view the ‘Alawite-dominated Syrian regime as a government of infidel Nuseiris. Sectarian Sunnis in Syria would find it easy to smuggle in weapons from Jordan or Lebanon or simply to reverse the smuggling routes into Iraq’s Anbar province. This could lead to tensions with Hizballah in Lebanon and with the regime in Iraq. Civil war in Syria will spread to Lebanon. Syria is home to both important Sunni and Shiite holy places. Leading Sunni cleric al-Qaradawi gave a sermon on 25 March condemning a Syrian raid on a mosque, which killed opposition demonstrators. The Syrian people treated ‘Alawite Syrian President Asad like he was a Sunni, al-Qaradawi said, but Asad was a prisoner of his entourage and his sect. The ‘Alawite sect controls the government and security forces, Qaradawi added.
The Syrian regime still has means in its disposal to placate demonstrators and control the disparate opposition groups. It has released prisoners, including Islamists, and initiated reforms. And holding back a civil war in Syria might be the knowledge, on all sides, of how bloody it could get. But so far the revolutions have proven impossible to stop, and in Syria it may be impossible to halt the sectarian dynamic that will ensue.
Increasingly even secular Arab Sunnis have adopted the extremist Wahabi views of Shiites. Coexistence is becoming impossible. And when the confrontation happens then the intolerant schools of Islam, such as the Salafis and Wahhabis, will dominate and become the universal Sunni vision of Shiites. Sunnis and Shiites alike are thinking of the conflict more and more as a regional one, with national borders meaning less. There is more violence to come.
On 29 March on the Sawt al-Iraq radio station I heard the following song, sung to the tune of Shiite religious lamentations:
“Shiites of Bahrain we are all with you
When you visit Hussein on the day of Karbala’
Hussein will come out of his grave to salute you
Iraq from the sea is supporting you
As long as time separates us
We are united with you as Shiites
If the Shiite wants to choose life
He becomes a statue of destiny and struggle
Shiites are brothers for the sake of the nation
We are not afraid of death
In Haidar we secure ourselves
We are the tested sword in your right hand
The right has to cut the hypocrisy
The sound comes from Iraq, Shiites of Bahrain we are all with you.”