Turning a Blind Eye to Bahrain’s Abuse

The Sunni-ruled kingdom of Bahrain is adopting repressive tactics to ensure that the island’s Shiite majority doesn’t gain significant political power. But Official Washington has been fairly muted in its criticism of Bahrain’s king because the island is a strategic U.S. asset and a democratic system might be a boon to Iran, Lawrence Davidson explains. May 11, 2011

By Lawrence Davidson

Editor’s Note: Official Washington, with the neoconservative editors of the Washington Post and the New York Times in the lead, is pushing for more lethal violence to force “regime change” in Libya, but the view is far different regarding the cruel crackdown in Bahrain.

There, U.S. opinion leaders mostly look the other way because the repression is directed against Bahrain’s Shiite majority, and it’s feared that the Shiites might ally with Shiite-ruled Iran, Washington’s top villain in the region, as Lawrence Davidson notes in this guest essay:

If you want to see how an ostensibly religious regime can be corrupted into something close to fascism, just take a look at contemporary Bahrain.

In February, there were a series of non-violent demonstrations staged mostly by the small kingdom’s Shia majority (approximately 70 percent of the country’s Muslim citizens.) These were held to protest the discriminatory practices of the country’s Sunni monarchy.

The protests were soon violently suppressed by the Bahraini army and police, with the help of troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, it was what followed the crushing of the demonstrations that smacks of fascism.

Here is how a report from May 6 by Roy Gutman of the McClatchy Newspapers, puts it:

“Authorities have held secret trials where protesters have been sentenced to death, arrested prominent mainstream opposition politicians, jailed nurses and doctors who treated injured protesters, seized the health care system that had been run primarily by Shiites, fired 1,000 Shiite professionals and canceled their pensions, beat and arrested journalists, and forced the closure of the only opposition newspaper.

“Nothing, however, has struck harder at the fabric of this nation, where Shiites outnumber Sunnis nearly 4 to1, than the destruction of Shiite worship centers.”

As an important aside that can only shake your faith in the effectiveness of international law, it is to be noted that this repression is being carried out by a regime that, as Stephen Lendman tells us, “is a signatory to nearly every major international humanitarian and human rights law, including: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, among others.”

Signing such instruments is an easy act of hypocrisy for most dictatorships and, as we will see, the one in Bahrain treats them as a form of convenient deception.

Today, Shiites make up approximately 20 percent of the world’s Muslim population and are particularly concentrated in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.

The tension between Sunnis and Shiites has its roots in a disagreement over the proper order of succession following the death of the prophet Mohammad. As a consequence the Sunni majority has always seen Shiites as not quite orthodox, and so has often treated them in a discriminatory fashion.

This led to over 1,000 years of periodic struggle and competition, sometimes violent, between the two sects. Though none of this has been as horrid or prolonged as the wars of religion experienced by the Christian West, the potential for comparable bloodletting is there.

I think that there is little doubt that the prophet Mohammad would strongly disapprove of this aspect of Muslim history.

In his last sermon to his followers, delivered during his final pilgrimage to Mecca in 632 CE, he said, “Oh ye men, listen to my words and take them to heart: every Muslim is a brother to every other Muslim and you are now one brotherhood.” Over the years this message has been disregarded all too often.

The Bahraini regime, which happens to be Sunni, has certainly forgotten this important message and treated the majority Shiite citizenry as anything but brothers. And, just as in every other case of prolonged discrimination, the result has been growing resentment.

The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt served as incentives for Bahrain’s Shiites to once more express their discontent in a nonviolent way. That the regime blames this all on Shia Iran is just an excuse.

It is the Bahraini monarchy’s prejudicial policies that have brought about this situation — the truth is that King Hamad (the present ruler), his family and rest of the kingdom’s ruling clique, pursue bigoted policies and then call that government.

So when it comes to Bahrain, you can forget about the fact that this is supposed to be a Muslim government. Islam has nothing to do with its ruling policies.

What you have is a minority regime which refuses to reform its indecent and inhumane ways. It is going to hold on to power by brute force and by doing so join the ranks of other regimes such as Pinochet’s Chile, the Argentine military dictatorship that massacred its own people, the death-squad regimes of Central America, ad nauseum.

