- Sectarian Order in Bahrain: The Social and Colonial Origins of Criminal Justice by Staci Strobl
The book by Staci Strobl builds on an untapped archival cache of colonial criminal court cases in the British Library, which shed light on the birth of the Bahraini criminal justice system under the [End Page 665] aegis of British colonial authorities. Most cases date from the 1920s and 1930s, a critical juncture in Bahraini history when the British forced administrative reforms that mainly touched upon education, criminal justice, land use, and taxation. While most previous academic accounts of these reforms have emphasized how they were supported by indigenous Bahraini Shi'a who were suffering many abuses under the customary tribal institutions dominated by the Sunni tribes that had conquered the islands in the late 18th century, Staci Strobl insists that the reforms further entrenched the sectarian social order, confirming the unequal distribution of power and resources between Sunnis and Shi'a. Because it emerged as a hybrid between customary tribal institutions and modern ones, the criminal justice system particularly contributed to this. It fostered "two major shifts in the notions of the social order and order maintenance" (p. xxviii): the criminalization of tribal and honor based violence, and the "invention of indigenous Shi'a and Persian Bahrainis as a criminal class" (p. xxviii).
These shifts are documented throughout five chapters. The first chapter proposes to reread the history of the conquest by the Al Khalifa dynasty and the British protectorate with the aim to promote a less "Sunnicentric" perspective on Bahrain's history. It reframes the Sunni-Shi'i divide as a divide opposing the "people of the land" to the "people of the sea," that is the society of Arab tribes from the Arabian mainland as opposed to the multiethnic society of traders and seafarers "drawing from Arab and Persian cultures, but belonging to neither hegemonic identification" (p. 12).
The second chapter sheds light on the management of tribal violence, in particular how colonial institutions criminalized feuds that were settling succession matters in pre-modern tribal culture. Here the reader gets a wealth of details about the factional rivalries within the Al Khalifa, showing how feuds were re-qualified as treason and murder and thus dealt within the criminal justice system. The third chapter delves into how the new justice system criminalized honorbased crimes, feminicides in particular. It is only in the last two chapters that the author analyses in details the ways in which colonial justice contributed to entrench sectarian discrimination.
The fourth chapter provides fascinating details about the rationale behind the attacks of Shia villages by Dawasir, members of the Dawsari tribal confederation. Old allies of the Al Khalifa, the Dawasir were key players in the fierce factional struggle for ruler-ship of the 1920s, supporting opponents to Shaykh Hamad bin 'Isa (r. 1932–42), who had been imposed by the British as ruler. In this context, raiding Shi'i villages not only had the objective of plundering and intimidating recalcitrant tenants unwilling to pay taxes to their Sunni tribal landlord but also to keep in check the ruler's Shi'i allies, in a context where many Shi'i notables were supportive of the administrative reforms. Interestingly however, the colonial criminal justice institution incorporated a pattern of restorative justice typical of the premodern tribal culture, whereby tribal opponents, once subjugated and pledging an oath of loyalty to the winner, were pardoned and restored in the inherently unstable tribal political order. On the insistence of the ruler, the perpetrators of the attacks were thus not punished and, in particular, avoided being banished away from Bahrain. Furthermore, when willing to establish a police force, the British, who considered incorporating Shi'a, also surrendered to the Al Khalifa perspective, for whom it was inconceivable that Shi'a would be tasked with police powers. Added to the lack of interest of locals for policing, this resulted in the creation of a police force mainly staffed by foreigners, mostly Indians.