Sectarian Tensions In Bahrain

Steve Inskeep talks with Marc Lynch, an associate professor at George Washington University and contributor to ForeignPolicy.com, about the sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Bahrain.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's talk more about this now with Marc Lynch. He's a professor at George Washington University and writes about the Middle East for Foreign Policy magazine. Welcome back to the program, Mr. Lynch.

Dr. MARC LYNCH (Professor, George Washington University): Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Now, how does the situation in Bahrain differ from Egypt? People are going to be wondering if this is another Egypt.

Dr. LYNCH: The thing about Bahrain is that, you know, it's in the Gulf, which makes things very different. And, you know, the United States has a majority military base there. It's got a lot to do with Iran, with Iraq. And so it really brings in a whole different set of concerns.

INSKEEP: And there's a different sectarian makeup. We've been told by Peter Kenyon in recent days - reminded - that we're talking about a Sunni Muslim monarchy but in a majority Shia Muslim country. How does that complicate things?

Dr. LYNCH: That's right. And the Shia majority in the country has always made Bahrain an unusual case in the Gulf. The monarchy always tries to make this appear to be a sectarian issue. And the protesters have been at great pains to try and demonstrate that this is not a sectarian rebellion. And they try really hard to make it clear that this is about democracy, human rights, representation, and not about Sunni/Shia. So there's an ongoing battle to frame the issue.

And this is especially important, of course, because of the Iran question, where everybody in the Gulf is afraid of Iran. And it's a very potent argument for them to make, that if the protesters win, then this will strengthen Iran. But I think that's actually not a very useful way of thinking about what's going on there.

INSKEEP: Now, that argument made, because, of course, Iran is a Shia-dominated nation and the fear is that Bahrain would become an ally of Iran, I suppose. The same kind of complexity...

Dr. LYNCH: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...that struck Iraq, though, isn't it?

Dr. LYNCH: It is quite similar, and I think some of the same issues would apply. The Shia in Bahrain are Bahraini. They're nationalist. And the idea that they would simply become Iranian pawns, I think, is just wrong.

INSKEEP: Okay. Well, Marc, thanks very much for the update. I appreciate it.

Dr. LYNCH: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy magazine, speaking with us live this morning.

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