On the 14 February anniversary, many of us breathed a sigh of relief; the protests hadn’t been particularly well attended, they hadn’t achieved their aims of reaching the Pearl Roundabout, and the police performed impressively well in managing these events, without giving the opposition any excuse to talk about repression, injustice and martyrs.
The poster boy for the 14 February demos was very much Nabeel Rajab. It was him who was photographed and quoted my most of the international newspapers and he who had spectacularly declared that he’d drag his young daughter and wife off to the Pearl – apparently in the hope of them all getting assaulted and locked up and thus providing the opposition with further material to grease their propaganda machine with. We can be grateful that our security forces showed restraint in refraining from granting Rajab’s wish.
Nabeel Rajab, Ibrahim Sharif and the other ‘liberal’ figures are clearly dwindling stars. The National Democratic Action Society ‘Waad’ is a ghost of an organization and the students, progressives and fresh-faced democrats are now nowhere to be seen in the protest movement.
Three weeks later, Al-Wefaq’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Isa Qasim calls for a demonstration on 9th March and the results are very different. While the numbers of protestors on this second march is hotly disputed, it is clear that many times the number of people turned out compared to 14 Feb. The organization of this second march also appeared much more slick and impressive than the shambolic events of 14th February.
This tells us much about the direction of travel of the protest movement. As a liberal, grassroots movement it is finished and the young idealists have deserted it in droves. As a sectarian, religious movement the opposition clearly retains a great deal of vigour and is perhaps growing in confidence.
That the opposition mobilized so widely at the behest of one Ayatollah speaks volumes about this movement’s political orientation, although this is something that has been increasingly obvious to many of us.
The opposition has played a very clever game, making sure that the narrative heard by audiences in the West is one of human rights, democracy and tolerance. When Ali Salman and others have travelled to the West, the turbans and robes have disappeared, in place of expensive suits and well-polished statements.
They know that if they aspire to an Islamic state on Iranian lines adhering to Wilayat Al Faqih, the outside world must never get a hint that this is their real game. Thus, with the advent of 2011 and the Arab Spring, out went the massive Hezbollah flags and immense photos of Iranian Ayatollahs at all their marches (although, unfortunately for them, the Internet provides an inerasable record of where their affiliations lie).
Iran has been their constant cheerleader; mobilizing its Arabic, English and Farsi TV channels to ladle out sectarian hatred, incitement to violence, and propaganda against the Bahraini state. Iran has likewise mobilized its puppets in Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait and elsewhere; like Muqtada al-Sadr who recently brought out thousands of his followers onto the streets across Iraq, fired up with Iranian propaganda about massacres and torture in Bahrain.
There is an unavoidable parallel here with Iran itself in 1979. In many ways Iran of the 1960s and 70s had a society comparable to that of Bahrain; liberal, open to outside influences, developing at a frightening pace, and where women were respected and encouraged to participate in all domains of society.
The Iranian protest movement was a mixture of liberals, communists, radicals and of course Islamists. However, it was ultimately one figure who came to dominate; both symbolizing opposition to the Shah and mobilizing millions of people through the network of Mosques and Shia religious institutions. When he came to power, the liberal wing of the movement was hunted down, locked up, tortured, liquidated and erased from the collective memory.
There was only to be one vision for Iran and that vision had to be imposed with infinitely greater ferocity than the Shah had been capable of. It was a ferocity that saw more than a million of the best of the youth massacred in a senseless war that went on for a decade, because the leaders were too stubborn, and too certain that God was on their side to call a halt. Ultimately, it was one man who decided war or peace, life or death for a whole nation, thus exerting an absolute dictatorship over his people. That man, who needs no introduction, was of course Ayatollah Khomeini.
It would be overly simplistic to assert that Ayatollah Isa Qasim aspires to Khomeini’s standing here in Bahrain. However, Qasim and those around him are known to be fully committed to the principles of Wilayat Al Faqih; they are known to look to Iran for ideological leadership; and nothing they have ever said would give us confidence that their vision for Bahrain is a liberal haven of coexistence, where the rights of all sects and religions is respected and nobody’s ideology is imposed by force.
The reality is quite the opposite: Why would anyone in their right mind believe for a minute that Qasim, Salman, Mushaima and their ilk have any desire for democracy on secular principles for Bahrain? The very idea that we should entrust the future of our beloved country to such an ideological camp seems ridiculous and terrifying.
Qasim, in particular has shown his true colours by using a religious pulpit to incite his followers to “crush” the police. We have all seen the video clip of Qasim manically yelling “CRUSH THEM – it’s impossible to humiliate us”. If we wanted to be generous we could say that this was dangerously irresponsible; if we wanted to be alarmist, we would say that this is a tiny glimpse of Bahrain’s future if this figure ever achieved real power.
We return to the crucial point that the liberal wing of the opposition is on its last legs; scared off by the decidedly illiberal vision of the opposition’s Islamist leadership. Meanwhile, the pro-Iranian, sectarian and extremist wing of the opposition is visibly in the ascendancy and the 9th March demonstration is tangible proof of their unique ability to mobilize, coordinate and direct the masses.
Our hope is that the opposition will take the courageous step of using this position of strength to enter dialogue on an equal and fair footing in a constructive spirit without maximalist and inflexible demands. The opposition has demonstrated that it represents a constituency within Bahraini society and it is therefore only right that this constituency should be represented and have its aspirations included as part of a holistic vision for the future of our country.
On the other hand, our fear is that these extremist figures have never had any interest in dialogue; they want the Bahraini state for themselves; they have a vision and the will to impose it on all of us and any of us who refuse to accept this version of Bahrain are to be suppressed or liquidated. We hope to be proved wrong and that these figures will show themselves willing to make compromises and accept the legitimacy of other viewpoints and other aspirations for Bahrain.
However, the world should become wiser to their hypocrisy:
They attack the state for its democratic failings; in the hope of replacing it with something far more absolutist and intolerant.
They attack the state’s use of force and exploit every mistake by our security forces; but are not shy to use and incite violence to achieve their aims.
They talk about injustice; but are wedded to the vision of sweeping to power and imposing far greater injustices on the vast majority of Bahrainis who reject their theocratic vision.
Let us hope that 9th March is the date where the scales start to fall away from the eyes of the Western media and human rights groups about the real aims of Bahrain’s Islamist opposition. Yes, such organizations have been right to air concerns about human rights abuses; but let’s pray that they are not guilty of the far greater mistake of once again facilitating the rise to power of crazed ideologues dedicated to committing far, far greater abuses in pursuit of an absolutist vision abhorrent to 90% of Bahrainis.