Everyday Experiences of Sectarianism in Kuwait and Bahrain

This essay is based on a recent journal article by the author. See, Thomas Fibiger, "Sectarian Non-Entrepreneurs: the Experience of Everyday Sectarianism in Bahrain and Kuwait" Middle East Critique, Volume 27, Issue 3 (2018).

Sectarianism has become a key issue of both scholarly and political debate over the Middle East in recent years, particularly with war, unrest, and crisis in places like Iraq, Syria and Bahrain. This article focuses on the Arab Gulf countries Kuwait and Bahrain. Both countries have significant groups of both Sunni and Shiʿa Muslims and are both ruled by a Sunni regime, but the way sectarianism plays out in each context is remarkably different. I have worked primarily with Shiʿa Muslims in the two countries, and the article builds on their views and practices. While discussions of sectarianism often focus on the state or regime level, and on elite actors in society, in my work I rather focus on the experiences of sectarianism and sectarian relations in everyday life, where people often reproduce sectarian categories, even if unwittingly and while also being critical towards the role of sectarianism in society.

Sectarian Non-Entrepreneurs

“…while I also explore sectarian experiences in my research, I rather focus primarily on what may be termed ‘sectarian non-entrepreneurs.’ Thus I zoom into how ‘ordinary’ people – rather than particularly strong individuals –  experience, accept, and reproduce sectarian dichotomies in their everyday interactions.”
Most academic literature focusing on sectarianism suggests that key (and often elite) agents, so-called ‘sectarian entrepreneurs,’ use sectarianism to form alliances, play a game of divide and rule, or claim legitimacy vis-à-vis others. One of the most important contributors to the study of sectarianism in the Gulf, Toby Matthiesen, the author of Sectarian Gulf, defines the ‘sectarian identity entrepreneur’ as a particularly strong individual who ‘capitalizes on certain forms of identity [seeing how] collective identities can be used as a political resource.’ This perspective certainly grasps a key issue in regards to sectarianism, which shows how central agents use it to gain power. But while I also explore sectarian experiences in my research, I rather focus primarily on what may be termed ‘sectarian non-entrepreneurs.’ Thus I zoom into how ‘ordinary’ people – rather than particularly strong individuals –  experience, accept, and reproduce sectarian dichotomies in their everyday interactions. While they might do so unwillingly, these quotidian experiences still reveal the importance of sectarian identifications and imaginaries in the society, particularly in the  contemporary Gulf. Bahrain and Kuwait may be low-conflict zones compared to Iraq and Syria, but still sectarian identification forms a key part of the structure of these societies.

Repercussions of the 2011 Arab Revolts

My interlocutors would disagree to define Bahrain as a low-conflict zone, however. This is because, in particular since 2011, when the country experienced the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising as a popular revolt against an authoritarian regime, the protests were crashed with a very violent and sectarian response. The government instrumentally framed the conflict in sectarian terms and, now seven years later, this frame has become the everyday structuring reality of social life in Bahrain.

Bahrainis gathering at the Pearl Monument during the 2011 uprising. The uprising was dubbed sectarian by regime and media, and the consequence has been a worsening of sectarian relations in Bahrain. Photo: Al Jazeera / Wikimedia Commons

In Kuwait, the 2015 Daʿesh suicide bombing of the Shiʿi Imam Sadeq mosque in the capital Kuwait’s old city center has been the most violent manifestation of sectarian terror in the country to date. Popular reactions to this attack have arguably been a clear sign of anti-sectarianism; in particular, the ruling emir Shaykh Sabah Ahmed Al Sabah rushed immediately to the scene to say ‘These are my children,’ as local and international media reported, emphasizing the status of the Shiʿi as Kuwaiti citizens. Sectarianism, however, remains a big part of everyday life in Kuwait. Even if Shiʿi and Sunni communities in Kuwait live rather peacefully together, they often understand their social world within this same dividing frame. Let me give one example of such everyday sectarianism in Kuwait, followed by examples from Bahrain.

Examples From Everyday Life

Mirza, one of my primary interlocutors, one day received a WhatsApp video depicting a Shiʿi religious shaykh allegedly speaking every possible language. In the video, a boy then asks how this can be. In response, the Shiʿi shaykh asks the boy to put a turba prayer stone, the piece of clay used by Shiʿi Muslims during prostration at prayer, into his own mouth. As the boy does that he too becomes capable of speaking every language, even though he does not understand himself the words he is uttering. The video ends with added clips of car crashes and bomb explosions, which intend to show that this is an absurd story, something to laugh at. Indeed, the woman who had forwarded the video is Sunni and finds it hilarious: How can one believe that putting a stone into one’s mouth would enable that person to speak any language?  Mirza, however, a devout Shiʿi, explains to her over WhatsApp that this is what God can do.Why not believe that? “Take the phone in your hand,” he argues by way of analogy. “This phone can speak a thousand languages. If a phone can do that, made by man, would you not believe that God can make people speak any language?” According to Mirza, his Sunni acquaintance who sent this WhatsApp video had accepted his point; she replied that she had not thought of the case that way.

