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Can the divide between Bahrain’s Sunnis and Shiites be bridged?

for For the first time since childhood, Mariam recently returned to her shrine on Nabi Saleh, a small island near Bahrain’s capital, Manama. She reverently holds a green curtain over the grave of the 14th-century saint who gave the island its name. She stopped near a spring where her family used to roast a sacrificial goat. She remembers tasting sweet dates from the orchard and watching the waves lap against the island she once swam. Lost too much. The sea is dirty with sewage. Springs are dry caves. A parking lot replaced most of the orchard. Like her, Sunni families gave up visiting holy places decades ago. “Why did we stop?” she asked the shrine’s keeper, a Shia. “We were in this together. What a time it was.”

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Bahrain has been on a fault line along the Sunni-Shiite divide since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that rocked Iran and threatened the throne of Sunni Arab monarchs in the Gulf region. It is the only country in the six-nation GCC where the indigenous majority is Shiite; most of the other five are staunchly Sunni. It is awkwardly sandwiched between two ideological enemies, Iran and Saudi Arabia. After the ayatollahs took over Iran, the two sects in Bahrain turned to those big brothers for help, sometimes accusing each other of infidelity. Small-minded Sunni clerics condemn holy sites, such as that of Nabi Saleh, as an affront to monotheism.

However, sectarian sentiment may be easing. Saudi Arabia has clamped down on its more extreme Islamists and embarked on a more secular effort. The United Arab Emirates, another big patron of Bahrain, has banned Sunni Islamist parties and encouraged other Gulf governments to follow suit. Sunni Islamist parties have performed poorly in Bahrain’s recent elections, failing to elect members of parliament who advise the all-powerful monarch, Hamad al-Khalifa. Bahrain’s Sunni clergy may also be moving away from sectarianism.

Young Shiites may want their own clerics to reciprocate. Bahrain is hearing the cries of protesters seeking to overthrow Iran’s Shia theocracy. Some Bahraini Shiites are annoyed by their theologians’ support for the Iranian ayatollahs. “It’s hypocritical,” said one Shia activist. “They have human rights slogans here, but they’re very conservative and don’t want better opportunities for women.” As a result, Bahrain’s Shia religious institutions are also under pressure to become more liberal and less restrictive than their Iranian counterparts.

Social harmony between Shiites and Sunnis in Bahrain would be further strengthened if the ruling family granted equal political rights to the Shia majority. The main Shiite party, the National Unity Party, was outlawed, so recent elections were held without its participation. In addition, the ruling family bestows most senior military and security posts on Sunnis. Radio and television are broadcast in Sunni dialects. The Sunni version of Islam is taught in schools. The names of Shia villages are often wiped from road signs; medieval Shia mosques are not marked on maps.

Maryam wants Sunnis and Shiites to worship together at the island’s holy places. That might not be to the Khalifa family’s taste. The people of Bahrain would find it easier to hold their ruling family accountable if sects cooperated both politically and religiously. They might even demand a constitutional monarchy. The recent election has gone a long way from allowing that to happen.

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