Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How Radical Are Bahrain's Shi'a?—Part 2: Attitudes toward the U.S. and West

As an extension of my article about the very non-radical political preferences of Bahraini Shi'a (and Sunna) at the time of my 2009 survey, I thought it would be useful to delve further into this question by stepping back from the specific context of domestic Bahraini politics to examine Bahrainis' attitudes toward the West and the U.S. For, indeed, from the dominant media coverage of the Bahrain uprising one would guess that the first order of business for Bahraini Shi'a upon seizing power (somehow)--right after they finished installing an Islamic Republic of Bahrain, obviously--would be attacks on U.S. military personnel, the torching of all Western businesses, and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in some sort of Bahrainian hostage crisis situation.

A recent article in the Huffington Post is a good example of this sort of logic. Haggai Carmon, a former Israeli intelligence officer, writes,
Nonetheless, the Sunnis in Bahrain have a lot to worry about. The Shiites in Bahrain demand a democratic republic instead of monarchy, and that simple message is certain to find many attentive ears in the U.S and elsewhere. However, democracy in Bahrain with a 70% Shiite majority, means Sunnis out, Shiites in, the U.S and its 5th Fleet harbor out, Iran in, including a control of the oil reserves and a direct threat to Saudi Arabia, the world's largest producer of oil in fields located next door populated by Shiites.

As absurd as it may sound, it is likely that supporters of full Western style democracy in Bahrain may at the end of the day be supporting theocratic Iran.
Correct, it does sound absurd, and not just because the operative line takes the form of the mother of all run-on sentences. "Sunnis out, Shiites in, the U.S and its 5th Fleet harbor out, Iran in, including a control of the oil reserves and a direct threat to Saudi Arabia." I'm not sure where all these giant Bahraini "oil reserves" are, or why Iran, the FOURTH-LARGEST OIL PRODUCER IN THE WORLD, really needs to "control" them, but it sure does make the Shi'a sound dangerous! Where do I sign up to help stop them?

And what makes this prevailing image so ironic--though probably not to those targeted--is that by all accounts the physical threats to U.S. and Western targets in Bahrain have stemmed from militant Sunnis. On the other hand, the U.S. naval base in Bahrain, located in the historically-Shi'i village of Juffair, has never been the focus of much protest. Indeed, when it was decided last year that it would double in size in a $580 million expansion, there were no protests decrying "U.S. imperialism," "interference in Bahrain's internal affairs," and so on. In fact, the only actual reported threats to the facility have come from Sunni Islamic groups operating in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf affiliated (ostensibly) with al-Qa'ida. (Sure, the Iranians have threatened to attack the base in the event the U.S. would strike at its nuclear facilities. But this is a separate issue.)

Much more recently, and perhaps even more disturbingly, the acting Political Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Manama has been the target of threats by pro-government Salafis accusing him, among other things, of supporting Bahrain's Shi'a and of being a Hizballah operative because of a report that he "brought doughnuts" for demonstrators protesting outside the U.S. Embassy "and talked with them in order to understand their demands." Wow, what an asshole! First, this long rant of an article appeared about two weeks ago on a pro-government blog complete with links to information about him and his wife. Later, photos of the two of them showed up on several Salafi forums along with their home address in Bahrain and threats of violence. (No need to pass along these links here.) It appears that they have now had to leave the country altogether, presumably as hoped by those behind the attacks.

Remind me—who is it, again, that the U.S. government is supporting in Bahrain?

But I digress. Below we find the distributions of Sunni and Shi'i responses for four different survey questions about Bahrainis' orientations toward the U.S. and the West. As we shall see, contrary to the idea that Bahraini Shi'a are somehow especially predisposed against Western countries and against the U.S. in particular, in fact there is no substantive difference between these orientations of Bahraini Shi'a over against those of Sunna.

All of the questions ask respondents whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with a specific statement or sentiment. The first statement is: "Despite the negativity of U.S. foreign policy, the American people are a good people." In Arabic:

.على الرغم من سلبية السياسة الخارجية الأمريكية إلا أن الشعب الأمريكي شعب جيد

One notices immediately that apart from a few respondents who are "not sure" (and probably disagree but don't wish to say so), all of those who respond either agree or strongly agree with this statement, and this equally among Sunni and Shi'i.

A similar pattern emerges when we consider responses to the notion that, "Among the various aspects of Western and American culture are some good qualities." In Arabic:

بين العديد من الجوانب للثقافة الأمريكية والغربية هنالك بعض الصفات الايجابية

As before, despite a few non-responses, the overwhelming majority of ordinary Bahrainis--some 90% of Sunnis and Shi'is--are not aligned on principle against all things West. Far from Western culture xenophobes, almost every respondent concedes the positive aspects of U.S./Western culture, with not a single Bahraini directly disagreeing with the statement.

