The Crisis in Bahrain: What Will be the Price of Peace? Part I
This is Part I of a MintPress two-part series about Bahrain.
(MintPress) – For many in the small Middle Eastern nation of Bahrain, the ordeal that they went through in the name of fairness and self-determination is harrowing:
“Jaffar Salman, has been injured on 15 March 2011 and detained then sentenced in unfair military trial and denied treatment. Jaffar lost both his eyes after being shot with birdshot gun at close range by riot police. Because the Bahraini regime targets injured protesters he was detained when he was taken to Salmaniya hospital. He was then taken to one trial, without the presence of his family or a lawyer, and without giving him the chance to speak, he was sentenced to two years in prison. Jaffar is currently detained at Jaw prison. His family has not visited him in months because he told them he gets tortured and humiliated before and after every visit. His family say that when they did visit him, his 4 year old twins were not allowed to have any physical contact with their father. In most recent phone call Jaffar told his wife that he is not getting treatment for his eyes and that he worries as their condition gets much worse.”
“On the second day of F1 [auto race], the dead body of 36 year old Salah Abbas Habib was found. Salah is known to be a pro-democracy activist and leader in his village Abu Saibaa. He was arrested last night by riot police alongside more than 10 others after a peaceful protest when police stormed the village. All of the arrested were released after being brutally tortured, except for Salah. His family searched for him yet they could not find him. This morning, Salah’s body was found on a roof of a building in Al Shakhoura village. Witnesses confirmed shotgun injuries and torture marks on his body.”
Bahrain is a small oil-producing island kingdom in the Persian Gulf with a population of around 1 million. A significant financial hub, Bahrain is the home base of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Bahrain was seen as the cosmopolitan jewel of the Middle East; a wealthy enclave that has prospered off of petroleum proceeds, banking and tourism.
All of this changed in 2011 when pro-democracy demonstrations, encouraged by the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt, broke out in Manama, the Bahraini capital. These protests are remarkable because — of all the Arab Spring protests — this is the only one that was defeated with a tactical show of force.
The protest was not a revolution or an overturning of power, but a call to share power with the people. The protesters were asking the monarchy to accept a new constitution, allow for the establishment of a strong elected parliament and to stop the gerrymandering that left the Shiite majority underrepresented.
On March 22, 2011, the Arab League endorsed the use of the “Peninsula Shield Force” in Bahrain to stop the protests. The “Peninsula Shield Force” is a coalition army formed from the Gulf Cooperation Council (a regional bloc consisting of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait). Saudi Arabia — the dominant member of the GCC — is a supporter of the ruling Sunni minority and was more than willing to respond to the monarchy’s call for help.
More than 70 people died in the strife, with more than 1,400 arrested and imprisoned. In a special report released by the Sunni rulers, it was admitted that torture and excessive force was used against the protesters. In the investigations leading up to the report, more than 300 cases of abuse were reported, with 64 of them being classified as torture. About 3,000 people lost their jobs. More than 1,000 students were dismissed from college. The government destroyed or damaged Shiite religious sites 30 times in the conflict. Many of the protesters lost their citizenship.
In February, during the first anniversary of the end of the uprising, Bahraini police hit marchers with stun grenades and tear gas. In October, Bahrain banned all rallies and demonstrations. Earlier this year, a protester was jailed for three months for criticizing the king on Twitter.
Attempts to document the atrocities happening in Bahrain have been fought on every level. Reporters have been arrested and footage has been destroyed. False reports and fake news stories have been filed by the regime. Even major news organizations have been made complacent in the covering up of human rights violation in the nation. CNN killed its own documentary on Bahrain in light of Bahraini sponsorship of the network and protests from the regime to CNN’s management.
In light of such overwhelming brutality and cruelty towards its own people, one has to question the causes of this strife between the Sunnis–who control Bahrain, and the Shiite–the sect of the Bahraini people.
The root of the crisis
“The political prisoners Mohd Almughni, Jaffar Hussain and Hussain Al-Aalihave all reported that they have been subjected to severe mistreatment before and after they are allowed to receive visits from their family members. Before the family arrives, these prisoners are required to stand for up to six hours, handcuffed, blindfolded and without food or water, often in the same room in which they claim that they have been subjected to other forms of torture at the beginning of their detention. The prisoners are not allowed to pray during this time.”