This is everyday sectarianism, in that it is a conversation in everyday life and a part of the everyday social world of, apparently, both Shiʿa and Sunni Muslims in Kuwait, who argue with and against one another and who hold and explain (mis)conceptions about one another. The story also shows how religious imaginaries and not just social and political identity form an important part of everyday sectarian exchanges. Such sectarian imaginations and accusations have gained increasing significance in recent years, but, as I will further discuss towards the end of this article, they are not new.

In Bahrain, not least following the ill-fated uprising in 2011, experiences of sectarianism are also often about social and political discrimination of Shiʿa Muslims. In 2015, while I was conversing on the phone with a friend from Bahrain, he recounted:

My niece was about to go to Canada but she did not get her scholarship. We think it was because of sectarianism.

One only can speculate whether ‘sectarianism’ was really the reason that prevented my friend’s niece from obtaining a scholarship. He believed, nonetheless, that an alleged state-led discrimination against the Shiʿa community was responsible for the result – that it was an instance of sectarianism. However, sectarian relations and identities are  not only about negative experiences or the subject of grim conversations. They are also the subject of humor and jokes in one’s own sectarian communities.

During the same phone conversation, my interlocutor recounted such a joke circulating in the matam, the community hall for Shiʿa Muslims, a place I had visited many times during my earlier fieldwork there in the years just before the 2011 uprising. In this story,a Daʿesh suicide bomber goes to Paradise, where, in line with their sympathizers’ fantasies , he sits to lunch with the Prophet Muhammad. After lunch, the Prophet says:

We’ve had lunch, now you should meet my deputy, Imam ʿAli.

This is the punchline, which makes the group of matam friends burst out laughing. To meet Imam ʿAli would be a nightmare for the Daʿesh fighters and the Imam – the first leader of the Shiʿi community after the Prophet and famed as a great warrior – would surely defeat them.

Such stories show how people reiterate sectarianism in their everyday life, as an experience and a social phenomenon that appears in a variety of guises in the contemporary Arab states of the Gulf.

Modalities of Sectarianism

Other scholars recognize that there are multiple modalities of sectarianism, and that the instrumental and strategic employment of sectarianism by particular entrepreneurs is only one of them. Raymond Hinnebusch, drawing on Fanar Haddad’s work, identifies what he calls everyday or banal sectarianism, where banal entails a display of sectarian symbols and affiliations without recognizing them as such. In my view, however, everyday sectarianism may be banal, passive or assertive (which are the three categories used by Haddad); it can simultaneously use symbols and sectarian credentials unconsciously (banal), with caution (passive) or openly (assertive).

In her recent book on Lebanon, Joanne Randa Nucho also focuses on ‘everyday sectarianism.’ Nucho analyses how state discourses, the Lebanese confessional system, sectarian party politics, and everyday experiences interact and inform one another. As she puts it,  sectarianism is a ‘dynamic identity.’ Nucho, therefore, discusses how sectarianism has developed as a social category over time and during the history of modern Lebanon. Building on the background above, and in the same vein as Nucho,  I will present below how sectarianism has developed in the Gulf region, and how that impacts everyday life and social experiences in contemporary Bahrain and Kuwait.

The development of a ‘sectarian Gulf’

While its role has increased prominently since the revolts of 2011, sectarianism has a long history in the Gulf region. At least since Sunni tribal groups settled along the coast of eastern Arabia in the eighteenth century – and quickly gained political power over their separate areas (e.g., Al Sabah in Kuwait, Al Khalifa in Bahrain) – Sunni and Shiʿa groups have lived together and have competed for power, legitimacy and influence. Political conflicts and tensions often have arisen over issues other than sectarianism, but sectarian divisions and alliances always played a role in shaping politics of the region.

Historical events around 1920 represent a major turning point to understand the structures and imaginaries of the present. In 1920, bedouin tribes from the Arab mainland that were affiliated with the Ikhwan movement – originated in what would later become Saudi Arabia and not to be confused with the Ikhwan al-Muslimin of Egypt – that, attacked Kuwait. Kuwait defended itself at the walls of old Kuwait City and in a famous battle at Jahra, an oasis town northwest of Kuwait City. It is today an important discussion in Kuwait whether and to what extent the Shiʿi Kuwaitis in 1920 – a group living side by side with their Sunni peers within the walls of Kuwait City and comprising a big part of Kuwait’s economy and the alliances of the ruling family – took part in the defense of Kuwait.[1] This is important not merely for historical accuracy but also has implications for everyday Kuwaitis today. This is because the year 1920 officially has become a significant hallmark of being a true Kuwaiti; those families who can trace their descent in Kuwait to this year can gain full Kuwaiti citizenship, while those coming later cannot. 

