Bahraini government forces backed by Saudi Arabian troops are destroying mosques and places of worship of the Shia majority in the island kingdom in a move likely to exacerbate religious hatred across the Muslim world.
“So far they have destroyed seven Shia mosques and about 50 religious meeting houses,” said Ali al-Aswad, an MP in the Bahraini parliament.
He said Saudi soldiers, part of the 1,000-strong contingent that entered Bahrain last month, had been seen by witnesses helping demolish Shia mosques and shrines in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
Mohammed Sadiq, of the Justice for Bahrain organization, said the most famous of the Shia shrines destroyed was that of a revered Bahraini Shia spiritual leader, Sheikh Abdul Amir al-Jamri, who died in 2006. A photograph taken by activists shows the golden dome of the shrine lying on the ground and later being taken away on the back of a lorry. On the walls of Shia mosques that have been desecrated, graffiti has been scrawled praising the Sunni King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and insulting the Shia.
The attack on Shia places of worship has provoked a furious reaction among the 250 million Shia community, particularly in Iran and Iraq, where Shia are in a majority, and in Lebanon where they are the largest single community.
The Shia were already angry at the ferocious repression by Bahraini security forces of the pro-democracy movement, which had sought to be non-sectarian. After the monarchy had rejected meaningful reform, the wholly Sunni army and security forces started to crush the largely Shia protests on 15 and 16 March.
The harshness of the government repression is provoking allegations of hypocrisy against Washington, London and Paris. Their mild response to human rights abuses and the Saudi Arabian armed intervention in Bahrain is in stark contrast to their vocal concern for civilians in Libya.
The US and Britain have avoided doing anything that would destabilize Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf, to which they are allied. They are worried about Iran taking advantage of the plight of fellow Shia, although there is no evidence that Iran has any role in fomenting protests despite Bahraini government claims to the contrary. The US has a lot to lose because its Fifth Fleet, responsible for the Gulf and the north of the Indian Ocean, is based in Bahrain.
Sunni-Shia hostility in the Muslim world is likely to deepen because of the demolition of Shia holy places in Bahrain. Shia leaders recall that it was the blowing up of the revered Shia shrine of al-Askari in Samarra, Iraq, by al-Qa’ida in 2006 that provoked a sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia in which tens of thousands died. They see fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine, upheld by the state in Saudi Arabia, as being behind the latest sectarian assault and attempt to keep the Shia as second-class citizens. Mr Sadiq believes Saudi troops are behind the attacks on mosques and shrines. “What is happening comes from the ideology of Wahhabism which is against shrines,” he said. To the Wahhabi, the Shia are as heretical as Christians. Mr Aswad said soldiers in Saudi uniforms had been seen attending the destruction of Shia religious sites.
Yousif al-Khoei, who heads a Shia charitable foundation, said he could “confirm that reports of desecration of Shia graves, shrines and mosques and hussainiyas [religious meeting houses] in Bahrain are genuine and we are concerned that Saudi troops, who believe that shrines are un-Islamic and are trying to enforce that Wahhabi doctrine on the Shia of Bahrain, will undoubtedly result in heightened sectarian tensions.”
Some 499 people in Bahrain are known to have been detained during the current unrest and many are believed to have been tortured. Four who died in detention this month showed signs of severe abuse and appeared to have been beaten to death.
In the case of Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer, who had turned himself in to the security forces after threats to detain his family if he did not do so, photographs showed signs of whipping and beating. The Bahraini human rights activist who photographed the body was later detained and accused of faking the picture, but the same injuries were witnessed by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
There are continuing arbitrary arrests of people who took part in the pro-democracy protests that began on 14 February. Even waving a Bahraini flag is considered an offence, and a doctor who was shown on television shedding tears over the body of a dead protester was detained.
The aim of government repression is evidently to terrorize the Shia and permanently crush the protest movement. Doctors who treated injured demonstrators have been arrested and on April 15 the authorities detained a lawyer, Mohammed al-Tajer, who defended protesters in court. Human Rights Watch says the families of many of those detained have no word on what has happened to them. The authorities do not seem concerned about providing plausible accounts of how detainees died. In the case of Mr Saqer, who was detained on 3 April and whose body was released six days later, the government said he had “created chaos” in the detention centre and had died while the disturbance was being quelled.
Human Rights Watch, which saw his body during the ritual before he was buried in his home village of Sehla on 10 April, said “his body showed signs of severe physical abuse. The left side of his face showed a large patch of bluish skin with a reddish-purple area near his left temple and a two-inch cut to the left of his eye. Lash marks crisscrossed his back, some reaching to his front right side. Blue bruises covered much of the back of his calves, thighs, and buttocks, as well as his right elbow and hip. The tops of his feet were blackened, and lacerations marked his ankles and wrists.”
The fighting in Libya and unrest elsewhere in the Arab world has drawn attention away from Bahrain, and the authorities have also arrested pro-democracy journalists and prevented several foreign journalists entering the country.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq