The Middle East Channel

Bahrain's Shia crackdown

The Kingdom of Bahrain -- a country that is usually overshadowed by its larger and more powerful neighbors -- has historically been able to keep its domestic troubles outside the international limelight. But the tiny Gulf state has made big headlines the last few weeks with its recent crackdown of dozens of Shia activists who have been tortured for their alleged campaign to topple the ruling family. The island nation's ruling Sunni minority has always had a tumultuous relationship with its Shia majority, who constitute 70 percent of the population. And as the other major Gulf states are applauding Bahrain for its crackdown on these Shia activists, it's worth taking a deeper look at the turbulent relationship between Bahrain's Sunnis and Shia which -- as the nation edges closer to parliamentary elections in October -- is sparking violence because of the deep and long-standing discrimination underlying this sectarian divide.

In large part, Bahrain's sectarian divide is not a Sunni-Shia one, since the two communities have few problems co-existing. The discord in fact lies more between the royal family and the Shia. The monarchy has marginalized the Shia and prevented them from working in certain sectors of the government, justifying the discrimination by claiming Shia loyalties rest with Iran. Though such beliefs are not entirely unfounded, they are largely exaggerated. Shia tradition requires laymen to choose a senior scholar, follow his rulings and pay him alms. These ayatollahs largely live in Iraq and Iran, making Bahrain's Shia susceptible to charges that they have dual loyalties.

Regional tensions have spilled over into Bahrain, affecting the way locals view foreign conflicts. The monarchy backed Saudi Arabia when it attacked a dissident Yemeni Shia group known as the Huthis in November, 2009, enraging Bahrain's Shia who came out in support of their embattled co-religionists. Members of al-Wefaq, the largest Shia party in parliament, stormed out of the legislature in protest, helping to crystallize the idea of a perfidious Shia element on the island. Yet though foreign factors have piqued tensions between the orthodox Sunni ruling elite and the heterodox majority, it is the government's domestic policies which are at the root of Shia animosity. Despite the fact that they make up more than 80 percent of the labor force, they have been predominantly prevented from working for the country's largest employer, the security forces, which have only a three-to-five percent Shia makeup. Before their political awakening which followed the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Shia staffed the majority of the non-officer positions in the security services.

The monarchy's ability to marginalize the legislature and its drive for reform has equally vexed the Shia. After gaining independence in 1971, Bahrain established a parliament and promulgated a constitution ensuring basic rights and equality. However, when parliament demanded greater transparency in government budget distribution as well as a desire to stem the rising authoritarianism of the ruling family, tensions erupted. The parliament refused to pass a draconian measure sponsored by the regime known as "The Security Law," leading the monarchy to dissolve it in 1975. The regime passed the law anyway, which stipulated that political prisoners -- primarily Shia -- could be held for up to three years without charge for anything deemed threatening to the country. Torture was rampant for years. These measures eventually proved unsustainable, and violent riots aimed at bringing about democratic reform, along with the death of the king, precipitated change in 1999.

The current king, Sheikh Hamad al-Khalifa, enacted the National Charter in 2002 with a desire to establish ethnic harmony in Bahrain. The charter largely revisited the 1973 constitution, but while the older document had been negotiated openly, the current version was brokered through secret talks in which the Shia were largely absent. Another tenuous attempt at social overhaul was the Amnesty Law, which was poorly received by the Shia because it acquitted both torturer and tortured, and has failed to sweep a dark chapter of Bahraini history under the rug.

Other initiatives sponsored by the king have equally failed to assuage Shia anger. Though the 2002 elections offered the Shia a chance at government office for the first time in three decades, they mostly boycotted the balloting, believing it to be a charade. Eventually, hope for tangible transformation paved the way for a Shia parliamentary majority in the 2006 elections, but they quickly discovered they commanded scant political power to generate change. Real power is vested in the king-appointed upper house of parliament known as the Shura Council, since its job is to ensure the monarchial agenda is pursued and to block any motions emerging from the elected body of parliament that oppose it. Of its 25 members, only three are Shia.

Today, the Shia are united in desiring change, but there is no unanimous view on how to achieve it. Parties such as al-Wad and al-Wefaq have joined the political process and despite the fact that electoral districts have been gerrymandered to prevent Shia dominance, al-Wefaq holds a majority with 17 of parliament's 40 seats. Though control of parliament should give it the authority to effect political change, the party has found much of its power lies in public protest.

