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Bahrain Feature: Polemic and "Analysis" --- Exorcising Ed Husain's Demons (Carlstrom)

Funeral march for activist Salah Abbas Habib, slain by security forces, 26 April

Gregg Carlstrom writes on his website The Majlis:

If you follow Bahrain, you've probably heard about the mini-scandal involving Ed Husain, the senior fellow from the Council on Foreign Relations who recently traveled to Bahrain and live-tweeted regime talking points throughout his trip.

His tweets drew a lot of scorn, and with good reason; comments like this one do not exactly pass for sophisticated analysis:



Husain has since made slightly more empirical arguments about Bahrain, first in this CFR blog post and today in a New York Times op-ed called "The Prince and the Ayatollah". These pieces — specifically, Husain's almost single-minded focus on Sheikh Issa Qassim — deserve a response.

Both pieces, but particularly the op-ed, reduce Bahrain's uprising to a simple dichotomy: On one side is the crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, presented as a Western-educated reformist; on the other is Qassim, presented as an ugly sectarian character with a long history of inflammatory statements.

Qassim, if you're unfamiliar, is the most popular Shia cleric in Bahrain. Educated in Iran (like many Shia clerics), he returned to Bahrain following the general amnesty in 2001. His role in politics has always been a bit murky; I've heard him compared to the Muslim Brotherhood's supreme guide, but unlike the murshid he holds no official role within Al Wefaq, the largest Shia opposition party in Bahrain. Nonetheless, he clearly has a powerful behind-the-scenes role in Wefaq; his seniority and popularity allow him to influence Sheikh Ali Salman, the cleric who runs the party.

But his role in Bahrain's uprising is far less significant. This is the central fallacy in Husain's analysis, which constantly presents Qassim as the "leader" of the uprising. For example:

Ayatollah Qassim's supporters not only undermined the crown prince's efforts at reconciliation, but in recent weeks have taken to rioting in villages across Bahrain. In Sitra, one such village outside Manama, I spoke in Arabic with a police official, a Shiite, who said: "I am Bahraini before I am Shiite. We must live as Bahrainis and do what's right for our country, and not be controlled by Iran’s clerics."

The tone of Husain's writing suggests that he didn't actually interview the "rioters." He might have been surprised. Many of the shabab who clash with police night after night belong to the so-called "February 14 Coalition," a loosely-aligned group of revolutionaries. The group's members tend to be critical of Qassim, who they view as an opportunist — not unlike the way Egypt's revolutionaries view the Muslim Brotherhood.

What's more, they tend to articulate progressive political demands. In an interview earlier this year with Rutgers professor Toby Craig Jones, published in Jadaliyya, the group called for judicial reform, separation of powers, and efforts to curb discrimination.

Reversing the timeline on dialogue

The complexity of Bahrain's opposition, in other words, is completely lost in Husain's analysis. He portrays Al Wefaq as a weak party in thrall to Qassim, without mentioning the Manama Document, the October 2011 paper which Wefaq wants to use as a basis for negotiations with the government. It calls for a democratically-elected government, fair electoral boundaries, an independent judiciary and security sector reforms. (No mention of vilayet-e-fiqh.)

Nor does he acknowledge Wa'ad, the secular leftist party whose offices are adorned with posters of Gamal Abdel Nasser. The jailed leader of the party, Ibrahim Sharif, is a Sunni.

Husain even cherry-picks from Qassim's public statements. He reproduces a few statements, the most recent from June 2009, in which Qassim speaks approvingly of Iran and Hezbollah. He doesn't mention this sermon from March 2011:

"Our demands are political ones, and have nothing to do with demands for a sect or segment of society," he said at Friday Prayer, according to an English translation distributed afterward. "We are demanding democracy."

Nor does he mention a December sermon in which Qassim explicitly said, "We do not call for a Shia democracy."

It's of course legitimate to question Qassim's sincerity — whether he really believes those statements, or just makes them for political expediency. But an analysis which accuses Qassim of rejecting democracy should at least acknowledge the sermons in which he, well, embraced democracy.

You could just as easily invert Husain's dichotomy, as I do in the title of this post [originally "The Prime Minister and the Secularist"]: Ibrahim Sharif could represent a secular, reform-minded opposition, and the prime minister could represent a reactionary, sectarian regime. But you'd still be no closer to understanding the complex political situation in Bahrain, in which all of the major actors — the opposition, the government, and various pro-government (or "anti-opposition") groups are riven with ideological splits.

There are other issues with Husain's analysis, particularly his assertion that Al Wefaq abandoned the crown prince by quitting the so-called "national dialogue" last summer.

Wefaq initially agreed to participate, believing that the dialogue would be led by the reform-minded crown prince. But Salman was sidelined even before the dialogue began, replaced with Khalifa al-Dhahrani, the parliament speaker and a close ally of the prime minister.

Wefaq continued to participate for about two weeks before finally withdrawing, declaring the talks "not serious." It's hard to argue with their verdict, given the marginal set of recommendations which came out of the talks.

You could also criticize Husain for several sins of omission — like the scant attention he gives to the excessive use of tear gas in Bahraini villages, the ongoing torture of detainees, the near-complete impunity enjoyed by members of the security forces. He criticizes the "language of Shiite sectarianism," but says nothing about the state-sponsored sectarianism directed against the Shia community.

The central issue with his analysis, though, is the framing, and the focus on Qassim. It's true that Qassim can mobilize large numbers of people: his endorsement was one reason for the huge turnout during the March 9 protest on Budaiya highway. But don't confuse that with ideological influence; the protesters carried signs calling for democratic reforms, not vilayet-e-fiqh. In four trips to Bahrain since the uprising began, and hundreds of interviews with opposition members, I have never met one who endorsed theocracy.

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