“Sectarianism failed,” Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, told a news conference attended by Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington last week. It had not gained “a foothold in our country,” he went on, “but we will continue to be on our toes facing it.”
Mr. Kerry spoke, too, about military cooperation against Daesh, the group also known as the Islamic State or ISIS, and about working to “reduce the sectarian divisions together in Bahrain, which we saw resulted in a boycott of an election and challenges internally within the country.”
Characterizing the boycott that led opposition groups to call off participation in Bahrain’s November 2014 general election as sectarian is fundamentally wrong. The sectarianism that exists in Bahraini society is almost the reverse of what Mr. Kerry and Sheikh Khalid described: It comes not from the political opposition, but from within the state itself.
In November 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry completed an investigation into human rights violations during the Bahraini government’s crackdown on Arab Spring protests earlier that year, and presented its findings to King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The king accepted the report’s recommendations as the basis for a reform program.
But the promised change never came. Instead, as a new report from Human Rights Watch details, the Bahraini security forces have continued to torture detainees using methods identical to those the commission documented in 2011. Violence and arbitrariness are widespread from arrest to prison, where collective punishment and beatings are well documented.
The opposition political societies (actual parties are illegal in Bahrain) had simple demands: the formation of a credible, independent judiciary and meaningful steps toward democratization. Because neither of these moderate demands was met in the four years following the Arab Spring, the opposition groups decided to boycott the elections.
With hindsight, this strategy was a mistake. It gave the government of Bahrain carte blanche after the elections, imprisoning opposition leaders like Ebrahim Sharif and Ali Salman. Human rights defenders like Nabeel Rajab suffered arbitrary arrest. Another rights defender, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, is serving a life sentence, as is the blogger and activist Abduljalil al-Singace. According to a coalition of Bahraini human rights organizations, as many as 4,000 doctors, teachers, students, journalists, photographers and others are detained as political prisoners in Bahrain’s prisons; many have endured torture.
The same week that Sheikh Khalid spoke in Washington, two men had their death sentences upheld by Bahrain’s top appeals court. Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Ali Moosa were convicted of taking part in a bombing that killed a policeman in 2014, but both men claim they were tortured into confessing to the crime.
In 2014, five United Nations human rights experts, including the special rapporteur on torture, expressed concern that Mr. Ramadan, Mr. Moosa and other prisoners had made confessions under severe duress. Yet nothing now separates the two men from the firing squad save King Hamad’s whim — since he may sign either their death warrant or a royal pardon.
While Bahrain imprisons political activists and rights advocates at home, it also participates in the American-led coalition against the Islamic State. The bitter irony of this is that the Islamic State’s Bahraini recruits come not from among the government’s opponents, but from within its own ranks.
Unlike the United States, Britain and France, where typically the Islamic State recruits among alienated young people, in Bahrain the group finds willing jihadists in the establishment. The most prominent Bahraini member of the Islamic State, the terrorist preacher Turki al-Binali, comes from a family closely allied with the Khalifa royal family. Other recruits have come directly from the security forces of Bahrain. (Mr. Rajab, the human rights advocate, was imprisoned for six months recently for pointing out links between the Bahraini military and the Islamic State.)
Another Binali family member who has defected to the Islamic State, Mohamed Isa al-Binali, is a former Interior Ministry officer. He worked in Jaw Prison, a facility notorious for overcrowding and harsh conditions. One former prisoner told me that he’d witnessed Mr. Binali overseeing the ill treatment of juvenile Shiite inmates, not long before Mr. Binali disappeared in 2014 to join the Islamic State.
Mr. Binali was acclimated to violence and hatred in Bahrain’s prison system. This is not something Bahrain will ever admit to: For the government, the embarrassment is too great. But until it does, it cannot possibly combat extremism effectively at home.
This is an extremism of its own making, born out of the destruction of Shiite mosques and the sectarian language that many in government use — as Sheikh Khalid does — in an attempt to undermine the credibility of the democratic opposition. Bahrain, I fear, is heading in the direction of Saudi Arabia, where radical Salafism has fostered sectarianism and terrorism.
On Jan. 31, I discovered that my Bahraini citizenship had been revoked when I woke in London to find my name on a list published by the Bahrain News Agency. Alongside mine were the names of some 50 other activists, journalists and political figures — as well as those of about 20 affiliates of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, including Turki al-Binali and Mohamed al-Binali.
The reasons for revocation ranged from serious terrorism charges to “advocating regime change.” The message could not be clearer: For Bahrain, my human rights work was equivalent to terrorism.
How can a country that willfully refuses to differentiate between peaceful calls for democratic rights and terrorism deal with sectarian extremism? Earlier this year, President Obama promised to have the necessary “tough conversation” about these issues with Persian Gulf state allies. Yet Mr. Kerry just gave Bahrain a pass on the sectarianism at home that is feeding the Islamic State abroad.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei is the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.