Shi‘ism in the Gulf: Paradoxes of Coexistence in Qatar

By Paulino R. Robles Gil
Submitted to Session P4881 (Rethinking Wahhabism in the Gulf, 2017 Annual Meeting
Islamic Studies;
Sunni-Shi’a relations in the Gulf have become a hotly contested issue in the aftermath of the US occupation of Iraq, the Arab Uprisings, and increased geopolitical tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Scholars have depicted these relations in various ways, ranging from accommodation, redistribution, coexistence and outright hostility. Research has focused primarily on Shi’i communities in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait. While the Shi’i minority in Saudi Arabia is engaged in an active struggle for equal citizenship in the face of state-sponsored discrimination (Meijer & Wagermakers 2013), the Kuwaiti state has managed to gradually incorporate Shi‘i communities into state institutions in an attempt to restrain polarization (Louër 2013). The situation of the Shiites in Bahrain is remarkably different given both their majority status and longstanding exclusion from the kingdom’s power structures. As the Pearl Uprisings starkly revealed, the voluntary segregation of Shi’i groups in Bahrain has enabled them to mobilize politically before a regime that has systematically oppressed them (Gengler 2013).

This paper focuses on the under-researched case of Qatar, an emirate inhabited by 2.5 million people of which only 10-15% of the population is native. Although exact figures are unavailable, the local Shi’i population comprises both Qatari citizens, long-established migrant families, and recently-arrived foreign residents (Pakistanis, Iranians, Bahrainis, Lebanese, Iraqis…). Shi’i communities in Qatar are therefore heterogeneous in their composition. They come from different ethnic groups (Baharnas, Persians, Ajams, etc.), have different legal status, and experience various degrees of inclusion/exclusion. Religious life of Shiites is structured around two main mosques, Imam Sadiq Mosque and Baharna Mosque, both in the Hilal neighborhood of Doha, and some twenty husayniyyahs scattered across the country. Unlike their counterparts in the region, Shi’i communities are perceived to be equal, well integrated, and non-politicized (Majidyar 2013).

Drawing on interviews and fieldwork conducted among different Shi’i groups in Doha in 2016-2017, I will highlight how the experiences of Shi’i groups have been shaped both by their ethnic and legal status and by wider developments in the region. I examine in particular how the Shi’i community has developed strategies for engaging the state and society and for dealing with the growing sectarian discourses in the local and regional media. I will argue in conclusion for a contextual approach to sectarianism that takes local conditions and internal differences into consideration.