The next time King Hamad appears on the balcony of his palace to address his supporters, the man standing next to him will no doubt be the regime’s “Lord High Executioner.” The probable candidate for this position is Hamad’s uncle, Salman al Khalifa, who is 75 years old and has been the country’s prime minister for 40 years.

As the Gutman piece tells us, that is “a current world record.” This is not a Muslim Bahrain. This is a Fascist Bahrain.

What is the American connection to all of this? The U.S. Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf, is headquartered at a small 100-acre naval base at Bahrain (the base is presently being enlarged).

The U.S. has also designated Bahrain a “major non-NATO ally” and has a “defense pact” with that country. Thus, the United States is concerned about the fate of Bahrain.

It is reported that, at the time of the Egyptian protests, President Obama told both the Bahraini and the Saudi regimes that they should carry out major political reforms so as to prevent similar unrest in their own countries. Both were aghast at this advice and furious that the Obama administration abandoned the Mubarak dictatorship.

Obama has since been publicly silent on the issue of Bahrain. This is what happens when you climb into bed with dictators. If you are not willing to walk away from them, you must turn a blind eye to their behavior.

Historically, this has not been a problem for most American administrations. Abandoning Egypt’s Mubarak seems to be an exception to the rule.

Ever since the Egyptian protests ousted Mubarak, Washington’s rhetoric has been confusing. President Obama has often attempted to lay down what sounds like basic principles ones reflecting “who we (Americans) are as a nation.”

That is the kind of language Obama invoked to justify military intervention in Libya. We were going to “protect civilians” because that is who we are and that is what people like us do. Well, if this is a basic principle, if we allegedly act in this humane way as a function of who we are, should we not be consistent in our behavior?

What about the unfortunate Bahraini Shiites who are being trampled in a fascist manner by a dictatorship every bit as bad, if not worse, than the one in Libya?

I could easily throw in a number of other friendly regimes which have equal fascist potential such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Syria and Iran don’t quite fit here because they are presently not our friends.

Obama, with his principled rhetoric, has run into the inevitable problem of double standards. It is the kind of problem that makes you want to be an isolationist.

However, there is supposedly too much at stake to just walk away from a place like Bahrain. For one thing there is the issue of keeping Middle East oil in “friendly” hands.

And just how big an issue is that? There is an old saying that has gone around Washington for decades and it is framed in the form of the question, “what are the Arab leaders who sit on a lot of oil going to do with it? Drink it?”

In other words, oil is a commercial product. It does not matter if the Saudis or the Bahrainis or the Iraqis or the Iranians, etc. agree with you or not. Whoever ends up in charge is going to sell their oil. So why support dictatorial regimes?

Why not back the protesters? We are all for democracy, or so we claim.

Alas, this is about more than oil. The dictators we now back are accepting of Israel and turn blind eyes to the destruction of the Palestinian people.

The democracies that might replace them are not likely to feel the same way. We already have intonations of this in post Mubarak Egypt. This situation has actually made undeclared allies of Israel and bloody regimes such as that in Bahrain (King Hamad has admitted cooperating with Israel).

Israel, in turn, has one of the strongest lobbies in Washington and, most of the time, shapes America’s Middle East foreign policy, particularly in Congress.
Then, there is our shared, if exaggerated, fear of Shia Iran. Israel and its allied lobbies drive this fear forward in the U.S. and our dictator friends, like the Saudis and the Bahrainis, are also obsessed by it.

Remember, the protesters in Bahrain are overwhelmingly Shiite. If they were successful, Bahrain would most likely be a place friendly toward Iran. That would never do.

This year is not the first time Bahrain’s Shiites have protested their plight. There were protests throughout the 1990s which ended with the proclamation of the National Action Charter promising equality of opportunity for all.

This statement of theory has obviously not been sufficiently translated into practice. It turned out to be a convenient deception hence the 2011 troubles.

There is no reason to believe that the suppression of this year’s protests marks the end of Bahrain’s problems. As noted, most of the kingdom’s protests have been non-violent.

However, with the fascist tactics now adopted by the regime, non-violence is probably not going to be the popular response next time around. It is simply the case that, over time, the violence of the oppressed rises to the level of the violence of the oppressor.

The next time there will likely be civil war in Bahrain.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.