Toby Matthiesen is a research fellow at the University of Cambridge. His book Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t will be published by Stanford University Press in July 2013.

Follow Toby Matthiesen on Twitter: @TobyMatthiesen.


Bahrain Burning

Hassan Mushayma, leader of the banned opposition group al-Haq, at a protest in the Pearl Roundabout, Manama, Bahrain, after his return from exile in London, February 26, 2011
In mid-March, a violent government campaign to put down a month-long popular revolt turned Bahrain into an island of terror. Images of security forces firing on unarmed protesters chanting “peaceful, peaceful” went around the world via YouTube and other media. Today Bahrain has largely receded from the news, emerging only …


Syria: Inventing a Religious War

Posters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah at the Sayyida Zainab shrine, Damascus, Syria, June 2006

Bashar al-Assad is head of an ostensibly secular Baathist regime and many Shia think his sect, the Alawites, are heretics. Why then is Hezbollah fighting for the regime, and is this conflict really rooted in religion? The answer to both these questions may lie in a suburb of Damascus called Sayyida Zainab, the site of an important Shia shrine and since the 1970s a haven for foreign Shia activists and migrants in Syria. Though the story of Sayyida Zainab is little known in the West, it may help explain why what began as a peaceful uprising against secular authoritarian rule in 2011 has increasingly become a war between Shia and Sunni that has engulfed much of the surrounding region.