Against an increasingly apathetic constituency, al-Wefaq has decided to contest the upcoming elections at a time when many Shia are strongly considering boycotting the polls. Organizations outlawed by the regime like al-Haq, which split from al-Wefaq, want to take control by force and advocate overthrowing the regime. Small riots take place almost nightly in Shia neighborhoods with youths coordinating tire burnings with their compatriots in other villages. The riots are becoming such a nuisance that many of the opposition members accused of inciting the protests have recently been arrested under anti-terrorism laws. The riot police, composed of an amalgam of foreign Sunnis, are sent in to control the pandemonium, creating further tension between the Shia and the government. It's no surprise, since the monarchy has long sought the aid of foreign Sunnis to suppress its indigenous Shia population in the past. In the early 19th century, Bahrain's rulers invited Saudi tribes to pillage and devastate Shia villages in order to make room for Sunni expansion. In the 1990s, Shia riots were quelled when the regime threatened to bring in Saudi paratroopers to subdue the protesters. 

Today the monarchy is attempting to mitigate the Shia majority by extending citizenship to as many as 100,000 Sunnis from Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Pakistan and offering them employment in the security services. This policy has not only enraged unemployed Shia, but also angered local Sunnis who are hard pressed to find work. The regime has also recently welcomed puritanical Salafis into government bureaucracies. These Salafis are Muslims who abhor the Shia and often advocate violence against them -- as has been the case in Iraq and Pakistan.

Both Sunnis and Shia have also been infuriated by the government's housing policy. All Bahrainis are entitled to government housing, yet many have been waiting 15-20 years for assistance. Foreign Sunnis who serve in the security services are given citizenship and housing after five years of service, depriving the native population of the opportunity to acquire such benefits at a time when Shia neighborhoods face severe housing shortages. This kind of discrimination was slated to end following reforms instituted in the wake of mid-1990s uprisings, but the changes have been merely cosmetic. With elections approaching next month, there is a real fear that disenfranchised Shia will opt to return to violence, believing it to be the only effective way of gaining government concessions. 

The current political system does not permit a popular Shia voice. A Shia victory in parliamentary elections is meaningless unless real changes are made to assuage government injustices against them. But the al-Khalifas fear that giving the Shia more rights in line with the 1973 constitution represents an existential threat to the monarchy. And as tensions increase, changes that could have potentially minimized friction in the past will no longer do. There is little chance the monarchy will reform its policies or that cosmetic changes will mollify the Shia. Many Shia claim that the kingdom's interest is to fuel Shia unrest in order to promote the idea that they are a public danger, giving the regime reason to maintain the status quo. Such a policy may prove misguided as ever-increasing tensions will boil over if Shia concerns are not addressed. If this happens, the Shia may no longer look to elections to address their concerns, but rather seek a widespread movement for change by force.

Steven Sotloff writes about Arab affairs and recently visited Bahrain.

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The Middle East Channel

Turkey’s chance for reconciliation

As Turkey heads into a high-stakes constitutional referendum, is there a real chance of finally resolving the long-standing tensions surrounding the place of Turkey's Kurdish citizens? It is clear that counter-insurgency is not the answer. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has long since transformed itself from a purely insurgent group to a political actor that has a popular base. The Kurdish issue is primarily an issue of democracy and should therefore be resolved through democratic means. This requires a new constitution, which takes equality and freedom as a basis, prioritizes a democratic approach, upholds rule of law for all and accepts different cultures within Turkish national identity.

However, constitutional changes cannot alone succeed without addressing the status of the PKK. When Turkish soldiers are killed in PKK operations every day, no Turkish government can afford to talk about recognition of cultural diversity, granting cultural rights, and strengthening democratic participation as a solution. The PKK's declaration of a unilateral ceasefire against Turkish military forces for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in August, which will be effective until Sept. 20, should therefore be seen as an important opportunity to act.

While tensions are currently high, in fact the conditions are ripe for all the main actors to take important steps regarding the Kurdish issue. The militarist view that considers the Kurdish issue a terror issue has been the main stumbling block to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. This security-oriented paradigm lost its primacy due to a series of reforms that curbed the Turkish military's power and influence in politics. Between 2002 and 2004, based on a consensus between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Parliament adopted constitutional amendments that removed the legal basis for the political role of the military.

