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July 28, 2014

United States Highlights Bahrain Sectarianism in New Religious Freedom Report

This is a cross post from The Huffington Post.

Today's State Department report on international religious freedom for 2013 is unlikely to heal the increasing rift between the U.S. Government and Bahrain.

In recent weeks tension has increased as the Bahrain regime expelled State Department Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski after he met with two prominent Shia politicians. Today's report starkly presents the core of some of the problems in Bahrain's continued unrest.

During 2013, "The Sunni citizen population enjoyed favored status," it says simply, and that "Although prevailing evidence suggests Shia constitute the majority of citizens, Sunnis dominate political life. Of the 40 members of the Shura Council who are appointed by the king, only 18 are Shia. Six of the 29 cabinet ministers are Shia...".

Today's report notes that some protests in predominantly Shia neighborhoods turned violent during the year, that three policemen were killed, and that the protests which "stemmed in large part from the perception among many in the Shia community of unequal treatment by government under the law and in other areas."

It noted too a heightened sectarianism in public speech and that "Public officials frequently alleged Shia opposition members were supporters of terrorism. Parliamentarian Jassim Al-Saeedi gave a speech in July referring to the Shia opposition as 'Iranians' and 'traitors.' During an extraordinary session of the National Assembly in July, Parliamentarian Adel Al Maawdah described the Shia opposition as 'dogs,' and others described them as 'terrorists.'

With a violent sectarianism tearing apart much of the region not far to the north of Bahrain, this rhetoric is particularly dangerous, and the United States should urge its ally to confront and not inflame such sentiments. It could start with public media, where, as the report notes, the government-run TV station only broadcasts Friday sermons from Sunni and not Shia mosques.

The United States could have more direct influence in the security services, which are overwhelmingly Sunni. The U.S. government underwrites Bahrain Defence Force, providing it with over 90 percent of its equipment. The United States should use that relationship to press for balance in the security services. The report notes "Sunni citizens often received preference for employment in sensitive government positions, in the managerial ranks of the civil service, and in the military. Shia continued to assert they were unable to obtain government positions, especially in the security services, because of their religious affiliation. Only a few Shia citizens held significant posts in the defense and internal security forces."

The United States could also push for numbers of Shias in the military to be published and urge the Bahrain security forces to set targets and benchmarks for a better representation.

The United States is right to highlight these disparities and to recognize that this general sense of unfairness in Bahrain - not just experienced by Shias - is what is fueling the unrest and continuing protests against the government. There is much cosmetic talk from Bahrain government officials about "reconciliation" but until some of these core questions are addressed on religious freedom and discrimination there is unlikely to be a durable solution to Bahrain's conflicted society.