Monday, April 11, 2011

Shi’ites Increasingly Beyond the Sunni Pale in Bahrain

Great minds—or at least the editors and writers of Asia Times—think alike, in this case agreeing that there is something fundamentally creepy about the crackdown on Shi’a demonstrators in Bahrain.

Ever since the Peninsula Shield Force moved over the King Fahd Causeway, the Sunni hardliners have asserted that the Shi’a demonstrators are fundamentally disloyal, stirring up trouble on behalf of Tehran and, in the most extreme formulation, should “go back to Iran”.

I characterized the Bahrain action as part of a Saudi-led counter-revolution, meant to shift the framing from democratic agitation to the Iranian threat in order to give the authoritarian Sunni regimes greater freedom of action.

Pepe Escobar sounded the same theme in his AT article, The sweet smell of counter-revolution.

In particular, the Bahrain government has gone out of its way to depict the unrest as a “sectarian” conflict between Sunni and Shi’a, not a political dispute between the authoritarian government and a disenfranchised group.

No appeals to patriotism or patience or moderation; just a brutal, pervasive crackdown against Shi’a politicians, Shi’a media, Shi’a human rights activists...

It’s an odd formulation for Bahrain, where Shi’a account for more than 50% of the population and, indeed, were the original inhabitants of the island before the Sunni sheiks showed up.

On the other hand, if one looks at Bahrain as little more than another province of Saudi Arabia—the Gulf states’ version of Nevada, the one with the drinking and whoring and gambling concession (it came it at No. 8 in the world ranking of Sin Cities, according to one unscientific poll )—maybe it’s more feasible to depict the Shi’a as a detestable and disloyal minority afflicting the Arabian peninsula.

In any case, to me the effort to smear the Shi’a as a despised underclass for the purpose of constructing Sunni superiority reeks of racial politics in the South and anti-Jewish policies in Germany in the 1930s.

In these cases, the ostracization of a marginalized group was used to assert the supremacy of the dominant class, while claiming that the underclass was fundamentally disloyal and an existential threat to the system.

For the Gulf Co-operation Council bloc led by Saudi Arabia, it seems the anti-Shi’a line in Bahrain is part of an effort to set up a clear antithesis between the Gulf states and Iran.

Saudi Arabian outrage runs the full gamut from subversion by Republican Guard agent to Shi’a domination of the grocery trade.

Here’s a taste, from a fireeating backgrounder—Persian conspiracy seen to target GCC countries-- given to Arab Times on the occasion of a GCC summit devoted to trumpeting the Iranian threat:

Sources affirmed all the GCC countries is currently headed towards reducing the Iranian workforce, especially those employed in the distribution of food products, due to the pressure they have put on the Bahraini government by closing their shops and refusing to sell food items to people in line with the evil plan, which poses a grave threat to social security.

In my piece, China under pressure over Saudi rise, I quote from another Asia Times writer, Derek Henry Flood, titled Dangerous change rattles Bahrain.  He entered Bahrain during the crackdown and reported:

Asia Times Online spoke with Nabeel Rajab, the outspoken director of Bahrain's Center for Human Rights. Rajab candidly outlined the outbreak of gross human-rights violations directed against the island state's Shi'ite majority population in recent weeks.

"It is intimidation ... every Shi'ite [Muslim] is a target," Rajab said of the overall climate of fear gripping the kingdom. Rajab described in detail a campaign of a fear being waged not only in villages in the shadow of the once glittering capital but now in downtown Manama itself.

He said the appearance of graffiti supporting King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, desecration of traditional food offerings left outside husseiniyas (Shi'ite religious halls), and a plethora of humiliating checkpoints where being caught with any imagery related to the uprising or bans on photography can lead to a severe beating coupled with interrogation.
...
During a recent visit to a local hospital, Rajab noticed posters of King Hamad and other leading members of the al-Khalifa dynasty that low-level hospital workers of suspect allegiance were apparently urged to kiss in a display of coerced allegiance.
...
According to a Western diplomat who spoke to Asia Times Online, the active placement of foreign Sunni soldiers in Bahrain's military was an effort to firmly consolidate the kingdom's place as a Sunni power, however minor.
...
Rajab, who was detained on March 20 in a night raid that terrified his family, depicts what amounts to a policy of collective punishment being deployed against the monarchy's now possibly irreconcilable subjects along with an economic implosion that is shaking the nation to its core.
As I said, creepy.

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