Volume 3, No. 1 – March 1999
REBELLION IN BAHRAIN
By Adel Darwish
Editor’s Summary: The civil conflict in Bahrain can be interpreted as a struggle over democracy, a radical Islamic rebellion, or a Sunni/Shia dispute. It is important to remember, however, that such political issues have their individual complexities, too. And local factors can often be misinterpreted when they are forced to fit political categories developed for other issues.
Bahrain has been, for decades, an oasis of greater liberality in the turbulent Persian Gulf region. There was less censorship than in neighboring countries. Women had more freedom also. , nurses, employees or wives of business men, could go out on their own – unheard of in Saudi Arabia or Iran, could drive, drink, dance and even sunbathe in one of many swimming pools.
But for the past three years or so, Bahrain has seen arson attacks on shops and stores within the country. Internationally, the government has been much criticized by the tireless efforts of the Bahrain Freedom Movement (BFM), a small group of Islamist activists working for London-based Iranian backed publications. The aim of this campaign is to exploit the regime’s public relations’ failure and to accuse it of violating human rights.
BFM accusations exploit the fact that Bahrain’s parliament was suspended in 1975 after bitter political and tribal rivalries tore it apart. The fact that a Sunni Muslim royal family rules a mostly Shia Muslim population adds another potentially destabilizing factor.
The ruling al-Khalifa family and its government must be bad, ran the argument, because it was undemocratic. In contrast, opposition claims must be true since they claimed to be fighting for democracy. When some of those claiming to be victims of human rights abuses were granted political asylum in Britain or the United States, however, it turned out that they advocated terroristic violence. Such was the case with Sheikh Bakri, of Hizbul Tahreer, and Sheikh Abu Hamza, of Supporters of Sharia, in England, or the Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman in the United States. Consequently, such claims and the nature of movements making them needs to be investigated more thoroughly.
The BFM’s main accusations related to listing names of people allegedly detained or tortured. These stories are hard to check. Now a group of Bahraini businessmen have come forward who are angry at both the government, for its reluctance to make reforms, and the opposition, for damaging the island nation’s economy. During a visit to Bahrain, this reporter was introduced to several of those the BFM falsely said were in prison. The country is actually rather peaceful, except for isolated incidents.
One influential leader of BFM is Mansour al-Jamri, son of Sheikh Abdul Amir el-Jamri, a respected pro-Iran Shia clergyman and a former member of the suspended parliament. Sheikh al-Jamri was put under house arrest last year for his alleged part encouraging some unrest perpetuated by youngsters, mainly arson attacks on department stores, women fashion shops and supermarkets owned by immigrants from the Indian sub-continent.
Sheikh al-Jamri ‘is in a constructive dialogue with the government,’ I was informed by his other son Sadiq, who had just come from visiting his father. Sadiq himself plays an essential part in bridging the gap between the two sides. ‘We need dialogue, cooperation and pluralism, not violence arson and stoning,’ he explained. Sadiq told his brother Mansour during a heated exchange on the telephone, that if he was serious about restoring democracy, he should condemn acts of violence.
‘London is far away they should be more in touch with the people in villages. People are scared and intimidated by some clergymen who could turn mobs of youth against them.’
Sadiq also works with the Shura council, a body of 40 appointed members most of whose members also belonged to the suspended parliament, businesses, clergy and various political trends. It is preparing itself to include women’s representatives soon. Since the Shura already includes a large portion of those who had been in the suspended parliament, why is the Bahrain government so reluctant to hold elections The answer is very complicated according to both government and its critics.
According to some sources, the BFM split last October when it expelled those proposing elections for the leadership. Interviews with BFM leaders leave little doubt about the totalitarian nature of their type of Islamic fundamentalist ideology. Their final aim is to declare an Iranian-style Islamic republic. This idea is rejected by most Bahrainis, especially women, who dress up the Western style, drive cars, and are among the most highly educated and paid in the Arab world.
A proportionately large business and commercial sector also opposes the BFM goals. Bahrain has always survived on trade. While oil has been pumped there since 1932, petroleum has been less important in economic terms than elsewhere in the Gulf. As a result of so much foreign travel and contacts, the national style is decidedly cosmopolitan. It is just about the only place in Arabia where you find Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist temples, every type of Christian church, and even a Jewish synagogue.
To survive the post-oil era, Bahrain has built itself up as a service-based economy, the Persian Gulf’s banking center. Tourists come from Saudi Arabia across the auto causeway to enjoy Bahrain’s relaxed laws and a drink. Bahrainis have a choice of some 20 satellite channels. This stress on free choice seriously undermines the authority of clerics seeking a totally Islamic state based on their own interpretation of that religion.
Yet these same factors make for a profound psychological dissonance among young people. ‘A teenager exposed to the latest in Western culture beaming down from satellite television is torn between enjoying himself and obeying strict and harsh Islamic rules imposed by the local clergy,’ said a Western diplomat. ‘Frustrated kids take it out on shops and in running battles with the police,’ he said.
Seventy percent of Bahrainis are under the age of 27. Most of the angry teenagers are from mainly Shia-dominated villages. They are poorly educated since usually children are pulled out of school by parents to work at the age of 11 or 12. ‘The trouble started back in 1994. It had nothing to do with political reforms,’ according to a local journalist who is a Shia himself and worries about reprisals for his view. Clerics, he said, incited teenage boys to stone-throwing protests during an international marathon because female athletes were running bare legs which, they said, was anti-Islamic. The police had to intervene to restore order and the kids, fed on Arab media diet of glorifying the stonethrowers of the Palestinian intifada, began copying that tactic. Such street battles have been often repeated since then.
