Bahrain: Are You Confused?

August 13, 2012

Bahrain: Are You Confused?

Martin Scott Catino, Ph.D.

March 25, 2011

Unrest in Bahrain, 2011

For approximately 16 months while serving in Bahrain as a US Fulbright Scholar (2007-2009), I watched Shia extremists foment an insurgency on this small Gulf island.  Few in the United States, the expatriate community, or the West understood the problem or the strategic importance of this home of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.  Bahrain was simply too small, too insignificant, and too confusing.  And like many early stage insurgencies, the actors were too clever.  Radical Shia Imams parading as caring pastors mixed with Shia malcontents, human rights activists, the intelligentsia, and the young and the restless who moved about in abayas and dishdashas at schools like the University of Bahrain, where Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s Ali Khamenei were deemed champions of the world’s oppressed, and of course, of the Shia of Bahrain. These very people and groups are now key players of the insurgency taking place in Bahrain.  Yes, Bahrain is experiencing an insurgency that is using the guerrilla warfare tactics one can find in Palestine, Iraq, or Afghanistan, where analysts witness daily the same tactics used by insurgents to achieve their violent dreams.   In this short essay I will try first to explain the activities of the major groups active in the current strife, and second, try to explain why the situation in Bahrain is so confusing.

It is Good to be the King: Or Maybe Not?

     King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain, is a powerful man, whose whit and ability to maintain control is admired, envied, and despised by the various sectarian and racial groups that walk the streets of places like Manama, the capital of Bahrain.  The King is brilliant, and holds the reins of power with an ease and finesse that baffles his opponents. His ability to manage easily the diverse interests of the Sunni Arab world, the shifting sands of international economics, and the many South and Southeast Asian migrants that inhabit his island involves subtle skills that he uses confidently, grasping intangible power structures as easily as one could grasp the steering wheel of the family car.  He understands every Middle Eastern leader’s most cherished secret: the most important fight is the one to stay in power. So he offers much more than crackdowns:  free schooling, subsidies to the poor of his country (Shia included), and business freedoms in the local markets. In fact, the Ajam, the enterprising Persian business class of Bahrain, embrace this freedom. But more importantly they embrace the freedom to stay out of politics, which dampens the delights of the dinar.

The King is certainly no tyrant, no Louis the XVI or George the III. The progressive reforms of the Sunni Monarch move forward, howbeit at a disappointing pace for many, and at times with grudging smiles to Western faces. But neither are his policies equal.  Discrimination against the Shia class (as well as the South and Southeast Asian) is visible if not openly insulting. The King surrounds himself with loyal Sunni security forces, Gulf and Western security assets, Western technology and economic partnerships, and masses of South Asian migrants that he wears like his elegant gold sash, an apolitical girding of workers caring not for revolution, but for a daily wage wired back home. This is indeed a comfortable security belt, one that will not pinch him with a worker’s strike that could paralyze his kingdom.  Supporters of the King would argue that this unequal policy is necessary to maintain security and progress amid a radicalized population, a point that outsiders may find difficult to accept given the Western penchant for demanding equality, and urging its implementation immediately and without qualification.

The (Not So) Innocent Shia of Bahrain

          Nonetheless, such a glaring inequality in this Sunni kingdom leads the innocent heart to yearn in naiveté and yield to the simplistic impulses that embrace naturally the dishonored and the disfranchised.  The many sincere Shia, who want equality, a better life not for themselves but for their families and posterity, are in abundance. But satisfying those pangs for justice comes at a cost, the readiness to follow uncritically the Shia propaganda that litters the country, the images of Nasrallah sold in malls, the Hezbollah flags waving defiantly in the town of Ali in southern Bahrain, and the many vitriolic sermons of Shia imams that bellow out from mosques too simple and too rustic to raise international concerns.

Joining the innocent and aggrieved is another group, or perhaps an overlapping dimension of personality within the same group. These are the not so innocent of the innocent. These are Shia who upon closer examination reveals a level of bitterness and hate not easily discernible amid the pillars of black smoke rising from the crumbled remains of the Pearl Roundabout.  These followers of Ali (cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad) all have valid complaints, and amid the complaints a motive of revenge formed from collective emotions heated by injustice, and stirred in the black cauldron of Shia imams and their political counterparts.

Zaynab [not her real name] is an example. Her attendance in my classes at the University of Bahrain came from a stuttering courage revealing her innate shyness, her Islamic views of submissiveness, and a contradictory impulse to swim upstream in a workforce whose source was patriarchal.   I admired Zaynab. Her love for her husband, her children, and her academic success in the classroom underscored her character, revealing gently her humanity adorned in her flowing black abaya.

When her embittered diatribe against the King poured out one morning in class my initial reaction was one of fear for her safety.  “Zaynab, please be careful. Your words could provoke a strong reaction from supporters of the King,” I counseled her. Her rage against the king, her contempt of his alliance with America, and her frustration with the failed plight to obtain democratic rights for the Shia community all find solace in the person of Nasrallah, the embodiment of the “heroic fight of Hezbollah against Jews, the West, and America,” she told me. Her contempt for America (but not me, for I was one of the “good ones”) was also disturbing. How youthful innocence and gracefulness could abruptly disappear in an eruption of hate still alarms me.  Her dismissive attitude toward the brutality of Hezbollah, the lack of democratic rights of the South Asian population in Bahrain (which constitutes nearly half of the population there), and the many efforts of the Government of Bahrain to help the Shia community was indicative of the level of agitation achieved by Shia religious and political leaders.  In sum, my questions regarding the validity of her views slid off her icy disposition as easily as Arab skaters enjoying the oddity of ice-skating rinks in Dubai.

