Apr 26th 2011

Rats, Roaches and Shiites

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

I'm not arguing that Shiites have a lot in common with rodents and insects. But you wouldn't know it by watching Bahrainis and Saudis snuff them out with barely a peep from Western and majority-Sunni Arab nations, both.

Shia-majority Iran, Iraq and the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah have been the most vocal in condemning the outrageous killings, arrests and beatings of Shiites in the Persian Gulf -- but they have had to do so with a muffled voice. Each objection from Iran or Hezbollah unleashes a barrage of opportunistic rants by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the U.S. about "Iranian interference" and expansionism.

Which means as long as we can successfully infer a nefarious connection between these groups, one can simply yell "Iran" or "Hezbollah" and kill, torture and imprison Shiites with impunity -- in much the same way that we yelled "al Qaeda" and buried hundreds of Sunni Muslims in Guantanamo for years. No matter that we have never ever proven a connection of significance between these coreligionists.

It's the equivalent of saying all Irish Catholics have a connection to the Irish Republican Army. Or that all Jews take marching orders from Israel.


The Sectarian Bogeyman
To be fair, this isn't really a sectarian battle -- although some would like to spin it that way. This is about autocratic regimes stifling protest, and it just so happens that the largest disenfranchised populations in these places are Shiites.

At the very heart of the matter lies the growing battle for influence in the greater Middle East. These domestic Arab uprisings -- while highly desired by their national populations -- on a geopolitical level threaten to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the region toward the "Resistance Bloc" -- state and non-state actors that reject U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the Mideast.

Shiite-majority Iran is a major influencer in this bloc, which is why it has been so important for Washington and Riyadh to keep the pressure on the Islamic Republic and deprive it of any opportunity to gain further footholds or popular support from non-Shia populations in the region.

When mass protests kicked off in Bahrain on February 14, the peaceful demonstrations in Pearl Square were decidedly non-sectarian. Sunni and Shia came together to demand reform across the board. Yes, the majority of protesters were Shia, but that number falls along demographic lines in a country of around 70% Shiites who have been marginalized politically, economically and socially.

When a brutal, regime-led clampdown ensued with killings and beatings, the mood changed and protesters called for the downfall of the Al Khalifa ruling family. Suddenly "Iran" was being invoked as an instigator for regime change and Saudi troops were "invited in" to quell the protests.

The past month has seen a violent clampdown of a different kind. Bahraini troops -- many imported from other Sunni countries -- and Saudi forces troll largely-impoverished Shia neighborhoods and villages, arresting activists and violently suppressing any signs of protest -- or even normal Shia religious activity.

Hundreds of activists have "disappeared" in the small Persian Gulf nation of 600,000 citizens - one in every 1,000 Bahraini, by one count -- and masked men storm into private homes regularly in the middle of the night to detain Shia human rights workers, bloggers and opposition members.


@angyarabiya Rails Against the Injustice
I spoke to Zainab AlKhawaja, a young Danish-educated mother, just hours after she had begun her hunger strike to protest the detention of her human rights activist father Abdulhadi AlKhawaja, husband, brother-in-law and uncle by Bahraini officials. Zainab witnessed the beating of her relatives in the early hours of April 9 when about a dozen masked men in black uniforms arrived at her home where family members had congregated, having been alerted that special forces were coming to find her father, who they called "the target."

"We changed our clothes... and waited for them to come. My father didn't want to hide in someone else's house and put them in danger. He has been arrested and detained before. His attitude is that he hasn't done anything wrong and is not going to hide."

Zainab, who penned an emotional letter to U.S. President Barack Obama as she began her hunger strike, questions the "legitimacy" of a government whose "only strength is in their guns," claiming they are now "trying as hard as they can to keep their crackdown in predominantly Shia villages so people won't see it."

She continues:

The February 14 youth are still making plans. The government didn't expect this. Every time they leave the villages, people come out again with their candlelight vigils and their peaceful protests. The troops go back in with their tanks, masked men and live bullets - and that really shows who's strong and who's weak.


This CNN report on current events in Bahrain supports the details of Zainab's allegations, which the Khalifas dismiss and Washington ignores.

Zainab dismisses claims that Bahrain's uprising is a sectarian affair backed by Iran and has this to say about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates' assertions about intervention by the Islamic Republic:

They know its not true, we know its not true, our government knows its not true. Its being used as an excuse for why our government is attacking us and why the U.S. government is supporting them. Because if it weren't for this excuse, then America would have to stand up and say that we're not supporting freedom and democracy in Bahrain because it is not in our interest to do so.


This August 2008 WikiLeaks Cable suggests she is right on the Iran issue, and that Washington knows it.

Washington's interests are to circle and shut down the Iranian regime, be it through sanctions, or diplomatic and military hard power. The Arab countries of the Persian Gulf are essential to this strategy now that Iraq is not a reliable anti-Iran ally any longer. Not only is the U.S. Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain, but close ally Saudi Arabia also fears an uprising by disenfranchised Shia populations in its oil-rich Eastern Province, and has waged battle against allegedly Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, even though a WikiLeaks Cable recently revealed that Saudi officials are skeptical of their own claim.

