Exploring "Sectarianism From Below" in Bahrain

By Dylan Baun
Submitted to Session P4448 (Widening the Net: New Sources, Methods, and Insights in the Arabian Peninsula, 2016 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula; Bahrain; Lebanon;
19th-21st Centuries; Comparative; Middle East/Near East Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Whether regarding Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria or Iraq, explanations of “sectarianism” in the Middle East often follow a similar logic. Prevalent in both popular media and scholarship is the presumption that regional power dynamics and national political structure set the identities, roles and practices of individuals within these societies. In the case of Bahrain, this “sectarianism from above” approach effectively demonstrates the foundations for the Sunni-led, Shi‘i marginalized, political system, and the persistence of sectarian rhetoric across the Saudi-Iranian divide. Yet, this approach is not designed to address the other side of the equation: how is sectarianism experienced, performed, and thereby constructed, especially at the non-elite level? Stated differently, how can scholars account for “sectarianism from below” in Bahrain?

This paper explores the applicability of a bottom-up methodology (from the level of non-elites) in understanding the ebbs and flows of sectarianism in Bahrain and the greater Arabian Peninsula during the late-20th century. Specifically, it locates sources that have proven useful to cultural historians to address how sectarianism, an interactive social phenomenon, is lived through non-elite Bahrainis. The “ordinary” population it takes as its basis is youth and young people, specifically from the oil boom of the 1970s to the protests of the 1990s.

Methodologically, this paper argues that to focus on this moment of transformation in Gulf history, and a highly transformative population, elaborates the ways in which sectarian identity interacts with everyday life, and eventually becomes societally pervasive. In terms of sources, the paper finds that to analyze memoirs of young Bahrainis during the 1970s-1990s, and situate the interaction between state productions—from organizational programs to radio and newspaper advertisements—that attempt to tap into youth sentiments, and the actual practices of young people, can capture youth cultures, tastes and sectarian identity during this transformation in societal relations.

The paper draws from the author’s previous research in Lebanon, which found that routine practices of belonging, strength and honor in masculine youth clubs were mobilized to perform violence during the civil war. Like young people in Lebanon during wartime, Bahraini youth of the 1970s-1990s experienced a rupture: from domestic prosperity to sectarian violence. This paper builds on these insights and continuities to explore the relationship between sectarian identity and everyday practices around moments of social transformation and protest in Bahrain. Indeed, to focus on changes in Bahraini youth during this period is to consider a “sectarianism from below” approach in Bahrain.