A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Playing the Sectarian Card

Marc Lynch notes the fact that the Saudi intervention in Bahrain and today's crackdown are part of the regime's effort to frame the issues in Bahrain as a Sunni-Shi‘a rivalry rather than an issue of democratic reforms. Among his points:
The Bahraini regime responded not only with violent force, but also by encouraging a nasty sectarianism in order to divide the popular movement and to build domestic and regional support for a crackdown. Anti-Shi'a vituperation spread through the Bahraini public arena, including both broadcast media and increasingly divided social media networks. This sectarian framing also spread through the Arab media, particularly Saudi outlets. The sectarian frame resonated with the narratives laid in the dark days of the mid-2000s, when scenes of Iraqi civil war and Hezbollah's rise in Lebanon filled Arab television screens, pro-U.S. Arab leaders spread fears of a "Shi'a Crescent", and the Saudis encouraged anti-Shi'ism in order to build support for confronting Iranian influence.
While this strategy may work in the short term it's quite dangerous in the long term, with possible destabilizing effects not only in the Gulf states but in Iraq and Lebanon, where sectarian identities already run high. The demonstrators did not portray this as a sectarian issue; the official media did. Claiming that the demonstrators are agents of Iranian influence may drive the reform movement in that direction, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Playing the sectarian card may boost further support from conservative Sunni states, but in the long run I suspect it is playing with dynamite.

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