And so an anti-Shia narrative is being spun to enable Gulf monarchies to act against protesting Arab populations in the Persian Gulf.

Zainab cautioned that the Bahraini government is now "doing a media campaign" to spin the sectarian narrative and put some "gloss" on their misdeeds. What the Guardian calls "Reputation Laundering." Two days later, I experienced this firsthand.


Lunch in London with a Senior Bahraini Official
A few weeks ago I received a lunch invitation from an Arab diplomat in London with whom I had recently become acquainted. A few days after accepting, his office rang to ask if I would mind if a Bahraini official joined us.

Ten minutes into our lunch meeting, the Bahraini government representative -- an Al-Khalifa, I don't mind telling you, because there are so many of them -- pulled out a document entitled "Indications of Iranian Interference in Bahraini Affairs." The papers essentially do nothing more than quote Iranian officials, quasi-officials, religious leaders, media outlets and parliamentarians railing against Manama's treatment of Shia populations, denouncing Saudi military intervention against Bahraini civilians, and condemning the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) efforts to "spread Iranophobia in the region."

Par for the course. And not a shred of evidence about actual Iranian intervention in Bahrain.

More interesting by far was the earful I received during our meal. Some highlights:

According to Mr. Khalifa, Bahraini Shia leaders, Shia clergy and all 18 Shia parliamentarians in the country's Al Wefaq party, follow instructions directly from Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. I shouldn't be fooled by the fact that they are "very nice, very smart, wear ties, and are educated," he insisted, and then followed by declaring:

"I do not want to be quoted as saying I'm stirring up sectarian tension or adding fuel to the fire. I just want you to be aware."

When asked why the rest of Bahrain's Shia -- who make up nearly three-quarters of the country's population -- are forbidden from serving in their national army, which instead imports Sunni troops from countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Khalifa explained: "I'll come to that. They all follow Khamenei, so they can't serve in the army. We have a few in the army, but we are worried [about] that unless they say outright their loyalty to their country is more than to their supreme leader."

He even managed a gratuitous "Hezbollah" mention. The Bahraini official claims that Iran intervened directly in Bahrain in the 90s, but "learned from their mistake." So they said, "Next time we do it, we will do it through Hezbollah. We have confessions and court cases about this."

Acknowledging that these "interventions" were ancient history, and that most of the defendants were reintegrated into Bahraini society, Mr. Khalifa bristled when I pointed to the WikiLeaks cable that quotes U.S. diplomats as saying:

Bahraini government officials sometimes privately tell U.S. official visitors that some Shi'a oppositionists are backed by Iran. Each time this claim is raised, we ask the GOB to share its evidence. To date, we have seen no convincing evidence of Iranian weapons or government money here since at least the mid-1990s.


"Who cares what the Americans say and don't say?" he demanded.

The cable also addresses Mr. Khalifa's claim that Bahraini Shia follow Iranian clerics blindly:

Post's very rough estimate is that 30 percent of the Shi'a here follow clerics who look to more senior clerics in Iran for guidance. The majority look to Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, and a few to Muhammad Fadlallah and others in Lebanon. Bahrain's most popular Shi'a cleric is Sheikh Isa Qassim, who has occasionally endorsed the Iranian regime's doctrine of velayat-e faqih, and as a result is a lightning rod for loud Sunni criticism, and quieter criticism from some more orthodox Shi'a clerics.


Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is not an advocate of the Islamic Republic's concept of Velayat-e-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist), itself an aberration of the long-held Shia tradition of separating religious authority from political authority. As example, Sistani has played a low-key role in Iraqi politics, only intervening when sectarian strife threatened fundamental stability in the war-torn country, and has resisted meetings with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in order to underline his political neutrality.

And by the end of the meal, Mr. Khalifa even conceded that "Iran is only 'intervening' through the Marjah (senior member of clergy that is authorized to interpret religious doctrine for followers)." Acknowledging that religious Shia still tend to follow their own preferred marjah from a large pool of clerics, Mr. al Khalifa concluded, "there's nothing we can do about this. There's nothing wrong with it exactly."

Zainab would not have been happy to hear that during our discussion, Mr. Khalifa identified her father as "the main Velayat-e-Faqih supporter." The 50-year-old Khawaja, he said, "may look nice and dress nice, but he is a product of the Iranian revolution."

As I post this article, I receive news that Zainab has ended her hunger strike due to health reasons. Her mother writes: "In the past few days Zainab's health has deteriorated and she has had trouble breathing with fast heart beat. In the last two days she was having trouble standing up or sitting straight and I had to give her water using a spoon."

Better still, her father has been allowed to call the family -- no doubt in part because of the global outcry over his plight, highlighted by his daughter's hunger strike. She tweeted an hour ago: "My father just called... & my heart is bleeding for him. He could barely speak... Never in my life have I heard my father speak of his pain, he's always strong. To hear those words, to hear his voice like that kills me."

Khawaja's "trial" begins at 8:00 am on Thursday in Bahrain's military court.

I feel for the Shia of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere. One can make a real case for stomping out rats and roaches for health and sanitation reasons. But say "Iran" or "Hezbollah" -- our favorite manufactured "villains" -- and a Shiite has to live a life of fear for nothing.

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