The conflict between the Shiite and Sunni arms of Islam has existed almost as long as the religion has existed, as the two sects differ in regards to who they recognize as the successor of Prophet Muhammad. Strifes against the Sunni and the Shiites have manifested not only in the Bahraini uprising, but also in the Syrian uprising — in which President Assad, an Alawite (which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam), is opposed to the uprising brought by the majority Sunni population. It is also visible in the 2003 Iraq War — in which, after principal fighting ended, Shiite and Sunni insurgents are engaged in what can be seen as a civil war.
The majority of the world’s Islamic population is Sunni. In the United States, 85-90 percent of all Muslims are Sunni. However, in the Fertile Crescent — a crescent-shaped region of moist and comparatively fertile land surrounding the watershed basins of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers among the semi-arid lands of the Middle East and western Asia – Shiite is the majority sect. In Iran, 90-95 percent of the Muslim population is Shiite, Iraq 60-65 percent, Bahrain 65 percent, Azerbaijan 85 percent and Lebanon 45-55 percent.
As with many Sunni-led Middle Eastern cultures, the rationale for Sunni control of Bahrain is tied to the nation’s history.
In 1521, the Portuguese seized control of Bahrain and managed it with the help of Sunni Persian governors. Upon the expulsion of the Portuguese in 1602, Persia controlled Bahrain through the use of immigrant Sunni Arab clans, despite the fact that Shiite Islam was declared the official religion of Bahrain at the time. In 1753, one of these clans, Nasr Al-Madkhur, invaded Bahrain and established direct Iranian control. Thirty years later, the Bani Utbah tribe — in which the current ruling family, the al-Khalifa family, is descended from — defeated the Nasr Al-Madkhur in the Battle of Zubarah.
In 2001, Bahrain shifted from absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament and independent judiciary. These efforts, ultimately, turned out to be half-hearted, as all of the senior ministers of the government and more than a fairly proportional number of members of Parliament belonged to the Sunni. Many members of the ruling family serve as ministers. More damningly, only the lower house — the “Council of Representatives” — is popularly elected. The upper house — the “Shura Council” — is appointed by the king and has legislative veto power. The discrimination against the Shiite majority extended to jobs, civil services and personal liberties.
Many argue that the problem is not only that the majority of the population is disenfranchised, but that the royal family is incompetent to rule. According to the Islam Times, not only are Shiite towns hit with crippling poverty and lack of services, but Sunni villages — such as Badi — are affected, as well. The royal family has also threatened job loss to any Sunni who supports the Shiite protests.
There is an atmosphere of distrust that pollutes any attempts at talks between the Shiites and the ruling Sunnis in Bahrain. The Sunnis accuse the Shiite political party, al-Wefaq, of being in league with Iran. After World War II, England sought the “deiranisation” of Bahrain by breaking the Shiite majority with the immigration of Arab Sunnis and other ethnic groups. This was done to nullify Iran’s claim on the islands, but instead, it created an atmosphere of distrust between the Shiites — who felt they were being marginalized — and the Saudi Arabian-expatriated Sunnis. As one pro-government supporter said, “The Shia are controlled by Iran. They do exactly what Iran tells them to do. 100% of the Shia are behind Iran.”
Al-Wefaq denies this adamantly. Wefaq is more centric and less religiously ideologic than the current Iranian government. For example, al-Wefaq’s platform does not require women to wear the hijab — the modesty veil used by Muslim women to cover their hair, face, and/or body — and allows limited alcohol sales. Human rights advocates see such allegations as a smokescreen — an attempt to scandalize the opposition in order to draw attention from the legitimate demands of the people. Promises to reform after the government-ordered investigation into the crackdown on the protests seemed to amount to little: Those restored to their jobs have discriminatory terms of re-employment; the Sunni-based “Peninsula Shield Force” still patrols Bahraini streets for possible protests on behalf of the royal family and their Saudi Arabian allies; and acknowledgement of the requests from the opposition has not been received.
- Allowing free and open elections for both houses of Parliament and for the senior offices of government threatens to trivialize the Sunnis’ voice in government, as the sect is a population minority. The royal family feels that a Sunni majority will eventually seek the full devolution of the throne for a popularly-elected executive branch.