With the latest Supreme Military Council (YAS) appointments, there is now a new military cadre that has a different approach to the Kurdish issue. The new Chief of General Staff Gen. Isik Kosaner, in a statement he made in 2006, says that the problem is not a terror problem anymore but is essentially a political problem and the PKK does not need terror to give voice to its demands. Although what started out as a gesture of reconciliation in the summer of 2009 has ended in the death of AKP's Kurdish Opening (due to an increase in PKK attacks, severe criticisms from the opposition, mismanaging the process and having unclear goals), the opening launched a debate on the legal, social and political dimensions of the issue. Today the Kurds' right to an education in Kurdish and the extension of cultural rights for the Kurds are being discussed in the public sphere while even their existence as a separate ethnic group was denied throughout the history of the Turkish Republic. 

The vast majority of Kurds want peace. They have come to understand that war has not solved anything for 26 years and that change will come through effective use of democratic means -- not violence. This view is voiced more and more everyday by Kurdish civil society, which has become more active in the last few years. The killing of four human rights activists and prominent members of society in Batman, a Kurdish populated city in the south east of Turkey, in a mine blast (that was perpetrated by the PKK in August), as well as the ethnic rift that erupted in Hatay's Dörtyol district in July (that was triggered by the killing of four policemen in the town in a PKK attack) sparked strong public reactions within the Kurdish community and civil society. Civil society organizations in the southern provinces of Diyarbakir, Batman, Van, and Mardin gathered together and called on the PKK to lay down its weapons. At a meeting of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), a joint platform of Kurdish intellectuals, members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), civil society groups and PKK-affiliated organizations, the participants urged both the state and the PKK to stop the violence.

Under growing pressure from its base to stop terrorist attacks, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire against Turkish military forces for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan -- which will be effective until Sept. 20. The PKK has offered conditions for extending this period. It demands a halt to military operations in the southeast, the release of pro-Kurdish activists, lowering the 10 percent election threshold, starting negotiations and accepting Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, as an interlocutor in the peace process.

The political demands the PKK raises for a lasting ceasefire indicate that the PKK wants to pursue a political path in the resolution of the conflict at a time when it is facing increasing reactions from its base in regards to its violent methods. A delegation from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) held talks with Iraq's President Jalal Talabani on Sunday in Sulaimaniya, a city in Kurdish controlled Northern Iraq. The delegation will have a meeting with Necirvan Barzani, Masoud Barzani (aide to the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq), and would like to have another meeting with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the referendum on Sept. 12. These moves are the continuation of a process that gives primacy to Kurdish civilian politics in the resolution of the Kurdish issue. They aim to determine the contours of "democratic autonomy," a concept that was brought forward at the meeting of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) after the PKK's declaration of a ceasefire in August as one of the steps to resolve the Kurdish question.

Kurds are pushing for a peaceful resolution but it does not mean that they will settle for a few cosmetic changes in state strategy toward Kurdish language -- such as allowing Kurdish broadcasting and the teaching of Kurdish at private language institutions or allowing parents to give their children Kurdish names. The national awareness has been rising among Kurds. As I visited Diyarbakir and Urfa in August, this has become one of the most striking facts. It is not an identity artificially generated by PKK or Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). It is deeply rooted in their collective memories and everyday lives. Today Kurds seem to have a clearer attitude about their identity than they had two decades ago. And they are vocal about their demands both from the government and Turkish society. Although they have been marginalized by the system, they still have faith in the democratic process. Despite the PKK's and BDP's call for a boycott of the referendum set for Sept. 12, many of those with whom I talked said they would vote "yes" since the amendment package -- drawn up by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- is aimed at curbing the powers of the military. The referendum package includes 26 articles, such as amendments that would grant civil servants the right to conclude collective agreements and go on strike. But it seems the package means one thing for Kurds: the end of military tutelage that kept the Kurdish issue unresolved for decades.

All these developments point to a historic juncture in the Kurdish issue. If the AKP government does not backpedal in its desire to find a civilian solution, resist from abandoning the process under the pressure of the upcoming national elections, or if the PKK extends the ceasefire and gives a chance to civilian Kurdish politics to play the leading role in the process -- then the ceasefire can be turned into an opportunity to solve the most pressing issue in the history of Turkish Republic.

Gonul Tol is the Director of Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.

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