Why Bahrain?

Today has proved to be this blog’s most successful day yet in terms of hits, it’s 19.30 GMT here in Sussex, and so far 2,000 people have looked at my blog.

Today is the first anniversary of the violent incident on-campus at the University of Bahrain which took place on 13th March 2011, and proved to be a life-changer for myself, my family and many other people, not least of all the entire student body of the University of Bahrain.

So today I want to answer two simple questions: “Why do my posts concentrate on Bahrain?” and “Why so much focus on the University of Bahrain?”

To Bahrainis, these questions will seem superfluous. Their lives have been turned upside-down by the events of the past two months, so for Bahrainis what happens in Bahrain is important to them, and it’s important that the world understands that the protests, and the Bahrain regime’s repression of the protests, have never gone away.

For this is the slight-of-hand trick that the regime is trying to pull, to use a combination of PR and repressive measures to pretend that the protests finished months ago, and everything is getting back to normal.

Likewise, for Bahrainis, the incident at the University of Bahrain is of paramount importance even through there have been bloodier incidents in Bahrain over the past thirteen months: the university is, or rather should be, at the very centre of civic, intellectual and academic life in Bahrain; not only is it supposed to train the next generation of Bahraini professionals, but it is supposed to help preserve Bahrain’s heritage and facilitate cultural innovation; it is supposed to enable scientific research and provide accurate and objective research in the Social Sciences so that Bahrainis can truly understand Bahrain and the challenges and opportunities Bahrain faces.

I say “supposed to” because this clearly has not happened: what has happened is that the national university of Bahrain has been allowed to become an arm of the repressive state, more than that, an arm of the state’s security and surveillance apparatus.

Thus, for Bahrainis the sickness of the University of Bahrain is an indicator of the sickness of the wider society. If what should be the national centre for excellence in higher education in Bahrain has been allowed to become part of the state’s structure of repression, what does this say about the rest of Bahrain’s public institutions? What does is say about the state of civil society in Bahrain today?

But non-Bahraini readers of this blog might well wonder “Why Bahrain?” After all, Bahrain is a “micro-state” like Singapore, both among the smallest states in the world. Aren’t there bigger, more important things going on?

In the Arab world, what about what has now become a civil war in Syria, what about Egypt, which having got rid of the dictator Mubarak now groans under the yoke of the military. What about Afghanistan? In the past month US soldiers have urinated on Afghan war dead, cut fingers off of corpses, burnt copies of the Qur’an, and conducted a wanton massacre of of innocent villagers disturbingly reminiscent of My Lai. What about sectarian murder in Pakistan, and US drone strikes there? What about Iran and the possibility of war over the nuclear issue? What about UK social problems, countering Islamophobia, enhancing community relations? What about the US Presidential race, which will undoubtedly have a powerful impact on the MENA region?

All these things are important, and as this blog grows and matures it is indeed my intention to diversify its content, not only in terms of current affairs as defined by region, but also so it reflects my wider interests and expertise: the comparative humanities, cultural studies, history, languages, literature, philosophy, theology all with a focus on the Western-Middle Easter encounter.

However, for the time being, Bahrain will come first. Why? Well, to a large extent I’m following the classic advice given by literary agents the world over, “Write about what you know”. While I am certain I could provide informed perspectives to the discussion on, say, Egypt or Syria, these would be to a greater or lesser extent merely more detached comment, and there’s quite enough of that already.

Moreover, the struggles in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere have their champions, many of them better informed than I am. What more could my advocacy bring?

With Bahrain, however, the problem is that the regime is trying to pretend nothing is going on, and until there is a sea-change in Western politics, the West, or at least the English-speaking West, has a vested interest in going along with this deception, even as Bahrainis die. The UK has been particularly bad in this regard.

So Bahrain needs every advocate it can get in the realms of politics, journalism and human rights advocacy, and cries out for serious attention from the international academic community of researchers. I have been intimately involved with Bahraini affairs and can make real and valuable to the academic, journalistic, political, and rights conversations about Bahrain.

Not only is this, but but these contributions can make a real difference to real peoples’ lives. My involvement with Bahrain is not about academic abstractions or media opinion, but real people, many of whom I know personally and many of whom I am able to help.

Beyond these personal factors, Bahrain is important in its own right. It is of course, as I have said, important for Bahrainis, but it is also important for the Arabic-speaking, Islamic, and MENA circles. The MENA region is undergoing profound transformations that offer a generational, perhaps even a once in a lifetime, opportunity to finally shake free of the region’s largely imposed post-colonial political geography, oppressive and unrepresentative state structures, and forms of social control.

The MENA region doesn’t have forever to do this, as the C21st progresses towards what might well be a post-Western future new and emerging powers will begin to take an interest in the region for a similar set of reasons for why the West took an interest in the region during the C20th; fossil fuels loom large. So the MENA region has an historical window, as it were, to stand on its own two feet and engage with new and emerging powers on its own terms in a way it was never able to vis-a-vis the West.