- Sunnis see Shiites as being controlled by Iran, which once controlled all of Bahrain. Shiites see Sunnis as puppets of Saudi Arabia, in which — it is believed — Saudi Arabia is effectively controlling the royal family through promises of military support and other aid. This aura of distrust prevents serious discussions.
- The Gulf Cooperation Council is constructed from Sunni-ruling kingdoms that are predominantly Sunni. Democracy in these countries would jeopardize the Sunni minority’s claim to authority as well as the oil and banking profits the aristocracy of these areas depend on. As such, Saudi Arabia is more than willing to pipe in military force to put down Shiite protests, influence Arab League’s policy toward protecting the ruling families of the GCC and pledge $10 billion to Bahrain to meet its budgetary shortfall. (Bahrain’s oil supply is not large enough to substantiate the country’s expansion or expenditures without high oil prices, and traditionally, Bahrain had to rely on banking and tourism to fill the deficit — which have suffered under the protests. With oil prices under $100 a barrel, Bahrain is running a deficit.)
Tim McGirk, in his blog for Time, best put the situation:
“That’s no surprise, really. These leaders sitting on their ornate but uncomfortable thrones must be wondering what’s going on beyond their palace walls, in the bazaars and in the universities inside their own little kingdoms and republics. I’m sure the secret police reassure them that they are much loved by their subjects, and then, as proof, they run out and erect even more giant portraits or statues of their heroic leader. But if these despots have any sense at all, they have to be worried about the reformist movement in Iran. The difference is, in these other Middle Eastern countries, any democratic change would probably bring in the Islamists, as happened in the Palestinian territories.”
- The United States favors the GCC, as they are — besides Israel — America’s only reliable allies in the Middle East. During both Iraq Wars, the United States relied heavily on GCC nations as staging points and as regional military partners. As such, it is highly unlikely that the United States will intervene on behalf of the Shiites. Democracy in the GCC threatens to destabilize Saudi Arabia, which is seen to be essential to national interests. More to the point, Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Destabilizing the political construct of the nation endangers the fleet.
- Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional economic and military rivals. As Iran is Shiite controlled, and as the Shiites in Bahrain are finding fewer avenues to turn to, there is a legitimate fear that the Iranians will get involved in the Bahraini situation, which will result in open warfare between Iran and the GCC.
However, there is hope. On March 3, 2007, the president of Iran and the king of Saudi Arabia met for a summit meeting. While they displayed mutual warmth for each other in front of the cameras and promised a thaw in the relations between the two nations, they failed to lay down a concrete plan to stop the sectarian violence in the region.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said this of the meeting:
“Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are aware of the enemies’ conspiracies. We decided to take measures to confront such plots. Hopefully, this will strengthen Muslim countries against oppressive pressure by the imperialist front.”
The Saudi government did not respond at the cloaked jab at the United States, but stated of the summit:
“The two leaders affirmed that the greatest danger presently threatening the Islamic nation is the attempt to fuel the fire of strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and that efforts must concentrate on countering these attempts and closing ranks.”
Should Iran and Saudi Arabia make peace, Bahrain would have no choice but to follow suit or lose Saudi support.
Bahrain stands on the edge of oblivion, torn between the old establishment — desperate to retain power — and the people — who seek the right to have their voices heard. In all of this, those who are being hurt the most are the children. As reported by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights:
“Human Rights First asked children in Bahrain to draw something from their recent experiences; those drawings were assessed by clinicians with experience in trauma. Almost all the drawings
demonstrated traumatic experiences. Dr. Judith Schaeffer’s assessment of Maryam’s (7 years) drawing, whose uncle was shot in the head by security forces, was that it ‘is overtly indicative of trauma. This child is experiencing heightened emotions, particularly fear, sorrow and anger. She appears to be in an acute phase of grief.’ Ali is only 4 years-old, Dr. Stuart Lustig explains his drawing saying ‘The dense, fern-like mesh seemingly dwarfs the human figures as if taking great pains to obscure a reality too horrible to witness.’”
In Part II of this series, the efforts to keep this story from being reported will be looked at, and the relationship between the media and the way money and influence warp the way stories are reported by the major news outlets will be examined.
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