Bahrain’s Unending Repression: Enough Already!

by Emile Nakhleh

The al-Khalifa ruling regime’s decision to strip Sheikh Isa Qasim of his Bahraini citizenship on a trumped-up and patently false charge is yet another example of the ruling family’s deepening repression. This respected Shia cleric has always called for non-violent resistance and has abhorred the confrontational tactics that some hotheaded protesters have employed in the past. It is time for the United States, Britain, and the international community to demand that the Bahraini government halt these draconian and arbitrary measures.

The ludicrous “justification” that the al-Khalifa run Ministry of Interior gave for taking away Sheikh Isa Qasim’s citizenship was that he used his position to communicate with “hostile foreign organizations and parties” and “to serve foreign interests.” He was also accused of creating an “extremist sectarian environment” and of “violating the constitution.” The Ministry of Interior did not explain the charges or explain how the accused violated the constitution. The statement was written under the cynical banner “Ramadan Mubarak” or “Blessed Ramadan.”

Since the Bahraini uprising in February 2011, the Sunni regime has promoted sectarianism in order to delegitimize the pro-reform movement. The regime has been in sync with the Saudi ruling family to promote the intolerant, backward-looking Wahhabi Salafi ideology, which emanated principally from Saudi Arabia, to demonize Shia Muslims, whether in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates. Sheikh Isa Qasim is the latest victim of this regime-driven “extremist sectarianism.”

Shia Support of Moderation

Reading the charges in the government’s citizenship revocation statement is baffling to those who have followed Sheikh Isa Qasim’s peaceful activism on behalf of human rights, democracy, and inclusion. He has always promoted reconciliation between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority under the al-Khalifa rule. He has consistently called for a return to the constitution, which was promulgated by King Hamad’s father and the former ruler of Bahrain in 1973.

This revocation of the citizenship was not done in a vacuum. Nor was it an isolated incident. This illegal action followed the sentencing of Sheikh Ali Salman to nine years in prison, the suspension of al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, and the re-arrest of the Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. What is tragically ironic about the decision is that the Shia have lived in the Bahraini archipelago as farmers and pearl divers centuries before the al-Khalifa tribe invaded the island from the mainland in the latter part of the 18th century. Sheikh Isa Qasim and other Shia have a more legitimate right to Bahraini citizenship than the al-Khalifa Sunni invaders.

Yet, Sheikh Isa Qasim and his colleagues in al-Wefaq have consistently stated publically that they would be willing to work with the ruling family so long as the rights of the majority to free speech, assembly, and employment opportunity are guaranteed under the rule of law. I heard these statements directly from the Shia members of parliament during the constitutional debates in the Constituent Assembly and National Assembly over 40 years ago.

Regime Sense of Empowerment

In the past five years and especially after Saudi troops entered the country, Riyadh has emboldened the Bahraini regime in its autocratic and illegal actions against the Shia majority, The intriguing question is how much support would the Bahraini regime expect and get from the rising leader of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman, now that he is busy charting a new future for his country.

Washington and London have also arguably strengthened the Bahraini regime by tolerating its repressive measures against Bahrainis and accepting the regime’s shallow claims that it was committed to fighting both terrorism and political reform. In reality, both claims are bogus.

The Bahraini government has supported radical Sunni groups in Syria, and several radical Bahraini Sunni “jihadists” fought and were killed in Syria. The regime has rejected all demands for political reform and has yet to implement the key recommendations from the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report. A feverish, slick, and well-financed public relations campaign to show the Bahraini government in a favorable light has been on prominent display in both London and Washington.

The al-Khalifa regime has spread its message in London and Washington through business people, chambers of commerce, retired diplomats and military officers, pliant journalists and newspapers and magazines, and academics who are welcomed by the regime and encouraged to interview regime supporters and propagandists in Bahrain. Of course, some policymakers honestly believe that supporting the Bahraini regime serves the economic and security interests of the United States and Britain. As recent history has shown, however, cozying up to autocrats might serve American and British interests in the short term but has dubious value in the long run.

Potential Threats

The citizenship revocation and possible deportation of Sheikh Isa from Bahrain will leave many of his followers disheartened and angry. Many of them have already given up on the utility of reconciliation with the regime and instead are calling for dismantling the al-Khalifa family rule. Many Shia, and even some pro-reform Sunnis, already blame the United States and England for the repressive conditions in Bahrain. They point to the British and US origin of the weapons used by the regime against its people as evidence of British and American complicity in the regime’s repressive measures.

If this situation continues, some angry youth may well begin to target American and British facilities and personnel in Bahrain. Washington and London should take this threat seriously even though the regime seems to have quashed the dissent movement in the country. Internationally known opposition figures have fled the country, but many angry Shia youth remain in the country. Under the al-Khalifa rule, Bahrain is no longer a tolerant, open, and inclusive society.

Before independence, senior British officials, including Charles Belgrave and Ian Henderson, served as senior and powerful advisors to the ruling family and ran the country’s internal security service and police. Now, Britain is contributing to the securitization of the regime and the deepening chasm between the rulers and the indigenous society.

Bahrainis—Sunnis and Shia—have always wanted to live in peace and dignity, but also in freedom. It’s a shame that the ruling family has been unable to share power and enhance its legitimacy in the eyes of its own people. The al-Khalifa rulers have yet to learn the lesson that repression is never the answer to civic peace and social harmony. Depriving Sheikh Isa Qasim of his rightful citizenship is another sign that Bahrain is heading toward disaster. If we are interested in protecting our facilities and personnel in Bahrain, we should have the moral courage to tell al-Khalifa, “Enough already!”

Photo: Sheikh Isa Qasim

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Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. The shame of Bahrain – and the UK – is in what Emile Nakhleh describes as something that is happening now…. “Britain is contributing to the securitization of the regime and the deepening chasm between the rulers and the indigenous society.” sadly, the reality is it is something that has been going on for much longer. It surprises me that there is mention of Ian Henderson in particular without any reference to his legacy i.e. the practices he enacted when for decades he was in charge of Bahrain security and police. Practices such as – torture, use of fabricated and false evidence, turning people into informants, dismissal from work, expulsions and the stripping of citizenships, etc.. find their way back to him and some he had honed also when he was in Kenya. Look at what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have to say on him….and you wonder why Bahrain is struggling to find peaceful resolution to the issues at hand?

  2. Iran or rather the Shah was forced by UK to give up Bahrain’s ownership in a trade for the three strategic islands in the Persian Gulf many years ago! The time has come for Iran to reclaim Bahrain as its own territory and tell SA to go F**k itself!

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