Will Bahrain’s sectarian divide impact Pakistan?

Published: February 22, 2011

People circling through Pearl square clapped, whistled and wept.

Mubarak’s exit was the start of the revolution, not the end.

Egyptian protestors gathered after Friday prayers last week, to remind the military that it is them (the people) who had brought down the Mubarak regime. Even though they may have vacated Tahrir Square, the message was that they would not settle for anything less than their original demands.

Commentators have attempted to establish whether similar conditions exist in Pakistan for a revolution, drawing parallels and identifying differences.

But if comparisons must be drawn then the the ongoing protests in Bahrain are perhaps of greater relevance for Pakistan than events in Egypt.

What Bahrain learned from Egypt

The Egyptian and Tunisian revolution has lifted the most powerful tool that authoritarian regimes employ to pacify citizens – fear. With people no longer afraid, other capitals in the region like Manama are witnessing protests.

Inspired by events in Cairo, the protestors congregated at Pearl Square. Similar to the Cairo protests, the people emphasised peaceful dissent.

The protestors are demanding greater political representation, an end to state-sanctioned discrimination against the Shia majority and the removal of the Bahraini Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman alKhalifa.

Why Bahrain is important for Pakistan

What makes events in Bahrain relevant to Pakistan is the sectarian divide in the country.

The Sunni minority in Bahrain has monopolised power while the Shia majority is systematically marginalised from public influence and control. With Saudi Arabia’s support, the Shia population has been systematically oppressed, as the fear of Iranian influence in Bahrain is considered a strategic liability.

Bahraini security forces recruit from across the region. Pakistanis, particularly from Balochistan along the Makran coast, are favoured recruits.

These Pakistanis are viewed as instruments of state oppression by the protestors. If the Bahraini regime were to fall, Pakistan as a willing supplier, nay ‘facilitator’ of Bahraini recruitment will not be viewed favourably by a new set of leaders.

Atrocities against protestors

As the protestors are considered to be predominately Shia, it was with brutal efficiency that at 3:15 in the morning, the police and national guard raided the protestors’ camp as they slept.

Live rounds and tear gas canisters were employed to clear the square, while some witnesses have claimed that young protestors were handcuffed and executed at point blank range. Ambulances were obstructed and doctors beaten for treating injured protestors.

Saudi Arabia supports its ally

Given the sectarian nature of the revolt, Saudi Arabia is aggressively supporting the King of Bahrain. It has placed the Saudi army on standby to cross the causeway into Bahrain to intervene if required.

The Shia community in Eastern Saudi Arabia, which considers the Bahraini protesters their brethren, may protest as well. A brutal suppression of protestors, if given a sectarian colour will not only intensify Saudi overt and covert support for anti-Shia organisations, but may also invite Iranian backing for the protests.

Repercussions for Pakistan

Pakistan itself is no stranger to sectarian violence, which has intensified in recent years. If the Bahraini regime falls as the Saudis and American’s fear, it would be seen as and portrayed by Iran as a victory of her interests. This would push the Saudis to intensify support for organisations that share it’s goals of containing Iran.

Such support for organisations in Pakistan, could lead to sectarian attacks and reprisals.

The Egyptian and Tunisian revolt are celebrated for their emphasis on inclusivity of a range of social, economic and religious groups. The Bahraini protests are divisive and sectarian. It may inflame the already fragile relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran while Pakistan is unlikely to be left unscathed.


Syed Nadir El Edroos

Nadir teaches Economics at Bellerbys College, London and is interested in Pakistani politics and current affairs. He tweets @needroos (twitter.com/needroos)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • rehan

    No,Bahrain’s divide will not impact Pakistan.It would be incorrect to say that sectarian violence/bias in Pakistan(Shia-Sunni),has an effect on the share the Shia minority gets in all spheres of life in the land of the pure.It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the numerous high slot posts which are occupied in various fields in this country by the Shia community vis a vis their ratio in the total population.I wouldn’t deny that they don’t deserve it,so that makes it clear then that the ‘hysteria’of the community being ‘persecuted’is just being overdone.If you will not agree,then I assume that they reached those posts with the ‘help’of their brethren.I have witnessed this also happening many a times,no big deal.A Sunni minority in a Shia dominated country would probably do the same.
    Every Ashura procession is a nightmare for law enforcing agencies,but never has it been stopped ever.This is because the government cares for the sentiments of the Shias.Or would someone say,”How dare they stop it!Let them try and they will face the music”.Well if the government bows down to this “undeclared” threat,then the Shia community certainly has its POWER..so Pakistan will never be Bahrain.My point is that the Shia minority in Pakistan is STRONG(if Saudis are labelled as ‘helpers’ in the case of Bahrain,give that label to Iran in our case)..they have people in the right places in the corridors of power,please don’t deny that.And maybe that is good;for preventing a Bahrain like situation.Long live Islam,Long Live Pakistan,Long live Nasirel Edroos;)Recommend

  • SA

    Another potential nail in our coffin!Recommend

  • muhammad saad

    We already are a nation divided.Iran & saudi arabia have been fighting their proxy war on our soil for decades.They’ve funded madrassas & religious parties in pakistan who carry out their dirty work by spreading religious hatred in pakistan.

