Sunday, May 8, 2011

Collective Punishment for a Non-Collective

Today the Bahraini government begins its holy grail of court cases. Twenty-one of the country's top political opposition leaders (7 in absentia) stand collectively in a "Lower National Safety Court" (although the state of "national safety" itself has now been revoked). The Bahrain News Agency cites 12 different charges, most of them falling under the country's vague anti-terrorism law of 2006, among which are included:
7. Insult[ing] the army. ...
9. Broadcasting false news and rumours that caused the threatening of public security and inflecting damage to public interest. ...
10. Inciting the hatred of a certain sect of people. ...
One might go on about the conditions of the case itself: most of the detainees have been held incommunicado since arrest; many were beaten at the time of arrest; some have reported being tortured; and defense attorneys were given less than 24 hours notice before the beginning of the trial. And, most ironically, many of these individuals were PARDONED on almost IDENTICAL "terrorism" charges soon after protests began in February, which seems like a strange thing to do if you really believe them to be part of a terrorist conspiracy.

Yet the most striking thing is that this incredibly diverse group of individuals is being tried collectively as members of a coherent terrorist organization. During my time in Bahrain I had the opportunity to interview 4 of those now on trial as part of my dissertation research, and to say that they represent a coherent group of any sort, much less a coherent "terrorist organization," is difficult to square with the patent ideological and political differences that distinguish them.

Those on trial represent five main opposition groups: al-Haqq (e.g., al-Mushaimi', al-Singace, al-Sumaikh), al-Wafa' ('Abd al-Wahhab Hussain, al-Miqdad, al-Nuri), the BCHR (al-Khawajah), Islamic Action (Salah al-Khawajah), and Wa'ad (Sharif). Two of these (Wa'ad and Islamic Action) were perfectly legal organizations until just weeks ago when they were dissolved, while the rest have been "illegal" for some time.

Now, the most obvious odd-man out is Ebrahim Sharif, a secular Sunni whose only connection with the others is that he is an opposition leader and rallied against the government in February and March. His organization, more properly the National Democratic Action Society, is a leftist group that has fielded candidates in each of the last two parliamentary elections (it boycotted in 2002), but since Bahrain's electoral districts are gerrymandered around ethnic lines, Wa'ad (as other secular societies) has not succeeded in winning a single seat despite capturing a relatively large proportion of the popular votes in both 2006 and 2010. (In fact, according to the my 2009 survey, about 10% of Bahraini Shi'a identify with Wa'ad.) Thus among Sharif's biggest gripes is that Bahrain's political system institutionalizes religious-based affiliations to the detriment of secularists such as himself (and he would, say, to the detriment to the country more generally). Sounds like a real terrorist, right?

The other groups are all Shi'a-dominated organizations and, far from cooperating in the service of some larger "terrorist" agenda, tend in fact not to get along so well. Sure, al-Haqq and al-Wafa' (and the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement) combined to form the "Coalition for a Republic," but historically the relationship between the two has not been so cooperative. That is because al-Wafa' exists precisely as a counterpoint to al-Haqq, which critics (especially al-Wifaq supporters) accuse of lacking religious legitimacy.

The leaders of al-Wafa', then, decided in early 2009 to create a new movement (indeed "the New Movement" was its name for a while) that would rectify this limitation of al-Haqq. By combining political clout ('Abd al-Wahhab Hussain) with religious authority (Sh. al-Miqdad), the idea was to offer a new protest movement that detractors could not dismiss as acting without religious legitimacy. Understandably, however, this move did not sit well with everyone in al-Haqq, especially since 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain was some years ago among its top leadership.

The al-Khawajahs (representing the BCHR and al-Amal), finally, form yet another category of Shi'a opposition with no connection to al-Haqq or al-Wafa'. These groups, long associated with the "Shirazi" supporters of Ayatallah Hadi al-Mudarrisi, are ideologically at odds not only with the majority of Bahrain's Shi'a (who follow the more mainstream principle of waliyat al-faqih) but with the Iranian regime itself. Indeed, during the 'Ashura' ceremony one finds much evidence of this additional intra-Shi'a split, with separate mosques/ma'tams for Shirazi and non-Shirazi worshipers, and even signs and banners hung by one side to criticize the other.

In sum, Bahrain's collective trial of its opposition figures gives (and presumably is meant to give) the impression of a massive conspiracy among many like-minded individuals. Yet those facing trial share little but an anti-government orientation, and constitute no more of a collective "terrorist" threat than Marxists and evangelical Christians do to the U.S. As Sh. 'Ali Salman once said of the similar trial in September 2010 of many of these same individuals,
"The group accused of attempting to overthrow the government cannot overthrow the board of a charity society if they wanted to by the means they were using, let alone a regime."


  1. Thank you Justin for your well balanced analysis of the events in Bahrain. I believe your posts do strike a nerve with those who portray Bahrain in almost divine light. I wish I had your writing skills!

    On a differnt note, my impression was always that the Bahraini Shia take on different scholars as a reference (marjaa).

    The scholars that advocate the concept of wilayat al-faqih, do not have a majority following in Bahrain;those that follow Fadlullah, Khoei, Sistani and Shirazi have much a larger following when compared to the waliyat al-faqih camp, even though they all belong to the Shia Usuli school of thought.

    Having said that, Bahrain still has a significant number of followers that adhere to the traditional Shia Akhbari school of thought-that too that does not follow the concept of Wilyat al-Faqih!

    Historically, Bahrain was a Akhbari stronghold very much until the 1979 Iranian revolution. At that time, the younger generation started to shift to the Usuli scholars.

  2. Thanks for the note. My formulation was sloppy and of course you're right that Sistani et al. do have a large following in Bahrain, and about the Akhbari-Usuli division. My main point was simply that the Sharazis represent yet another intra-Shi'a (much less intra-opposition) division that is obscured by this mass trial.


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