Is Bahrain a Shiite Uprising?

by zunguzungu

The New York Times would like you to know that it is! And because of seven years of American occupation of Iraq, readers of the NYT now understand that, in some way or another, Sunni and Shiite are different. They might even be aware that Shiites have something to do with Iran or something. So when this morning’s Times article makes it clear that the “Clashes at Protest for Second Day in Bahrain” are the result of a Shiite rebellion against a Sunni government, we feel like we understand:

MANAMA, Bahrain — After weeks of turmoil rolling through the Arab world, protesters in the Persian Gulf kingdom clashed for a second day with the police on Tuesday and a second demonstrator was killed by gunfire, spurring the largest Shiite bloc to suspend participation in the country’s Parliament.

Youth protested near police officers in Manama, Bahrain on Monday. The events came as mourners gathered for the funeral of a Shiite protester shot to death during what was called a “Day of Rage” protest on Monday, modeled on similar outbursts of discontent that have toppled autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt since mid-January and spread on Monday to Iran.

With only about a million residents, half of them foreign workers, Bahrain has long been among the most politically volatile in the region. The principal tension is between the royal family under King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and the ruling elites, who are mostly Sunnis, on one side, and the approximately 70 percent of the local population that is Shiite on the other.

Occupying mostly run-down villages with cinder block buildings and little else, many Shiites say they face systemic discrimination in employment, housing, education and government. The clashes Monday and Tuesday centered on small Shiite villages on the outskirts of Manama, the capital, places with narrow streets and alleyways.

But what do we understand when we use this conceptual frame? Or this, in the New York Times’ “Bahrain at a Glance” fact sheet:

There has long been tension between the Sunni Muslim king, Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, the royal family and ruling elites, and the approximately 70 percent of the local population that is Shiite. About half the residents of Bahrain are foreign workers. Since late 2009, Shiites in villages around the nation have been holding regular protests, burning tires in the road, demanding the release of dozens of political prisoners, including 25 being tried on charges plotting to overthrow the state, charges seen by the populace as part of a broad effort to silence the Shiite majority.

In other words, I’m interested in what applying the conceptual framework of “sectarian conflict” does to our ability to make sense of an image like this one, the photograph that the NYT provides:

Al Jazeera, by contrast, frames its main article by the fact that “Bahrain Police Fire at Protesters,” not only using that fact as its lede, but only noting that “Shias, who are thought to be in the majority, have often alleged discrimination at the hands of the kingdom’s Sunni rulers” somewhere in the middle of the article. Police violence against protesters is the focus; the entire first third of the article emphasizes how a peaceful funeral procession — for a protester killed by the police the day before — was attacked by riot police:

“This morning the protesters were walking from the hospital to the cemetery and they got attacked by the riot police,” Alkhawaja said. “Thousands of people are marching in the streets, demanding the removal of the regime – police fired tear gas and bird shot, using excessive force – that is why people got hurt.” At least 25 people were reported to have been treated for injuries in hospital. An Al Jazeera correspondent in Bahrain, who cannot be named for his own safety, said that police were taking a very heavy handed approach towards the protesters.

In Al Jazeera’s account, it is absolutely clear that the police were the aggressors, while the NYT writes sentences in which “protesters” is the subject, and “clashed with the police” the verb phras, not only implying the reverse but allowing the “sectarian violence” to render the kind of populism we’re seeing a sectarian one, rather than a democratic one. And these are the macro-narratives that determine how the story will be read and understood. “Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them,” as was said by Said, and it’s still true.

I don’t want to make it sound like Al Jazeera’s coverage is beyond reproach (and how would I know?), but I do note that they will tend to include things like this quote from Amira Al Hussaini — “a Bahraini blogger that monitors citizen media for Global Voices Online” — who not only comments on news coverage — allowing us to see the way news is the news — but identifying the “sectarian violence” narrative as the self-legitimizing story being told by the police themselves:

“I am trying to remain objective but I can’t – people are being shot at close range.” Hussaini said that people in Bahrain were very afraid. “We are afraid of going out in the streets and demanding our rights. Tunisia and Egypt have given people in Arab countries hope – even if you believe that something is impossible. I personally have no respect for the police – they lie, they manipulate the story,” she said. “This is being pitted as a sectarian issue – the Shia wanting to overthrow the regime. But it is not a Shia uprising.” She said that people from all backgrounds and religions are behind the protests

I’m about as far from an expert on Bahrain as it’s possible to be, but the fact that the Times uses a picture of protesters in Diraz running from the police and characterizes it in the way they do speaks volumes to me about the filters they’re using. There aren’t even any police in that picture, and that exclusion — that erasure — is powerful.