It is very likely indeed that the uprisings of 2011 will prove to be the beginning of a long process, rather than a one-off “Spring” kind of event. It’s become fashionable to talk about the “collapse of Communism in 1989”, but really we’re looking at a long process that began in Poland in the very early 1980s, had roots in Czech uprising of 1968 and the Hungarian one of 1956, had its symbolic climax in 1989, but continued through to the early 2000s. But where once Europe was divided in half by an Iron Curtain, today there is not a single Stalinist regime left between the Arctic Circle and the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Urals.

The Arabic-speaking world’s “Revolutions of Dignity” are like that. If 2011 was their symbolic climax, the roots of these uprisings go back at least a decade before that, and the cultural, economic, military, political and social transformations they have initiated will reverberate for at least a decade to come.

But the Arabic-speaking world’s moment will not last forever. In this context of unprecedented, unpredictable change knowledge of what is happening, and know-how as to make change happen, is invaluable if the peoples of the region are to avoid repeating each others’ mistakes. In this regard, every “Arab Spring” country is unique.

Bahrain’s uniqueness lies in the fact that, the struggle in Al Qutayf notwithstanding, it provides the only example of a sustained attempt to overthrow one of the GCC region’s “monarchical dictatorships”, the lessons Bahrain provides are valuable not only for Bahrain, but for the peoples of other regional monarchies, not least of all Saudi Arabia.

The Bahrain struggle is also important because of the PR and media war being waged by the regime to try to ensure that the world is in the dark as to what is going on there. In part this is a consequence of the West’s deep involvement in the GCC region. While Mubarak was generally deemed to be a pro-Western dictator he was a tottering one, and recipient of vast amounts of American largess thrown at the regime in the name of “stability”.

Western interests in the GCC region, however, involve the maintenance of regimes that ensure a steady flow of relatively cheap oil and gas, and which are major purchasers of Western arms. The arms trade, and more latterly the security and surveillance trades, are particularly important to UK PLC, where the manufacturing economy has long been skewed towards arms production, and where security and surveillance are important areas of diversification. This, perhaps more than oil, determines the UK’s position on Bahrain, and beyond Bahrain, Saudi.

Thus the struggle in Bahrain is being waged with Western weapons. Not just aircraft, armoured cars, guns and tear-gas made in the West, but also with Western expertise in media management, policing, PR, surveillance technology, even culture and international law. Again, it is the UK that is playing the lead in maintaining old-fashioned “stability” in Bahrain, selling new kinds of surveillance weapons and information management expertise developed in Northern Ireland, in the British inner-cities (perhaps the most surveillance-intensive places on earth), and through the British state’s struggle with “Domestic Extremists”. Next to these, “Made in the USA” tear-gas looks almost innocent.

Thus, Bahrain’s struggle with these Western weapons is important to the peoples of the GCC region as they begin their struggles for democratization, open, civil society, equality of opportunity, and political representation and legitimacy. Indeed, the Bahraini’s confrontation with these new weapons, and their successes and failures in countering them, are of importance to peoples the world over engaging in struggles for progressive transformation in an unpredictably changing C21st, not least of all people in London, NYC, or Washington DC.

The Egyptian and Syrian uprisings have an inter-religious dimension involving Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt and Shia and Sunni Muslims, Awalites, Druze and Orthodox and Catholic Christians in Syria. Tribalism was an important factor in Libya. In most of the Arabic-speaking world’s “Revolutions of Dignity” regimes have sought to use faith, sect and tribe as part of a a divide-and-rule strategy, attempting to fracture popular movements and create focuses for a manufactured loyalism.

In Bahrain, the primary divide-and-rule issue has been Sunni-Shia sectarianization, complicated by the towering presences of the two large regional powers between which Bahrain is sandwiched, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. So we see pro-regime “loyalists” arguing that the Bahrain uprising was not really part of the “Arab Spring”, but an Iran-backed coup to topple a pro-Western monarchy, even as the self-same “loyalists” work to engineer Bahrain’s incremental absorbtion into Saudi Arabia.

The Sunni-Shia dimension of the Bahrain struggle has been much-discussed, and I do not propose to discuss it further in this post. However, I will conclude by saying that a democratic, pluralistic Bahrain will be a powerful stimulant for democratic change in both Saudi Arabia and the other monarchical dictatorships in the GCC, AND in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Democratization in these two countries will have a powerful and positive effect as far afield as Israel-Palestine, Pakistan and the Muslim communities of the UK and the EU as states and communities are weaned off the supply Saudi proxy-money and Iranian influence to articulate cultural, social and political identities within the actual cultural, social and political contexts in which they find themselves.

Bahrain’s small size has always made Bahrain an ideal place in which to launch pilot projects, since much can be achieved there at little expense and with little risk. The best pilot projects of all to launch in Bahrain would be democratization, equal opportunities, and building and open, civil society, for these pilots would roll themselves out across the regions.

In backing the most selfish, reactionary and in a sense disloyal elements in Bahraini politics the West, and in particular the UK, are making a very serious mistake. They are making a bad investment in a post-colonial form of “stability” which is passing, rather than investing wisely in a future that most certainly will come to be. This is why Bahrain is important, it’s still not too late to change tack.

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