    All these madrassas & the front men heading these “mazhabi jamatain” need to be investigated as their loyalties don’t lie with pakistan but with iran & saudia .

    The people of these religious parties are just the front men for the brutal & barbaric theocratic regimes in those two countries.Recommend

  • Deen Sheikh

    Look whose back, finally an article without open government or military of Pakistan bashing.Recommend

  • aftab afridi

    i have friends working in bahrain & they tell that most of the police force using brutal tactics are balochs from pakistan & a few jordanian people too.

    As if blowing up & destroying govt. infrastructure in pakistan was not enough now we have to use violence against the bahrainis also.Recommend

  • http://theboulevards.posterous.com Le Mystique

    Right… and?Recommend

  • Parvez

    On reading the article I got the impression that the author was bending over backwards to establish a link between Pakistan and the Bahrain events. The Shia Sunni syndrome is not news for us. Saudi Arabia and Iran have for a long time been sparring on our soil.
    What we have to fear is our own incompetence.Recommend

  • http://www.tanzeel.wordpress.com Tanzeel

    Revolution or not revolution, Bahrain being a tiny country can never affect dynamics of region. I don’t foresee any regime change in Bahrain as long as Saudi Arabia is stable.Recommend

  • Proud Shia

    As everywhere Shias are being targeted by Sunnis, whether it is in Baharain or Pakistan it makes no difference.Recommend

  • http://www.tanzeel.wordpress.com Tanzeel

    @Proud Shia:
    Not to forget Shia dominated Iran where Sunnis face discrimination and persecution.Recommend

  • Proud Shia

    Well you are right, Shias are majorities and Sunnis are minorities in Iran. Infact more than 99.8% of the population are Shias. But the number of Sunnis who die under Shia rule is very very small as there are not many Sunnis in Iran at the first place. But in Bahrain Shias though being a majority are being willfully persecuted by the Sunni minorities who are incidental rulers.
    Countries like Iraq(shia majority), Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, Libya have been relentlessly targeting Shias for ages now. A country like Pakistan which has more than 10% of Shia population are being targeted relentlessly by the Taliban for the last 15 years. Of late the attacks have grown exponentially here in Pakistan. There is no denying this fact.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    Nadir, thanks for stirring the sectarian stuff online. Bravo. Pakistan has no issues until pseudo intellectuals create mess. its call propaganda not revolution.Recommend

  • Saad Durrani

    @Proud Shia:

    When it came to the whole Muharram procession, all the passing areas were guarded. You guys walk your procession and we (the Sunni majority) respect your presence and the diversity that your religion brings. Taleban attacked your procession and our men died too. How come the friendly Sunnis never get appreciated? We do not particularly enjoy if anything happens to you.

    I studied all my school in Shia-administrated schools. I have very good Shia friends and I would love to defend their right to everything in Pakistan

    @Syed Nadir El Edroos:
    Why stir things when its lull? Recommend

  • Sara

    @ Nadir
    A good piece of work.

    @ Proud Shia

    My dear fellow, can u plz separate the sunni blood and shia blood if its shed on road?

    can u tell the race of a dead man whether he is sunni or shia?

    I think its the most important that he is a muslim.

    There are people who abuse Deobandis, Barelvis, Shia’s and Sunnis, i dont know what ore.

    Who are we to determine all his?


    and we cant determine this standard.so Dont increase haterred, discriminating feeling. there is already enough to worry about.

    If one cant increase peace, plz at least dont increase hate. Recommend

  • Atif

    @Nadir: wow i am really impressed by your creativity, I mean what a vision- Bahrain falls, iran plays, saudis react, pakistanis start war on shias. Comon dude! and amazing how you use the pakistani workers in Bahrain. mind blowing, mind blowing. Recommend

  • Atif

    @proud shia: from what i know talebans have been targetting sunnis aswell, infact the number of attacks on sunni mosques is far greater than shia specific attacks. other victims have been police, govt and army (composed of sunnis, shias and others). You guys are not satisfied with the present mess and want to bring bahrains mess here forcefully.

    Sunnis don’t have a problem with Shia’sRecommend

  • Taimur Malik

    @Proud Shia:

    You have your numbers wrong buddy. Iran has a good 5-10% Sunni populace in its Balochistan (Sistan) province and the Sunnis have been persecuted and kept out of any official capacity. Groups like Jundollah are a product of this divide unfortunately. There is not a single Sunni mosque in Tehran!Recommend

  • Shah


    a case of sour grapes and blaming others for ones own shortcomings if i have ever seen one.