By contrast to that image, of a few scattered protesters, compare this video of that same crackdown in Diraz (via), a video which shows — in absolutely no uncertain terms — a group of peaceful protesters peacefully demonstrating and being attacked by a crowd of police that resembles an infantry charge more than a little. For about thirty seconds, you see a group of protesters standing and chanting. Then, the camera wheels around to view a crowd of police some hundred yards away, the crowd murmuring rises in volume, and you see the column of police charging across the field firing at the crowd. There are about twenty shots (tear gas?) and it’s scary to watch; the person holding the camera is running like hell, and you would too.

Or take a look at this video, in which an absolutely insane amount of tear gas is fired on protesters:

Some other things; I’m trying to write about media coverage because writing about the events in Bahrain themselves would require me to venture pretty far out of my comfort zone (though this article is a great historical background). But my overriding impression from the reading I’ve done (and especially the conversations I’m having with more knowledgeable people) is that while sectarian tension is certainly a part of what’s happening, it’s so interwoven with class issues (and so hard to characterize) that the primary failing of the framing used in that NY Times story is the false impression it gives us that we understood; the facts it gives us aren’t even wrong, as they say, because their framing context is absent. For example, though many of us are only discovering Bahrain now — as part of the larger Uprising in the Middle East! story — these particular protests are only an escalation of something that’s been going on for quite some time; I’m told, for example, that protest has been non-stop in Bahrain these days, and that the sight of riot police at the entrance to villages (young men burning tires) is sort of routine and has been for a while. What does that mean? And how would the “we” that includes me (an ignorant but well meaning searcher for meaning in ignorance) figure out what it might mean?

It does seem clear that this protest is working hard to frame itself in non-sectarian terms, though, so I’ll end with this — via and translated by Bint Battuta from an article in Arabic, much thanks — which articulates what (at least some of) the protesters are saying:

Bahrain may witness on Monday (February 14) a people’s movement in various villages of the country calling for political and social reforms and improvement of the standard of living. Bahrain may also witness on that day joy in other areas on the anniversary of theNational Action Charter. And in both scenes, all actions should be peaceful and civilised, showing the understanding and awareness of the young people of Bahrain of their precious nation and land. All demands should be conscious, reflecting the reality of the people of Bahrain who have long been known for their awareness and ability to draw attention to their concerns in all directions.

We experienced the uprising of the nineties which led with its blessings and the blood of its martyrs to the level of freedoms we enjoy today, even if they are restricted. Our people achieved many things, but these achievements did not last long, until the situation went back to the way it was before. The question is, what do we want on February 14?

  • We want a genuine political life in which the people alone are the source of powers and legislation.
  • We want a constitution drawn up by the people, and agreed upon, which is the arbitrator and judge in the relationship of the ruler to the ruled.
  • We want genuine and fair elections based on fair foundations and the distribution of constituencies in which the vote of every individual Bahraini is equal.
  • We want genuine representation, without the accusation of treason whenever we go out to demand our rights.
  • We want a Council of Representatives that reflects the composition of the Bahraini people, without the majority being a minority and the minority a majority.
  • We want a government that is elected, based on people’s competencies rather than “loyalties”.
  • We want to fight corruption and stop the plundering of resources, and achieve a fair distribution of wealth.
  • We want to stop nepotism, and to prevent recruitment according to affiliation, and to open all sectors, especially the military, to all people.
  • We want an end to indiscriminate political naturalisation, which has increased the burden on services and oppressed people.
  • We want true freedom, without a law against “terrorism” and “gatherings”.
  • We want true media freedom, and the door to be opened for everyone to express their opinions freely and without fear.
  • We want security in villages and towns, and the release of political prisoners and the reform of prisons, and the end of oppression, torture and intimidation.
  • We want genuine solutions to the problems of unemployment, housing, education, and health.
  • We want the police to “serve the people”, and we want the army to be of the people.
  • This is truly what we want; we do not want to overthrow the regime, as many imagine, and we do not want to gain control of the government, we do not want chairs and seats here or there. We want to be a people living with dignity and rights.