Bahrain Interview: 4 Activists Analyse "The Story That Should Be Covered" (Rajab/Mohammed/Khalaf/Shehabi)
Al Jazeera English interviews Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, before his detention on Saturday; "Mohammed", an activist; Abdulhadi Khalaf, professor of sociology at Lund University in Sweden; and Ala'a Shehabi, economist and activist:
What is the story that's not being covered?
Mohammed: The scale of the ongoing and continual violations of human rights are not being explained by the media. Even compared with Syria, the numbers of Bahrainis who have been tortured and otherwise abused and killed is quite high.
Nabeel Rajab: The problem is still that most commentators focus on the Sunni-Shia split as the most important issue, when the real story is about a nation fighting for democracy and a proper political and economic system, free from corruption.
Ala'a Shehabi: If we want to get away from general terms and move to more specific stories about people's daily lives during the uprising, the way people are living with being tear-gassed on a daily basis and the long term effects of tear gas on people's health is an important story. The volume and frequency of exposure in Bahrain is much higher than anywhere else in the world. At least 500 canisters a day are being used within what is geographically very small areas, most of them residential. Just a few days ago I counted fifty empty tear gas canisters just walking down the street. But because tear gas is considered "non-lethal", the media and foreign governments assume it's not such a big deal. But police use tear gas as a weapon of collective punishment; it's being fired inside homes and in confined spaces in villages.
Rajab: In fact, the US no longer supplies tear gas to Bahrain because the company that makes it realised that it's not being using properly. Now it's mostly China and Brazil that are the main suppliers, although the Brazilian government claims that its tear gas was re-exported without permission by countries to which it was legitimately sold.
Mohammed: In addition, the tear gas has caused a high number of miscarriages by women, about which Nabeel's organisation recently published a report. More recently, shotgun or bird shot pellets are also becoming a major source of casualties. Especially in the lead-up to the Formula One race, many protesters were shot at close range with bird pellets, causing serious injuries.
What about the larger political context in the wake of the F1 race?
Rajab: It's clear that the situation is heading more towards confrontation than towards any kind of amelioration.
Abdulhadi Khalaf: It's important to note that the effects of the tear gas in a small country without any trees or a way to absorb the chemicals and break them down naturally is compounded by the disastrous situation of environmental pollution in Shia areas of the country. More positively, however, one issue that isn't talked about enough is the fantastic change in women's participation. This is fascinating and very important for the dynamics and future of the protests. For students of Bahrain's history, when the villages have always been spaces where women were excluded from the public sphere by religious authorities and tradition, to see their greater participation now marks a major cultural and political shift.
In fact, now it's more women than men protesting. In the 1970s, those religious authorities that called for protests or marches wanted women to stay at home and to be excluded from public space. Now they are tolerating and even encouraging their presence, which is actually being celebrated within Shia society. Mothers are celebrating that their daughters are out on the streets; they aren't calling them to stay home or to "keep their honour".
Shehabi: There's a clear reason for that, as the conflict became more about survival. During a state of emergency when men were being arrested, disappeared, tortured, etc; that's when women started going out, in part as a way of protecting men. At least that is the transformation that happened in me, after my husband was arrested for ten months.
Rajab: Of course, many of the leading campaigners and activists, like Abdulhadi and myself, are so-called liberal and secular. That has played a role; we have more women participating because we encouraged women a lot.
Khalaf: True, but that's not unique for the secular opposition to encourage women. What's unique I think is that women's public role was formerly a mostly urban phenomenon, and now you also see it in the villages.
Shehabi:Society as a whole, particularly men, are celebrating the presence of women in the protests, whether they face police directly, treat the injured, or paint or do other forms of street art.
Are Sunni Bahrainis becoming more involved in the protests?
Shehabi: In general there isn't a culture of protest among the Sunni community, though Sunni were present in significant numbers during the occupation of Pearl square. Pro-government Sunni have been mobilised by the state and have organised a few rallies the past year. But it's clear that greater numbers of Sunni are becoming sympathetic to the protests as they come to understand that the intense government propaganda and even incitement against Shia are grossly inaccurate and unfair. But with a few exceptions it hasn't yet translated into significant political action, though that is beginning to change, as we saw when a Sunni MP demanded the resignation of the prime minister - who has been in power for 42 years.
Rajab:There are two types of Sunni reactions. First, there are the people who have benefited from the current political and economic system, and for whom the continuity of protests is going to hurt them, and so they are no longer as strongly supporting the government - and even beginning to oppose it. The second group is the Sunni who were misled, as Ala'a explained, and are now realising this. For example, there are now more Sunni involved in Twitter conversations and exchanges questioning the government accounts and rationale for its actions. This is very important.
Mohammed:The Sunni were fed the story that if the revolution succeeds, Bahrain would become just like Iran. But now they realise that there is just no chance there's going to be an Islamic Republic in Bahrain. My Sunni friends increasingly have exactly the same demands as I do, so it's only a matter of time before we start stating them together. The local Bahraini Sunni also have increasing troubles with all the newcomers - Pakistanis, Syrians, Yemenis, Jordanians - who've been brought in as mercenaries and given Bahraini citizenship to boost the percentage of Sunni in the population. The Sunni are starting to understand that it's not our fault that this is happening, although they won't support us yet politically.