  • Saad Durrani

    WOW! My last comment was edited. I am glad they did it. They made me look better. Thanks ET.

    Good points.

    @Taimur Malik:
    It does not help to count where is what. What matters is that in Pakistan, the sectarian divide is far less than it is ‘hyped up’.Recommend

  • Kung

    @Proud Shia:
    Taliban don’t represant Pakistan.Pakistan is the fifth most populas country in world while taliban are 50000 at most if we assume whole Mehsud tribe is with TTP.If there was sectarian divide in Pakistan,than some of our most popular leaders would not have been shias(Qaid e Azam,Allama Iqbal,Iskandar Mirza,Ayub Khan,Yahya Khan,Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto,Benazir Bhutto,Pervaiz Musharraf,Asif Ali Zardarietc etc)Our enemies try to export secatarin voilence to Pakistan but always fail.Recommend

  • IZ

    A very far-fetched thesis.
    Firstly you should keep in mind that the Bahrani protestors are calling for political reform and not the ouster of the monarchy. Its understood that toppling the Bahrani monarchy will see a Saudi military intervention.
    Secondly to characterize the protestors as Shia only is also incorrect as there are some sunni who have joined them in calling for reforms.
    Thirdly the whole sunni-shia angle has been played up by the Bahrani monarchy and the Saudis in order to relieve them from American pressure. Nothing gets the Americans all flustered as the idea of Iran growing in power.
    Fourthly its worth noting that the Wikileaks cables have revealed that the US found no evidence of any links between pro-reform Shia groups and Iran or Hezboullah:
    Fifthly while it is true that extremists groups in Pakistan whose funding has been traced to the gulf have been carrying out attacks on Shias regularly its worth noting that their actions do not reflect a strong of popular antagonism against Shias. The very fact that most of their funding comes from abroad shows that domestic support for them in Pakistan is not enough for them to prosper.
    Sixthly its also not clear that they have the institutional capacity to step up attacks on Shias. Yes, attacks can and will continue until law enforcement agencies manage to track and shut them down but why would one would assume that the violence will increase dramatically? Possibly if the war in Afghanistan winds up then Pakistani militants fighting there may well return to Pakistan and step up attacks, but that is a different line of reasoning.Recommend

  • Ben

    The popular uprising in the Middle East and North Africa, right in the backyard of Iran, was supposed to have entered Iran by this time. Barring a few protest demonstrations dealt with iron hand by the Iranian government, there is no visible threat to the government of the Islamic Republic. And Iran is happy over the developments; it admired the protestors of Egypt and called it a victory of Islamic forces. These developments gave Iran an historic opportunity of entering its naval fleet through Suez first time since 1979. With the US watching passively, the balance of influence and power in the Middle East is tilting in favor of Iran. It seems that regime change in Iran will remain another American fantasy for a long time to come. Recommend

  • abdulaziz khattak

    This is a totally subjective article.
    I being born and brought up here, but originally from Pakistan, can testify that what the writer has said has no foundation whatsoever.

    The Shias have all the govt jobs they want. Their only complain was not being able to get into the defence orgs. To let the readers here know, there is none other than Shias in the ministries of health, labour, works, electricity, Bapco, Batelco, etc. These are major govt bodies.

    And I don’t buy their complaint of being discriminated against, especially in the last 10 years when their youth went abroad for studies on heavy govt scholarships.

    You look around in private institutions, right from the front desk to the managerial level, you will find them. Yes, I think any citizen, irrespective, of his sect should get a job if he is qualified for it (I repeat if he is qualified for it). But you must not rule out a foreign hand in these unrests. And you know who I am referring to.

    For healthcare, the govt has provided them with hospitals that offer free healthcare. Even private hospitals in third-world countries don’t offer such good services as the govt hospitals here. And then they had representation in parliament. There were really on the path of achieving their demands, until Satan poked them. And they took a U-turn altogether.

    There is definitely a foreign involvement here.Recommend

  • Maria

    I think that Arab culture is less democratic than Pakistani culture. Arabs prefer to be ruled by dictators and autocrats whereas Pakistani people are learning the value of democracy. I don’t think we would allow a dictator or autocratic Kings for 40 odd years like these Arab states.Recommend

  • Sher Khan

    The best thing for Pakistan is to get the freedom from Saudi and American influence. Just take the recent example of Raymond Devis where Saudi-American criminal nexus was at work. Take your charge and make decisisons independently. There has never been such a divide until we let Saudi and American making decisions on our behalf. Shia-Sunni and other muslims and non muslims are all citizens of Pakistan and we should act like a great nation.Recommend