Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bahrain IS Different!

After the downfall of the Tunisian and Egyptian Governments, sporadic demonstrations were reported from all over the Middle East, the most violent of them so far are the ones currently taking place in Libya, Yemen, Iran and Bahrain, where everyone there is chanting the same chants, and making the same demands as the demonstrators in Tunis and Egypt; The People want to change the Regime.

Admirable, though it may be, not all demonstrations are the same, neither in essence nor in goals. The Tunisians and Egyptians were fed up of the same corrupt leaders that were oppressing them for more than 30 years, so their downfall was inevitable. I'd say the same about Yemen and Libya, but I can't say it's the same in Bahrain.

I've lived in Bahrain for just over 7 years, I've seen how Bahrainis live and view themselves and others. If there's anything that bonds and unifies all Bahrainis, it's two things; Their love of their country, and their desire for political reforms. While the latter's various goals differ depending on who you speak to, nearly all Bahrainis want more freedom and less corruption as an essential part of their desire for political reforms. Bahrainis are, by their nature, very patriotic, and love their country as much as anything, and it's more or less genetically imprinted into their social DNA. The average Bahraini's love and affection for this tiny island kingdom begins with his love of his home, his neighborhood, his residential area, his football team, his traditional & social custom, and last-but not least-his affection for the flag and what it represents.
The late Sh. Isa Bin Salman

And here's the problem: Not all Bahrainis believe that Bahrain represents all Bahrainis. To some, Bahrain represents their own ethnicity, negating some or all of the others. In fact, one can rightly assume that ethnic differences play a major role in what it means for a Bahraini to be a 'Bahraini'. 

Some Bahrainis descend from Arab and Persian origins, just like the majority of the GCC countries, while some Arab descendants trace their roots back to the original tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, both from the indigenous tribal areas of the Qatif region of what is now Saudi Arabia. Some Bahrainis are also former slaves from Africa, Mizrahi Jews from Arabia, Iraq & India, literally a mix of genetics and ethnicity, which can be said to be a source of antagonism between Bahrainis.

Religiously, Bahrain is similarly diverse. Some Arabs and some former-Persians follow the Sunni sect of Islam (the former Persians called "Huwala"), and they are the minority in Bahrain in terms of numbers. The other Arabs, the Baharna, follow Twelver Shiism, while the Persians variably follow both Twelver and Baha'i Shiism, which is another source of antagonism for them.

Sh. Hamad Bin Isa
Recent 'additions' to this social soup of ethnicity are Sunnis from Baluchistan, Pakistan and India, and much more recently, Jordan, Syria and Yemen. And here's another source of antagonism, this time between the Bahrainis-in general-and their leadership which some say 'allowed' this to happen. Conspiracy theories run rampant as to the true nature and desire behind the recently-nationalized Bahrainis, ranging from 'destabilizing' the social balance to 'undermining' the Democratic process in the Kingdom (which wasn't a Kingdom 10 years ago anyway!).

We outsiders do not see these differences, and thanks to the media and some of their sources, we only get to see 'Shiite' and 'Sunni' Bahrainis, and little else.

Recent history shows us that the majority of riots were religiously-inspired, mostly by the Bahranis, who represent over 80% of the total population of Bahrain, and who have been devoid of their political rights and privileges since Bahrain's independence. The trouble is, it's not only the Bahrani Shiites who feel oppressed, as many others feel the same way, partly due to Bahrain's lesser Oil revenues compared to the other GCC states, and therefore lesser public spending, which in turn gives way to rising corruption and misuse of funds, characteristic of any country. I'd have to say, however, many observers put more stake in Shiite-Sunni struggles, and the oppression of the Shiites by the ruling Sunnis, giving news media a simpler, more sumptuous meal to swallow, and giving greater powers more urgency to support this sect or that.
The late Abdul Amir Al Jamri
 The facts are quite different, and lie in Bahrain's history of protests. In 1981 an organization called the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, (an all-Bahrani militant group) inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and supported by Iranian Intelligence officers & equipment, attempted a failed coup in Bahrain. Since then, it's leaders were chased down and arrested for life, their movement converted to Amal, the Islamic action Society, which eventually dwindled into insignificance.

