Bahrain's Shiite-Sunni Animosities Linger on Campus a Year After Clashes


MANAMA, BAHRAIN — As students mill about during their lunch break in the food court of the University of Bahrain, it could be a scene from a university cafeteria anywhere in the Gulf. There are lines to buy offerings that range from Italian dishes to sandwiches and hamburgers. Young women in black abayas carry designer bags and type messages into their cellphones.
But underlying the apparent normality, there is tension and distrust: Four female students looked around for a place to sit and talk the other day, but not just anywhere. “Don’t sit at that table,” said Zehra, who asked not to be identified further. “We are surrounded by students from the other side.”
Zehra and her friends are among about 500 mainly Shiite students who were expelled from the university last year after clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators. According to the university’s president, Ebrahim Mohammed Janahi, the rioting caused $5 million in damage.
By “the other side,” Zehra means the Sunni students. Duaa, a 22-year-old Shiite student who did not want to give her family name, said: “There is no trust anymore between them and us. We attend classes together, but there is no interaction.”
Since the clashes on March 13 of last year, the university has become a mirror of Bahraini society. Although the country is outwardly peaceful, a huge divide has opened up between Sunnis, the Muslim sect of the royal family and much of the elite, and Shiites, who form the majority of the population.
Most of the expelled students have been allowed to re-enroll after signing a document declaring that they would not protest at the university again: But seven have been prosecuted on charges arising from the clashes, six receiving prison sentences of 15 years and one an 18-year term, with all of them being fined a total of 350,000 dinars, or about $928,000, according to parents and Bahraini human rights groups.
In interviews with 25 students from both sides who were at the university during the clashes, each accused the other side of starting the violence.
The university has increased security, installing cameras across the campus, posting guards and putting a checkpoint at the entrance.
After receiving a progress report from an international commission set up to investigate the violence, the emirate’s king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, said last week that Bahrain was committed to acting on all of the commission’s recommendations. The report said progress had been made in overhauling the police force and the education system, and in establishing an “independent body within the public prosecution” to oversee investigations into deaths, torture, abuse and mistreatment. Special courts were set up to hear victims’ claims.
But the opposition does not believe these steps were sufficient.
“We are ready for a dialogue, but it would have to be a serious one,” said Khalil Marzouq, a spokesman for Al Wefaq, the main opposition group. “We don’t see, even after the king’s speech, that the government really wants one.”
Mr. Marzouq said that so far no police officer had been sentenced for torture and mistreatment of protesters.
The mainly Shiite led-opposition says that it is not interested in religion-based conflict, but students at the university speak in sectarian terms.
“We want more rights for Shiites and for us what counts is what Ayatollah Issa Qassim says, not some government,” said Mohammad, 23, a Shiite student, who did not want to further identified and who was referring to the kingdom’s most influential Shiite cleric. Asked if he wanted a democracy, Mohammed added, “That’s up to our religious leadership.”
But another tragedy from last March was that students who studied and socialized together began attacking one another. “I had many Shiite student friends who used to come to my house even for a meal,” said Khalid Ali al-Sardi, a student, “and then all of the sudden some of them went after me and nearly killed me.”
Mr. Sardi and six other Sunni students said in interviews that they were attacked by anti-government protesters on March 13, 2011. The students presented hospital medical records showing that they had suffered varied injuries.
Four of the six, who had been caught in one of the university buildings, described attackers throwing objects at students on the inside, who replied by throwing back stones and other items.
Mr. Sardi said he had been on the roof, calling his parents and watching what was going on, when suddenly a mass of young men came up after him.
“They had wooden and steel sticks and started to beat me,” he said “I tried my best to protect my head, but I couldn’t.”