Why haven't they become more active yet?
Rajab:First, you have to realise that to be a Sunni in the opposition is not easy. Not only will the government turn against you and your job threatened, but very often your own family will go against you. Shia have nothing to lose, but if you look at someone like Sunni politician Ibrahim Sharif, half of his family has boycotted him. Other politicians like Ussama Tammimi, who is a Sunni MP and the only member of parliament to have served in the 1973 and the 2002 parliaments, has suffered for his support for change.
Khalaf:It's clear that the poor and working class Sunnis are discovering that they are also losers in the current system. Before, they always new that, whatever else happened, they could always hope that their sons and daughters would be recruited into the system, especially the army and security services. But now the government just hires the Pakistanis and other foreigners, so they are losing out. Now they're not sure they'll get a job. They don't have to compete only with poor Shia now, but also 100 million Pakistanis. So this gives them reason to reconsider their position. Some, of course, react by being even more loyal, to win favour, and others are starting to join those groups that start to put demands on the regime.
Mohammed:This is definitely scaring the royals. Essentially today the Sunni are taking the same position here that the Alawi are taking in Syria: They're the minority and will be wiped out if the majority takes over. But that discourse can't last forever.
Shehabi: The class dimension is also key; the way Sunni leaders and the state-controlled media speak of the protesters with such revulsion. It can't continue much longer without turning even other Sunni against them.
Khalaf:This is similar to the views of poor whites in the US against blacks who have, in the past, been their main competition for jobs, but when even cheaper immigrant labour comes in, their positions change.
But at one point, will the Sunni join the revolution?
Khalaf:They won't join the revolution as it is now. They will have their own revolution, on a different but parallel track. It's starting, but it's not the same as the Shia revolution and won't converge just yet. The schism is still so deep, but no one can know precisely when it will converge.
Shehabi:We're not necessarily confused about the Sunni position, but no one can really know the direction it will move. One thing is for sure, they are just as fed up with the political conflict as the Shia and are finding ways to configure their movement to put their demands for reform that are largely economic, such as housing, education, health.
What's the US and broader Western role at this point in the internal Bahraini dynamic?
Rajab:The Americans realise that more groups are coming out against them, so they're becoming worried. In fact, some of us are also worried that people are becoming more anti-American and that could create a self-fulfilling prophecy of moving towards Iran. It is increasingly the feeling among people now. And, if tomorrow, Iran would offer people help, even through violence, the reaction would be different than a year ago, when it would have been largely dismissed out of hand. The problem is that the Americans have felt that in a proper democracy, Bahrainis would be pro-Iranian, but that wasn't true before. And now it is starting to happen, especially given the amount of coverage the Iranian media is giving to the protests, compared with the Arab and Western media.
Shehabi:Of course, the US is still firmly backing the al-Khalifas, backing "legitimate demands" but not really pushing fiercely for any substantive change. None of the major powers are backing the opposition, even the al-Wefaq party, which the US considered "moderate". And because of this, because of the predominant US role (given the presence of the fifth fleet), the US is creating hatred for its foreign policy now more than ever. For the first time, we see protests specifically directed against the US. People aren't against Americans, but US policy. And the British as well, given its colonial legacy.
Khalaf:Yes, but the most vocal anti-American voices are, in fact, the Sunni - who are angry at any pressure put on the regime. So it's coming from both sides now, for opposite reasons.
What about the youth? They've been central to the protests - and now the resistance - from the start. How is their role changing?
Rajab:Their role is, more than anything, being in the streets, keeping the pressure up. This and ensuring unity within the Shia opposition and with the Sunni who are close to them.
Shehabi:There is an underground youth movement that is developing, which we haven't begun to understand. It's called the February 14th Youth Movement and, for a long time, the government wouldn't acknowledge its existence, but it's there. It's the youth self-identifying with themselves. Every new social media account on Twitter or Facebook set up by a protester has the movement's icons, either the Pearl monument, the date February 14th on it, pictures of martyrs, etc. But the new thing is that they are completely anonymous, decentralised, and work in provincial networks across villages. This is the very opposite of the way activists like myself work - we on the other end are very open; I publicise precisely where I am and what I'm doing and saying, the idea is that there's safety in complete exposure, which makes it harder for me to be a target.
In this regard, the indiscriminate government repression has created a new generation of activists. when you are suddenly arrested for no reason other than your sect, you lose all agency. I never had the chance to decide to become political and to consider the consequnces. it happened so fast I had no time to make the calculations of whether I should and could risk everything. I found myself as a single mother when my husband was arrested, I found myself in a military court to see him, I saw him sentenced and jailed before I could comprehend what was happening. This is what impassions and radicalises activists and makes the Bahraini protest movement so dynamic.