Bahrain: A Divided Nation?

by Dominic Kavakeb

On 14th February 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, thousands of Bahrainis took to the streets to demand change. And yet for some reason, Bahrain is rarely spoken of within the context of this wave of mass protest.

Western Governments have, albeit tentatively, lent their support to those movements seeking democracy and yet with Bahrain the same cannot be said. At times there have been calls for restraint, but thus far there hasn’t been any direct call for democratic reform.

There is another feature that seems to artificially set Bahrain a part from other Arab Spring Movements. That is the seemingly fashionable assertion that Bahrain is ‘divided’ and ‘polarized’ with two warring sides, each group having an understandable issue with the other.

Recently, I attended an event at Chatham House on the question of Bahrain and I found it interesting how many speakers referred to the divisions that exist in the Gulf Country.

No other Arab Spring nation has been described this way, even though Libya essentially experienced a civil war, Syria is heading that way and even in Egypt there continues to be at least a small section of the population who want to hold democracy back.

So Bahrain seems unique in the narrative of the Arab Spring. A divided nation that needs mediating and peacekeeping rather than active democratic support.

But in reality Bahrain is no different to the other states where democratic uprisings have occurred. Bahrain has 2 camps: those for democracy and those for dictatorship. 

Bahrain has 2 camps: those for democracy and those for dictatorship.

Yet many seem keen to magnify Bahrain’s divisions, whilst the same is not done with other countries.

It should not come as a surprise that in any great situation of revolutionary upheaval society will become increasingly polarised. There will be those who are desperately fighting for freedom who wish to take full advantage of their unique window for opportunity. This group will move with a renewed sense of urgency and therefore will seem stronger than ever in their desire for change.

But there will also be the existence of an organised group who have benefited from the status quo and will therefore vociferously challenge any attempts at change. This is the reality of any society when living through a moment of great historical transformation. All of those participating in the Arab Spring have experienced this polarisation in one form or another.

At this point many of you who wish to disagree with my words are undoubtedly screaming out that Bahrain is different! How could I forget the real divide? The religious sectarian divide.

This article is not an attempt to explore in any great detail the history of Sunni and Shi’ite relations in Bahrain but there have been those, especially in the recent epoch, who wish to overstate this division in order to divert from the real issues.

Indeed this has been a regular feature of Government and pro-Government rhetoric in recent months. The consistent blaming of Shi’ite Iran for sowing discontent is a clear attempt to deflect criticism away from the regime and to try to move the issue away from being about democracy.

Thus far The Government has seemed to be fairly successful in promoting this idea. It would seem strange for any Government to admit their country has a problem with religious conflict but in reality it is much more useful for Bahrain to admit this then to admit it’s people want democracy.

This is because a religious conflict becomes a question of 2 equal sides and there can only be peace if there is tolerance between them. The debate of democracy and dictatorship can easily put observers into one camp or the other; in modern society this will invariably by the democratic camp. Why should democrats be tolerant of dictators?

So by making the conflict a religious one the true tension at the heart of Bahraini society is lost – the struggle is no longer about oppression but instead something far more objective in the eyes of the outside world. 

So by making the conflict a religious one the true tension at the heart of Bahraini society is lost – the struggle is no longer about oppression but instead something far more objective in the eyes of the outside world.

This then translates into the exact sort of discussions we’ve seen as a resolution to the current crisis. Instead of hearing statements about the need for Bahrain to embrace democracy, respect its people’s demands etc. we have heard that both sides should show restraint.

Who told Libyans to show restraint in getting rid of Gaddafi? In fact NATO provided them with the materials to actually show the complete opposite of restraint!

The international community has been very careful not to show support to the democratic cause in Bahrain, as to do so would be to endorse the protests. Obviously there are a number of reasons for this, both political and economic but the simple fact is that they are able to back out from supporting democracy by using the excuse of two opposing sides.

With other nations in the Arab Spring the international community hasn’t always wanted to support the democratic movements but they have had to. There has been no get out clause, no excuse. With Bahrain the sectarian issue provides a perfect opportunity to mask the real reason for protests.

This is not to say Bahrain does not suffer from some sectarian issues but it should be understood that these problems are artificially created and not ingrained in the society.

If one group holds all the power and all the riches, whilst another group makes up the majority of the poor and suffers from great discrimination, of course there will be a divide.

But this divide will exist regardless of the religion or ethnicity of these groups.

Sometimes conflicts can be expressed in a religious manner when in reality the true source of the division is economic, political or social.

Sunni’s and Shi’ites can live together in peace in Bahrain, but this will only work under a pluralistic democracy where there is respect and tolerance for all. The longer Bahrain stays a dictatorship, the worse the sectarian divide will be.

But democracy will only occur once the world realises this is what the people want. The Bahrain people are not just fighting their own Government; they are also fighting against those in the region who wish to stop the flow of democracy.

This means the Bahrain democratic movement needs allies.

The BICI report, whilst useful in describing the violations committed by the Government, also fell into the ‘two-sides’ trap. Much of its narrative came across as if Bahrain had two groups who dislike each other and need mediating.

The great American historian Howard Zinn, once said ‘you can’t be neutral on a moving train’. Bahrain certainly is a moving train and to be neutral means to support the status quo; dictatorship, repression and brutality. 

The great American historian Howard Zinn, once said ‘you can’t be neutral on a moving train’. Bahrain certainly is a moving train and to be neutral means to support the status quo; dictatorship, repression and brutality

It is time for the international community to stand up and be counted in the cause of Bahrain. The people of Bahrain have been let down for too long and some serious pressure needs to start from now.

If world leaders can call for the removal of Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad and others they should have no problem with saying that it is unacceptable for a Prime Minister to be in power for 41 years. To do so is not supporting Shi’ite ideas or engaging in an internal conflict, it is simply making a clear statement that dictatorship is wrong.

In the past 10 months a divide has opened in Bahrain and it is polarising. That divide is between those people from all religious persuasions, all backgrounds and all ages that want democracy and on the other side a small clique who have benefited from dictatorship.

This is true of anywhere when great change is occurring, including all nations in the Arab Spring. Those who claim to support democracy should not stand idly by and claim neutrality. They should stand with the people who are prepared to lay down their lives for freedom or they end up supporting dictatorship.

Let’s make no mistake Bahrain is a dictatorship. One ruling family, unelected Government, 41 year Prime Minister, biased judiciary; these are all features of dictatorship.

A great movement is trying to sweep this dictatorship aside. It’s time democratic voices stand with this movement, not against it.

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