Apr 19, 2011

Let’s stand up for the Bahraini Shiites

Sectarianism in the Middle East is grievous, pernicious and enveloped in denial. Two officials – Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Conference, and Ambassador Shaikh Abdul-Aziz Al Khalifa, international media advisor of the Information Affairs Authority of Bahrain – offered me their perspectives on the issue. Both told me their thoughts about why sectarianism has begun to dominate the situation. One blamed the U.S. policies in the Middle East. The other accused the Iranian regime. Yet I couldn’t help but wish that they would admit that the mindset of the ruling elites and some segments of the Muslim population include horrifying sectarian discrimination. The Arab awakening will be incomplete if the Arab world does not confront its own demons in the form of sectarian segregation.

When I sat down with Ihsanoglu, I wondered about the OIC position on the Bahraini government’s crackdown on its Shiite led opposition, I expected to hear some self-criticism of the Islamic world, and some expression of concern over sectarian-based politics. I hoped to hear an admission of trouble in the Muslim world that needs to be addressed. But it did not happen. I was disappointed, and wondered if that was even a reasonable expectation when speaking to someone whose organization not only is based in Riyadh, but also represents Iran as well.

When asked about the Bahraini government’s approach to the protesters, which moved from a “severe crackdown” to “vindictive,” Ihsanoglu blamed the U.S. invasion and American policies in Iraq for creating sectarian conflict. “Prior to that, Saddam Hussein treated everyone badly,” he said. “Yet Shiites and Kurds and all others worked in his government. They were all equally mistreated.” When I reminded him that the Iraqis came to Washington separated as Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Shiites to lobby for a regime change, Ihsanoglu said, “Up until the (2003) intervention, Iraqis thought of themselves first as Iraqis and then as Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, or Turcomans. But it was never their primary identity. Their sectarian and ethnic differences came as their second and even third identity. Yet the ones who lobbied here used those differences, and when the U.S. put a new system in place they built it on those differences. What the French did in Lebanon 90 years ago, the U.S. did in Iraq eight years ago.”

Ihsanoglu did not claim that the U.S. invented the sectarian conflict, but he did argue that the Bush administration consciously pushed for it. And he explained the OIC’s efforts to reconcile Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. “In 2006, we succeeded in bringing together Sunni and Shiite leaders while sectarian violence was at its peak,” he said. “We made them sign on a 10-point agreement. We brought an end to claims such as, ‘I’m a Shiite, therefore I’m right,’ or ‘I’m a Sunni, therefore I’m right.’ That conflict came to an end religiously…Yet, the Iraqis are now politically divided just like in Lebanon.”

Although there may be different viewpoints over whether that religious conflict has ended, Ihsanoglu claimed that this is the legitimate truth; an objective analysis of the past decade and that U.S. policies caused the sectarian conflict to emerge. “[But] we’re against turning these issues into sectarian ideologies or make it part of a political confrontation,” he said. “What we say concerning Bahrain or elsewhere, the political issues need to be resolved in political frameworks. There should be a clear distance between politics and religion, and one should not intervene in the other; because it could take us to very dangerous places. We lived it in Iraq, and we don’t want to relive it again. If you bring religion into politics, things become bloody. We don’t want to see blood being spilled over again.”

But how do we prevent it from happening? Hammering American policies in Iraq is merely a distraction from the long-term oppression of Shiites in Sunni-ruled dictatorships. The majority of the countries that Ihsanoglu represents actually mix religion and politics. The bottom line is that as long as the Sunnis dominate the power centers of these regimes, they don’t care about the others. The Shiites outside Iran have been put down for far too long, and have been pushed to accept their place. They do have legitimate grievances that cannot be denied. Bahrain has a Shiite majority population, but the Sunnis rule it.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa introduced reforms a decade ago, including a parliamentary system. But the districts have been gerrymandered to produce an automatic Sunni majority every election, and now the Shiites want to be politically active. The Arab awakening does not discriminate against the Shiites – and each time they attempt to do something, they’re blamed to be Iranian agents. The U.S.–Saudi relationship is being tested in Bahrain, as Saudis have enjoyed U.S. support for so long that they want to make sure that they’re being favored at every turn, at any cost. If the U.S. sides with the people and makes its values a priority, it’s impossible to deny the legitimate grievances of Shiites and other minorities in the Muslim world.

