For the February 14 Movement militants the philosophy is: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us”. So the enemy isn’t just the Government – it is non-Bahraini residents, Sunni civilians, businessmen and the moderate middle ground – from which much support for the 2011 protests first came.
Therefore, pro-Monarchy Shia public figures; Shia middle classes who haven’t joined the revolution; children who attend schools on protest days; and everybody not actively involved in “bringing down the regime” – inevitably becomes ‘the enemy’ and a ‘legitimate target’.
Not long ago, a Shia parliamentarian, Abbas al-Madi (one of the few MPs who had chosen not to boycott parliamentary elections) fell victim to attacks by radical Shia protesters. On two occasions, protesters pelted the MP’s home with Molotov cocktails, causing severe damage. Luckily, no one sustained serious injuries.
Shia businesses have been firebombed or attacked if they don’t conform strictly to frequent strikes; or if the owners are reputedly doing business with the authorities.
Because such allegations are spread by word of mouth, many of those attacked are probably innocent; and few who suffer such attacks dare to report the incident, for fear of further reprisals.
Many people from these communities talk discretely about a culture of intimidation: If you don’t show your face at protests; if your children aren’t building roadblocks and throwing Molotovs; if you aren’t contributing materially to the revolution – then local Al-Wefaq representatives or thugs who constantly hover in the streets are likely to single you out as a regime sympathizer or informant.
The protest movement says that it is campaigning for freedom of expression; but those who express views different from the militant orthodoxy become subject to attack, denouncement, or public humiliation.
Twitter provides a particularly nasty medium for denouncement of anybody suspected of deviating from this orthodoxy. Too many Bahrainis have been subject to personal and upsetting attacks. Reputations have been ruined in a matter of minutes as a false rumor goes viral. Unfortunately, Sunni hardliners are just as guilty as Shia militants of denouncing as traitors those who express their honest opinions (or fail to unquestioningly support figures of authority).
Recently, an opposition Twitter activist, known online as @ammaramm, reportedly faced numerous threats and an attempted kidnapping after criticizing opposition elements on Twitter. Ammaramm, a secular-leaning government opponent, accused Al Wefaq and Ayatollah Isa Qassim of putting their desire for power before the demands of the general opposition; acting with same impunity and lack of accountability of which they accuse government officials.
Soon afterwards, the activist was tracked down by one of Isa Qassim’s personal bodyguards and threatened that he would be “killed and hanged”. However, he refused to formally report the incident and, despite threats and insults, is still active on Twitter.
For Shia public figures who have served in Government or played a prominent role in society, they are damned by all sides; if they don’t come out and support the rioting then they remain complicit with the leadership – and if they try to stay out of politics then they become subject to defamation from Sunni loyalists who see anyone from the Shia community as a subject of suspicion.
It is becoming obvious that sections of the Shia community feel growing disenchantment with both Al-Wefaq and other militant groups. After two and a half years of unrest, all Al-Wefaq has achieved is further marginalization and hardship for these communities, with growing poverty and unemployment, as small businesses are forced to close because they can’t operate in a riot zone.
People point out that they initially joined the protests because they wanted better representation in government, in business and in the armed forces and police. They complain that the ‘uprising’ resulted in completely the opposite effect; because the Shia community is perceived as opposing the Monarchy it is increasingly difficult to attain trusted positions in civilian, policing or military roles. By blockading their neighborhoods, they have cut themselves off from the rest of Bahrain, while a radicalized generation have come of age in virtual war-zones.
When Al-Wefaq Islamic Society’s leader Ali Salman talks of boycotting the 2014 Parliamentary elections and the “struggle continuing until its goals are achieved”, people despair of their lives ever returning to normal.
This shows the importance of urgently furthering the dialogue and giving greater attention to reconciliation. It also shows the underlying weakness of Al-Wefaq. The apparent legitimacy of such political societies comes from their claim to represent the entire Shia community. They say they must have more than half of the seats in the National Dialogue, in Parliament, in Government, and in any public body, because they claim to represent a majority.
However, they are increasingly coming to represent a very hollow minority within a minority, as Shias distance themselves from Al-Wefaq’s aims and methods.
For many of us this idea that Shia have to be represented by Shia and Sunnis can only be represented by Sunnis is ridiculous and damaging to society. Not only have these tensions empowered an intolerant Shia religious leadership, but it has also put extremist Sunni figures in positions of influence they never enjoyed before.
Sunnis have to realize that they cannot describe the Shia community as “traitors”. The Shia community includes figures who have bravely continued to support the Monarchy; and citizens who criticized the protest movement and suffered the consequences; and unknown numbers of citizens who have kept their doubts to themselves.
Hence, once we embark on a process of reconciliation Bahrainis may discover that we are not so different in ideology, temperament and aspirations as extremists on both sides made us appear. Let’s hope that we recognize this truth sooner rather than later.