The Shia leaders of Bahrain are well of aware of the Zaynabs. They understand her emotions, her passions, and her misguided dreams of a Shia awakening.  They understand these emotions because they have violated them often—an invasion of mind as well as soul. Experts on terrorism and insurgencies would be quick to indentify the tactics that create these outcomes: agitation, provocation, organization of youth, information dominance (of public attention and media), and relentless pressure on the Government of Bahrain while justifying mob violence exercised by proponents.   All these tactics effectively shaped the emotions and the will of the Shia of Bahrain. This was Bahrain prior to the present upheaval.

“Pieceful” Demonstrations

The protesters who gather now in the streets of Bahrain have claimed repeatedly that they are “peaceful.” The media generally depicts them as such, highlighting contorted faces suffering in tearful pains under a one-sided royal crackdown allegedly overreacting to their bloating presence.  The fact of the matter is that these protesters are not peaceful but “pieceful,” systematically targeting the pieces of the state critical to its existence while executing pieces of a well contrived insurgency plan.

Like many insurgencies, the recent unrest in Bahrain started with the youth of that country, a group more radical and energetic than other segments of society on the island, one that could seize the initiative and create the momentum necessary to topple a well-established regime. These youths, assisted in the planning stage by opposition political party Al Wefaq, quickly ignited the angry masses of Bahrain. The organizers created visibility through agitating large numbers to protest, through the centrality of the location of protests at the Pearl Roundabout, and through drawing in the media. Having achieved these initial pieces of the plan, the angry protests moved next on three fronts: seeking to provoke a major escalation from the government, disrupting key transportation routes and nodes, and finally paralyzing the government by obstructing the financial district in Manama, the economic heart of Bahrain. The last major piece of the first stage of the plan involved creating mass unrest throughout the entire Island, hoping to completely unseat the government by creating widespread confusion and instability.

While the international media often reported a sweeping government crackdown on the protesters, a far different picture emerged from the streets of Bahrain. The Shia mobs unleashed their plan of violence throughout the country, attacking Sunni neighborhoods, public universities, the Bahraini security forces, and the south Asian migrant community (the main labor force of Bahrain).   The Salmaniya Hospital served as a sanctuary for revolutionary activity much as the Palestinian Authority used hospitals against the state of Israel.  Rather than victims of state aggression, the protesters were the aggressors. A friend from Bahrain sent me the following email describing in detail the violence.

          I don’t know where to start.  We are living in fear and chaos.I am scared to death.  My neighborhood was attacked by opposition party and they started  to attack all Sunni  houses.    Civilians were attacked.  Why is it called peaceful protest when unarmed policemen were deliberately run over by protester’s cars!


Protesters earlier took Salminiya hospital and operated their violent attacks from there. They went to the extreme to only treat the Shia sect.  A lady died while bleeding during delivery waiting for the ambulance.  A young girl of the age of 15 died as well waiting for the ambulance.

Protesters started to violate children’s rights by using them in protesting and creating chaos at schools. Teachers misled student to attack Sunni students.

Located at the Pearl Roundabout protesters started to provoke the Shia street by spreading more lies and pretending to be victimized!

The peaceful protesters attacked the University of Bahrain and demolished the buildings [meaning rooms in the buildings]. They attacked students and stabbed them with white weapons [a term used for the makeshift weapons used by the protesters].

We are living in great fear.  My cousin was attacked by a sword and lots of unarmed policemen also were injured by white weapons. We can’t drive around or leave the house due to the lack of safety. Now protesters started to attack mosques and houses. The protesters started using Molotov cocktails and automatic weapons in their attacks. They even started to attack expatriates and two Indian workers were killed. More Asians were injured and toured [sic] by angry protesters.

In the past two days the opposition leaders were arrested but their follower started to be more violent and vengeful.

Please pray for us and talk about the situation as the opposition was smart in using media in delivering fake reports!

Indeed, the situation in Bahrain is confusing because the roots of the conflict stem from a Shia leadership that has worked covertly for decades to undermine the Kingdom of Bahrain, stoking deliberately and consistently a flame that has grown to a conflagration. The shortcomings of King Hamad al Khalifa, although critical to the issues, deserve honest, sincere, organized redress from Shia groups embracing not a radical agenda but the difficult and peaceful path of reform through dialogue and parliamentary deliberation.  The Shia leaders have dominated the media messages about Bahrain, but have not matched the goodwill and the high sentiments given to their cause, and thereby have obfuscated the key issues rather than beginning to solve them.

“The Red Line” declared by the government of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the line in the sand that Shia radicals must not cross, has been transgressed a long time ago, and current events are merely the open evidence of that violation.  The irony of these Shia protesters is that they already have achieved their vision without realizing it. The world created by their heroes in Iran and in southern Lebanon has brought nothing but misery and suffering, and now Bahrain has seen the same.

Martin Scott Catino, Ph.D., is a US Fulbright Scholar and teaches graduate military studies at American Military University.  He has served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and in Operation Enduring Freedom.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent American Military University and are completely my own.

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