Security officials blame disturbances on ‘outside influence and outside planning.’ The BFM does have ties to Hizbollah in Lebanon. The arrest last November of a ‘network of saboteurs’ — five Bahrainis and a Lebanese man who were planning more arson attacks — reinforced their suspicion. The men were trained in Lebanon and Minister of Interior Sheikh Mohammed ibn Khalifa al-Khalifa flew to Damascus with a ‘file of evidence.’ Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa appealed to his Lebanese counterpart but with no effect, according to Western diplomats in Manama and Damascus.
Indeed, the real local movement to restore democracy has nothing to do with the BFM. There is a serious debate involving middle class intellectuals, bankers and investors, government officials and Shura council members. All are seeking a way out of a fix which has become familiar in the region: how to reintroduce Western style electoral reforms while preventing Islamists from intimidating or persuading the population to opt for an Islamic fundamentalist government. ‘The thought is horrifying,’ says a Bahraini banker. ‘It would herald an unrecoverable economic disaster for Bahrain.’
This is the factor most important and worrying for the Bahraini middle class. The fact that BFM or other attacks are mainly directed at small businesses has created tremendous hostility against the group. ‘I don’t give a damn about parliament, Islamic republic or Shura. I want to reopen my shop,’ said a middle-aged businessmen whose women’s cloths shop was burnt down last summer.
‘First I saw the trouble as an ethnic dispute: conservative Shia angry at Westernized Sunni,’ said Mohammed al-Said, a Bahrain Shia who built a respected business making clothes and selling it in his own two fashion stores, ‘I often interpreted their anger to some racist, ethnic or xenophobic motives, when they burnt down the stores of these gentlemen,’ pointing at the two other victims in the interview, Abd al-Hamid al-Kuhgi, a Bahraini Sunni businessman whose furniture store was burnt down in December 1997, and an Indian businessman, whose fashion store had suffered the same fate. The Indian merchant first thought it was a racially motivated attack, ‘although 90% of my employees are Bahraini.’
For al-Khugi, a Sunni businessman, it was reasonable to accept the line that less-well-to-do Shia vent their anger against the ruling Sunni. This theory went out of the window when al-said, whose fashion store, Abaiat el-Said, was burnt down last August, bitterly asked: ‘I am a Shia like them and all my employees are Shia. Now half of them are unemployed. How can you explain that?’
Some of the answers were provided by an interview with two women who were caught red-handed planting fire-bombs in department stores. They quietly confessed to putting incendiary devices with timers in a number of fashion stores, including Abaiat a-Said. They could not have been more contrasting. Hannan Ahmad is an 18-year-old university student whose traditional black chador did not hide her intelligent eyes and cheeky smile. Her cousin, Sabah Hassan, is shier, more depressed, and less articulate. At 32, she still lived with her family in a culture where a women is considered a useless spinster if not married by the age of 20.
Both women said a 21-year-old cousin persuaded them to plant the devices. ‘He would drive us in his car, then drop as outside a woman fashion store after setting the timer,’ Hannan said. Unlike the interviews I held with many Middle East terrorists, this time there was no attempt to justify their action.
‘Because we are women, it is much easier for us to go into women’s clothing stores. No one would suspect us.’ was Ahmad’s simple reply to my question of why they did it. No ideological explanation regarding spreading Islam or fighting the enemies of God. Often, private motives are central in an individual’s decision to commit violence. Hassan gave up her job as a shop assistant since she thought the job interfered with her task of caring for her father. But after he died in May 1998, she became both a liability for the family as an unmarried women and a person deprived of her role in life. The first time she left the house was with Hannah and Ali Mahdi on the arson missions. It was an exciting change from a sad house in mourning.
Hannan also had a personal grievance. She felt she was cheated by being denied admission to university. ‘Students who got less marks than me were admitted in 1997, I lost a year. When I complained, they told me to get a letter from the Emir’s Diwan. ‘ I don’t know anybody there.’ Recruiting her as his delivery boy, Mr. Mahdi told her he was starting a movement. ‘I didn’t even bother to ask what the movement was really about,’ she said. Ironically, she was admitted to university last September after she has been burning the stores for six months. In October, she was caught planting an incendiary device, promised by Mahdi to be the last. When she heard about those injured in the bombings, she lowered her head and began to sob. ‘I want to tell them I am sorry,’ she said.
The only book she requested in prison was a copy of the Koran. A mere 10 minutes away, the shopping mall was full of women the same age as Hannan Ahmad, walking in groups to fast food stores, sitting in cafes, reading magazines like Hello, Cosmopolitan or the Arabic equivalent. Some were examining CDs in record shops and listening to the tapes on their own walkman, moving to the rhythms coming through their headphones. Hannan did not ask for cassettes, magazines, novels, poetry or any other material her teenage peers would normally request in a similar situation. One is reminded that Middle East history is not just a predestined result of huge historic forces or complex ideologies, it also derives of individual people and the choices they make.
Adel Darwish is a British journalist and editor of Mideast News. He has written for The Independent, Times, Telegraph, The Economist, The Middle East, The Scotsman. His books include Water Wars: Coming Conflicts in the Middle East; Unholy Babylon — The Secret History of Saddam’s War; Between the Quill and the Sword, the political background to the Satanic Verses affair; Shape of Wars to Come, on the spread of missile technology in the Middle East; Psychology of Terror, on Baath party rule in Iraq; and Behind the Veil of Diplomacy.