There is at least one Arab opposition movement which will not, it seems, be the recipient of Western military and diplomatic largesse any time soon.  Bahrain remains a baffling embarrassment in Paris, London and Washington.  Tunisia and Egypt happened too quickly to even flummox us; we hedged our bets as the events streamed on.  For Libya and Syria, supporting the opposition was an easy call, given the history of relations, made easier by a longer period of resistance giving time for the international community to make up its mind.  But Bahrain?


What explains the nervousness here?  There is the long-term political investment in Bahraini stability, of course; there is a natural desire to preserve the goodwill of Bahrain’s regional partners; there is even the far-fetched fear of an Iranian neo-Safavid bid to reoccupy the islands, fed by the current Iranophobia.  But supplementing all these factors is, I suspect, an anxiety of a movement made up of Shi’a.  Since Amal and Khomeini in the 70s, Shi’i activism has caused much concern in Western security circles.  Hizbullah and then more recently, the Mahdi Army (amongst others) have intensified this unease.  The desire to isolate a single explanatory cause for all these troubles has led some commenters to cite Shi’ism, and to have a knee-jerk distrust of Shi’i political actors. It is the modern-day equivalent of the terror which greeted the campaigns of the Qaramita and the Hashishin.


The intellectual background which probably encourages this wariness of Shi’ism is a history replete with messianic rhetoric, sacrificial motifs and suspect esotericism.  We can take these in turn.  Messianism can go either way: it can encourage activism (with the potential for violent resistance); or it can engender quietism (as one awaits the messiah).  Shi’ism has seen its fair share of both, with positions in between.  What has been more difficult, at least in Twelver Shi’ism, is to develop a doctrine of positive engagement with political power whilst waiting for the Mahdi’s Return.  Only in the last two centuries of Shi’i thought do we see the germination of such a doctrine.  It is a quite modern phenomenon. 


On sacrifice, the shocking (and for some terrifying) martyrdom narratives of the early Shi’i movements are seen as the cause of recurrent instability.  That major Shi’i figures accepted an often bloody and violent death, and that their stories are recycled within Shi’i activism, has troubled both commentators and policy wonks like.  But this too can go either way.  For much of its history, the Twelver Shi’a have commemorated the tragedy of Karbala, when Imam Husayn went willingly to his death in the face of tyranny.  But, on the whole, the Twelver political philosophy (such as it was) has been quietist; very few have emulated Imam Husayn with the literalism of some modern Shi’i activists.  Other religious traditions have extreme sacrifice at their core, but the crucifixion is not often cited as a cause of (say) the Mexican war.  When shahadat (martyrdom) features in a simple cause and effect argument, I smell polemic rather than commentary.


Finally, there is Shi’i esotericism.  A hidden doctrine which only the initiated can understand was a possible option in early Shi’i thought.  It gave way pretty quickly to a more open declaration of Shi’i belief, even within a context of Sunni dominance.  Linked to this in the popular imagination was the doctrine of taqiyya, sometimes glossed as “pious dissimulation”.  Taqiyya is characterised as permitting Shi’i believers to conceal their true faith in the face of personal or community threats.  What is rarely noted is that Sunni jurists, in the main, do not disagree:  dissimulation is permitted under extreme circumstances.  They even use the term taqiyya to describe such a dispensation.  Finally, internal distrust of the Shi’a has, perhaps, led Western academic commentary to view Shi’i accounts of early Muslim history as particularly unreliable.  They are contrasted with the more “balanced” or “objective” versions of the Sunni writers.  Fortunately, Islamic studies has (generally) left such crude caricatures behind, but a popular suspicion of hidden Shi’i motives nonetheless remains a recurrent motif.


Shi’i activism in Bahrain does not, on the whole, appear particularly messianic (unless I have missed something); neither does it promote suicidal martyrdom (though the sacrifice has been real); it does not have a hidden agenda (however its opponents might portray it).  The movement, for now at least, seems accidentally Shi’i – it is not about ideology and orthodoxy, but rights and participation.  Like much of the rest of the “Arab Spring”, the values of 1789, not 1979, inspire it.  In the end, a knowledge of Shi’i doctrine may not help us understand the Bahraini movement; but the perception of Shi’ism (dangerous, suicidal, secretive) informs the efforts of those wishing to preserve the Bahraini status quo - or even change it for the worse.