Now we get into the heavy stuff. Bahrainis were asked (again, as part of the standard Arab Democracy Barometer survey instrument; so don't call me a U.S. spy), "Do you agree or disagree with armed groups using violence against civilians in resisting the American occupation in Iraq?" Or:

هل توافق أم تعارض على قيام بعض المجموعات المسلحة باستخدام العنف ضد المدنيين في العراق بحجة مقاومة الاحتلال الأمريكي؟

Here, only 2 individuals strongly agree with this statement, and less than 5% agree at all. The remainder disagree or strongly disagree, though the standard caveats about the "not sure" and "refuse" responses obviously apply. In general, though, the overall picture is of a Bahraini population that is not disposed to sacrifice civilian lives in opposing perceived U.S. military aggression.

Finally, respondents were asked whether they agreed with the more general statement (which you may recognize as the crux of the famous Bin Ladin fatwa): "U.S. interference in the region justifies armed operations against the U.S. anywhere [around the world]." In Arabic:

إن تدخل الولايات المتحدة الأميركية في المنطقة يبرر العمليات المسلحة ضد الولايات المتحدة في كل مكان

Most striking here is not the slight difference in Sunni and Shi'i responses--which is a combined 40% agreement among Shi'a compared to 33% among Sunnis, excluding the "not sure" and "refuse" responses--but the proportion of both communities that agree in principle with this sentiment. While that is not to say that all or even any are likely to act on such views, this result highlights the disingenuousness of the false dichotomy currently promulgated that pits the "secure, stable, and U.S.-friendly Bahrain" of today against the "Iranian-backed theocracy" of the February 14 uprising. (Or, stated more elegantly: "Sunnis out, Shiites in, the U.S and its 5th Fleet harbor out, Iran in, including a control of the oil reserves and a direct threat to Saudi Arabia.")

Sure, the Al Khalifa are closely aligned with the West, but what of Bahrainis themselves? As described here in the introduction, the U.S. is winning over Bahrain's government while it is losing (or more likely never had) its people--Sunna and Shi'a alike. Indeed, how ridiculous is it that the Political Officer at Embassy Manama is attacked by Salafi Sunnis for actions taken while facing Shi'a protesters? Even more strangely, this is precisely the situation of the Kuwaiti government a month ago, which fell after Salafi lawmakers threatened to quiz members of the Al Sabah in parliament for refusing to send ground troops to Bahrain as part of the GCC Shield force, a position it adopted in order to avoid a backlash from its own large Shi'a minority.

In sum, the U.S. is stepping in the middle of what is at best a regional struggle for geopolitical influence, at worst a burgeoning Sunni-Shi'i schism tearing apart the Arab Gulf region. Neither Sunnism or Shi'ism is intrinsically more orientated against the West or against the U.S. more particularly, but in helping to prolong rather than resolve festering political tensions in Bahrain, the United States can only add to the popular frustration already felt for its Middle East policy, to say nothing of its contribution to the ongoing reorganization of the Gulf region against its favor.

(Note: please no one write in to say that I am wrong about the Shi'a and that they must be extremists because 9 police officers were reported run over today at a security checkpoint in Nuwaidrat. I'm not discounting the event, which in any case can hardly come as a surprise at this point, but it's a separate issue from that here.)


  1. Good stuff. The part about the donuts had me roaring with laughter. A couple questions, though:

    -There seems to be no "disagree" choice on your first two graphs. Is that because no one chose that response, because "refuse" includes "disagree" (i.e., رفض can mean "reject" or "refuse"), or because you decided to omit it? Omitting it seems pretty problematic.

    -How close are parallels between US (and Saudi) support for the Khalifa's and for March 14 in Lebanon (and, I suppose, the Awakening movements in Iraq)? There are certainly some Salafi elements in March 14 (which Angry Arab keeps being angry about).

  2. Thanks for the comments.

    As for the first issue, yes, this is because no one chose "disagree" or "strongly disagree," as I try to make clear in the analysis. I make the graphs in R, and I didn't feel like changing the code to allow for the categories with 0 responses. (If you've ever used R you know how annoying it is.)

    Regarding the second point, unfortunately I have little reference to compare to situation with the support in Lebanon/Iraq as I don't follow things there so closely. Of course, though, the ill-concealed elephant in the room is that it is exactly the groups that tend to act violently toward the West, dominated by but not limited to those inspired by the Salafi ideology, that benefit from its staunch support of the Gulf monarchies and opposition to Iran (the latter being the more operative logic in Lebanon and Iraq).

  3. This whole nonsense spread about Shia'a being extremists is like saying all Sunni's are terrorists because Osama Bin Laden was (is? who knows?) Sunni..

    The only way the (Iran in) scenario is gonna happen if the people in Bahrain don't find anyone supporting them other than Iran (although Iran doesn't seem too eager to do much for the protesters.. Not yet anyway).. Something in the line of "my enemy's enemy is my friend" :)