Both Bahrain and Kuwait experienced calls for political reforms through the twentieth century which led to partly elected parliaments in both countries – for Kuwait in 1963 and for Bahrain in 1973. In both cases sectarianism was not the primary political identifier, but still an important part of the constituencies of the elected representatives.

In Bahrain, conflicts before 1920 seem to have been based more on inter-tribal Sunni rivalries over political and economic influence on trade, especiallypearling. As Omar AlShehabi recently has demonstrated in an article on the ‘ethnosectarian gaze’ of the British imperial agents in the Gulf, the colonial British authorities introduced a discourse based on identification of individuals as belonging to particular sects from the early twentieth century onward, and which became particularly important in political and judicial reforms since the 1920s.

This strategy intended to protect the interests of various parts of society, on the one hand while on the other hand, it institutionalized sectarianism as a main dividing line among Bahrainis. The British promoted this as a process of modernization of Bahrain during the long reign of Charles Belgrave as personal advisor to Bahrain’s shaykhs. These structural, historical developments greatly impacted how sectarian divides have become an everyday experience through the twentieth century and up to the present day. Likewise, they have generated a platform for sectarian politics, which also has impacted the experience of sectarianism in everyday life.

Both parliaments were occasionally dissolved by the regimes. In Bahrain, the parliament only survived for two years before being dissolved, and only reopened as a result of a political reform program in 2002. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the divisions in parliament became increasingly sectarian. The Shiʿa composed the opposition, a minority opposed the Sunni loyalists of the regime, arguing consistently that its minority status was due to regime gerrymandering of the elections.

2011 Protests and Sectarian Framing

Sectarianism, therefore, dominated in the Gulf region at the outset of 2011. The protesters, however, employed an alternative narrative that also had been a current within the opposition for decades: The uprising was about political reform and anti-authoritarianism. Thus, the protestors underlined, the revolt came from people against the regime, rather than emanating from a sectarian rivalry. This was the case in both Bahrain and Kuwait. While Bahrain experienced a severe crisis that could have witnessed a regime change, the demonstrations in Kuwait did not reach the same level. In Bahrain, however, the regime  skillfully framed the uprising through a sectarian narrative, posing the Shiʿa as an Iran-supported community and as a danger not only to all Sunnis in the country, but also to the power structures and stability of the whole Gulf region. This strategy succeeded in generating the the external moral and military support the regime sought. The revolt in Bahrain prompted its Arab neighbors (chiefly Saudi Arabia), interested in protecting the security of authoritarian regimes and oil interests,  to intervene in favor of the regime and prevent the Gulf region from ‘becoming unstable.’ The wider international community participated in this conservative stance. Together with the increasing sectarianization of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the events only fueled sectarian tensions in the country and the region, turning sectarianism into an unavoidable everyday experience.

Numerous academic studies, consequently, have analyzed the sectarian dimensions of the 2011 uprisings in the Gulf region.[2] Matthiesen aptly named this a ‘Sectarian Gulf’, and it is in this context that he, as noted above, points out how ‘entrepreneurs,’ elite members of particular groups from the regime or the opposition, often play the sectarian card to gain support and legitimacy. In both Bahrain and Kuwait, these entrepreneurs may be found in the ruling families and their entourages, as well as among the opposition. It is important to note, however, that in Bahrain, particularly, entrepreneurs from the opposition have sought to avoid assigning a sectarian narrative to the 2011 events and demands for political reform. While this analytical lens unveils the relevance of sectarianism vis-à-vis these agents of power, it also misses important aspects of sectarianism and its structures that operate from below. It is on this premise that I have in this article suggested to focus more on sectarian non-entrepreneurs, showing how people willingly or unwillingly sustain, experience, and (re)produce sectarian imaginaries in their everyday lives, even while critiquing its predicament.

[1] Mohammed Ibrahim al-Habib, Al-Shiʿa fi Marakat al-Jahra [The Shiʿa at the battle of Jahra] (Kuwait: Dhat al-Salasil, 2014).

[2] Frederic M. Wehrey , Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014); Lawrence G. Potter (ed.),  Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf (London: Hurst & Company, 2013); Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring that Wasn’t (Stanford: Stanford Briefs, 2013)); and Toby Matthiesen,  The Other Saudis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

*Top image: A pillar in the Imam Sadeq mosque in old Kuwait City, renovated after the 2015 attack. The pillar still has the marks of the bomb attack, preserved to commemorate the attack and its victims. In this way, worshippers in the mosque are also reminded of the threat to the Shi’a community in Kuwait. Photo: Anonymous interlocutor in Kuwait.