Uprisings again happened in 1995, (while I was there), when the prominent Shia Cleric, the late Abdul-Amir Al Jamri, was placed under house arrest after he tried to convince the government of re-enacting the constitution, and had successfully collected over 25'000 signatures from Bahraini nationals in agreement with his request.

The uprisings and tensions went on for some time since then, on and off, until 1999. The Bahrani's wanted better living conditions, as well as the restoration of the Bahraini Parliament, so they revolted, and over 1'000 people were arrested-not counting the countless who were beaten by the Police. This gave rise (and power) to the now popular and powerful Islamic National Accord Association, or Wefaq, headed by the Shia Cleric Sheikh Ali Salman, who are now, today, withdrawn from the Bahraini Assembly, calling for general uprisings and are condoning an illegal demonstration in Lulu/Pearl Roundabout (all demonstrations in Bahrain require Government Authorization, just like Kuwait).

When the current King Hamad Bin Essa took over after his father's death he quickly moved to reestablish (in my opinion) hope and honesty in a new Political Establishment in Bahrain, calling for elections and giving women the right to vote, and eventually declaring Bahrain a Constitutional Monarchy, and endorsing the National Action Charter, and later on, putting into effect the new Constitution of the Kingdom. Various progressive institutions were subsequently put into effect, like the establishment of the Bahrain Labor Fund, or Tamkeen, which strives to improve the overall effectiveness of the Bahraini workforce, and the establishment of various private university institutions, as well as broad changes in the economic policies, designed to encourage and attract foreign investments.

However, things came to a slowdown recently, due to a string of scandals, notably the Bandargate affair, which generated lots of resentment among both Sunni and Shiites alike.
Sh. Ali Salman

Sh. Ali Salman and his followers persistently attacked and vilified Bahrain's government and policies throughout their exile until the King, Sh. Hamad Bin Isa issued a general Amnesty, forgiving their sentences and inviting them back to Bahrain to participate in the Political process. Since then, they've continually tried to hijack a fair political process, by instilling their ideology into their politics, effectively brainwashing the mainstream public into believing that they are the main opposition to a Sunni-based government, despite around 4-7 other political parties, some with a legal presence in parliament.

Fast-forward to today, people like Sh. Ali Salman and his Wefaq party continue to undermine core personal freedoms, mostly to do with women's issues and family law affairs, and now continue to undermine the Democratic progress of the country by calling to 'change' the very regime they swore to participate in. The latest attempt has been today's 'vigil' in the Pearl Roundabout, accusing the Government of brutal attacks against the peaceful demonstrators, negating the fact that those 'demonstrators' have attacked and killed members of the Police, with knives and swords, yet not one word was spoken to this detail.

Long story short: What's going on in Bahrain today is an attempt by a religiously-inspired group to overthrow the government and install a Shia-based Theocracy, as was attempted back in 1981. So, in essence, it's not a popular uprising as was the case in Tunis and Egypt, but a religious revolt, similar to the one that took place in 1979 in Iran which toppled the Shah and installed the Theocracy that was run by the late Ayatollah Khomeni. There may well be some honest-to-God peaceful protestors with the intention of non-violent demonstrations, but all that dissolved when the first Police officer was attacked.

Now, to me, ANY religious uprising is counterproductive to the collective good, be it Sunni or Shia or Buddhist (if there were any!) In the final analysis, my position is that this is purely an internal between Bahrain and it's people, and that we should leave well enough alone, lest we get pulled into a volatile and dangerous game of racial and ethnic strife that may overflow into our own backyard. One can only hope that cooler heads prevail, and all the troubles bear fruit to more cooperative understanding between all the involved parties.

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