In the Gulf, the Sunni-Shia dichotomy has become the go-to, catch-all explanation for most brands of socio- and geopolitical conflicts. From clashes between protesters and police in Bahraini villages to Saudi air strikes on Yemen’s Houthi rebels, the (Western) media tends to oversimplify issues, overuse the word “sectarian,” and whitewash the legitimate political demands that underlie these events.
In Bahrain, the demands of the opposition, which is largely Shia, against the ruling regime, which is Sunni, are grounded in religion. They are rooted in decades of economic and political marginalization experienced by Bahrain’s Shiite majority-population. Bahraini human rights activists have long denounced the framing of their struggle as sectarian and emphasized that they and those they represent are calling for fundamental human rights. To describe this struggle as uniquely “Shia” delegitimizes these human rights objectives and perpetuates the divide that fuels harsher government policies.
Nevertheless, some Western newspaper editors still see no problem with labelling local Bahraini human rights defenders “Shia activists.”
On Monday, June 13, Bahrain’s King Hamad pardoned Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. After Rajab was reunited with him family Monday night, the AFP reported, via Middle East Eye, “Bahrain king pardons Shia activist Nabeel Rajab for ‘health reasons’.”
Perhaps recognizing the troublesome (and irrelevant) nature of describing Rajab as a “Shiite” activist, the word “Shia” was removed from the article headline by Wednesday.
The persistent use of sectarian language in reporting on Bahrain’s leading human rights defenders merits a closer examination of the phrase “Shiite activist.” Here are a few ways we can understand it:
Shia as a marker of an activist’s religion: “Shia” is an adjective modifying the activist himself, like “black activist,” “female activist,” or “Bahraini activist.” The label describes the activist himself, and does not necessarily say anything about the group or issues on which the activist works. A “woman human rights defender,” for example, is a human rights defender who identifies as a woman. She may or may not work on women’s rights issues. A “Shiite activist” in this instance may or may not work on issues related to the rights of the Shia.
Shia as a type of activism: “Shia” denotes the type of activism he undertakes, as in “nonviolent activist” or “performance activist,” implying there is a type or tactic of activism that is uniquely “Shia.”
Shia as the basis for claiming certain rights: “Shia” is the grounds for claiming rights, as in “employee rights” (the rights you have because you are an employee) or “human rights” (the rights you have because you are human).
Now let’s look at how these options apply to Nabeel Rajab’s case:
Shia as a reference to Rajab’s faith: This makes sense insofar as “Shia” is the most important adjective to ensure readers understand what Rajab’s story is about. In this case, “arbitrarily arrested,” “leading,” and “nonviolent” would have told AFP readers more about the man than “Shia.”
Shia as describing his activism: This one falls apart pretty quickly. In four years of engaging in peace studies, three years of researching Gulf social movements, and two hours of Googling, I have yet to uncover a form of “Shiite” activism. Slogans, chants, and symbols may draw upon historical beliefs, but tactics of resistance are shared across religions and cultures.
Shia as the identity upon which rights are claimed: Rajab works on behalf of Bahrain’s marginalized population. These people are not claiming they deserve certain rights and liberties because they are Shia. In every march, protest, Facebook group, Instagram post, and Friday speech, people are demanding recognition of their human rights alone.
No matter how you cut it, Nabeel Rajab is a human rights defender defending the human rights of humans. Labelling him a “Shiite activist” is not just a misnomer. It demeans the legitimate demands of the Bahraini people, and has dangerous effects on the increasingly sectarian discourses springing out of the Gulf into the rest of the Middle East.
In February 2015, four months before an ISIS suicide bomber killed twenty-three worshippers at a Shiite mosque in Kuwait, journalist Nussaibah Younis explained in the Wall Street Journal how the sectarian discourse coming from Gulf governments is reverberating in places like Iraq:
Iraqi Shiites blame US allies in the Gulf for propagating extremist interpretations of Islam that brand Shiites as heretics. Indeed, many Iraqi Shiites see ISIS not as an isolated problem, but as the product of a regional network of intolerance rooted in the preaching of state-sponsored clerics in the Gulf.
The US must start by publicly condemning its allies in the Muslim world when they oppress their own Shiite populations, and by investing in services and infrastructure in the Shiite south of Iraq.
Despite numerous analyses from CATO, Business Insider, Foreign Policy, and others demonstrating how ISIS capitalizes on sectarian tensions, many media outlets have continued to depict human rights defenders, like Nabeel Rajab, as “Shiite activists.”
In the wake of the recent attack in Kuwait and reports that ISIS may be planning to target Bahraini Shias next, it is critical the Western media refrain from undermining the legitimate political and human rights demands of Arab activists by reducing them to their sect.
The Bahraini people are not claiming “Shia rights.” No one is saying “I have a right to freedom of expression because I am a Shia.” Nabeel Rajab is not defending freedom of expression as a Shia, using Shiite activism, to defend other Shias.
Using his sect to define his work is not only irrelevant, it is dangerous – for Bahrain, for the Gulf, and beyond.
By Erin Kilbride
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