The Bahraini government announced last Thursday that it would close al-Wifaq, the Shiite opposition party, but it didn’t follow through – possibly due to outside pressure. With all the measures being taken against the opposition, or the threats of punitive measures against the party, the Kingdom’s reforms have been rendered meaningless. In the last election, al Wifaq ran for 18 seats and won all of them. When the protests began two months ago, they submitted their resignations; but Parliament accepted only 11 of them. According to the Bahraini constitution, an election must take place in 60 days from the day those resignations became effective. But under these circumstances, who would take Bahraini elections seriously?

I interviewed Ambassador Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Khalifa, the former Bahrain Ambassador to the UK and the international media advisor at the Information Affairs Authority of Bahrain, before the Bahraini government attempted to close Al-Wifaq. Al Khalifa went back-and-forth as to whether to accept that there could be a legitimate Shiite grievance in Bahrain. At the end, he chose to blame outside intervention in their domestic affairs. “When you have the Iranian television channels, Alalam, Al-Manar, Ahlulbayt, Press TV, the Hezbollah channels, that are stirring poison and encouraging the protestors to keep their stand and giving support to the Shiite movement in Bahrain, that’s not helpful,” he said. “We believe this is a direct interference in Bahrain’s internal politics.”

Al Khalifa was also critical of the Iraqi government. “I think the Iraqi parliament went to a 10 day vacation in Baghdad in solidarity with the Shiites in Bahrain. The [Iraqi] prime minister is making other inflammatory remarks supporting Shiites. What’s this?” asked the Bahraini international media advisor. “If there is anything that he can offer, he must [admit] that ‘We went through a civil war. We had to come up with conciliatory program. Can we do something for you?’” The fact is that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, also a Shiite, suspended the parliament’s work briefly and expressed concern “that the events in Bahrain could unleash a regional sectarian war like the one that menaced Iraq just a few years ago.”

The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, recently detailed a chilling account of how the Saudi soldiers wage a campaign of sectarian violence. Mahmoud, a Bahraini Shia, shares his eye-witness account. “They managed to catch two people, aged no more than 30, and were beating them up badly, swearing at them all the time and cursing the Shia clerics, saying: “Where is al-Khomeini now? Where is al-Sistani, you Shia dogs?” he tells. “They say that we are spies for Iran, but nobody here wants to be ruled from Iran. We are Shia, but we are also Arabs, not Persians. We do not want help from Iran. We want democracy in our own country.”

Indeed, I was curious about why there were early reports that the Bahraini government was considering talks with the opposition, but any mention of the “talks about talks” is no longer.

Ambassador Al Khalifa claimed that the Crown Prince met the opposition’s demands to begin talks.  “We were asking for dialogue for one month, and there was no reciprocation from the opposition. They increased their demands and added the precondition. Now we have the upper hand and have another problem: the Sunni camp is so angry, we were put through hell, our lives were totally disrupted and now we don’t want to hear anything about dialogue, we believe in reforms, but we don’t need the style of protestors and for the protestors to be rewarded,” he said. “So we have a problem now that the Sunnis are reluctant to have this dialogue. I think the official line from the government is this: Once law and order is restored fully then we can think about having a national dialogue that will include both Sunnis and Shias for a better Bahrain.”

It’s stunning that the international community takes a selective approach toward human rights and democracy in the Middle East, and does nothing about Bahrain. The situation brings the Saudi and Iranian political circumstances to the forefront, and shows how they use religion and victimize people in their power game. The Shiites have legitimate grievances and they need to be given comfort, not military suppression. The Bahraini Ambassador admitted that the military presence is not sustainable, but what is the solution? “On the ground, the purge against Shiite workers in government and parastatal jobs continues,” a friend in Bahrain tells me. “[A] nd new regulations making it easier to hire foreigners send a clear signal that they are trying to squeeze the Shi’a out.”

Why is it so difficult for Muslim leaders to accept responsibility for their own mistakes and find ways to deal with the issue? When will it be the time to stand up for human dignity without worrying about power and political benefit?

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