North Africa, West Asia

‘Democratic’ doublespeak in Bahrain: how the government spins its summer of repression

If the government continues to imprison or deport every critical voice, Alfadhel’s distortion of democracy may well triumph in Bahrain.

Sam Jones
19 September 2016
Hasan Jamali/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Bahraini anti-government protesters calling out "peaceful, peaceful," approach riot police, Jan. 7, 2012. Hasan Jamali/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Since the beginning of June, the Government of Bahrain has forcibly exiled activist Zainab al-Khawaja; denaturalized the country’s most prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim; dissolved the largest opposition group, Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society; rearrested celebrated human rights defender Nabeel Rajab; brought criminal charges against internationally-renowned interfaith leader Sheikh Maytham al-Salman; and judicially harassed more than 60 Shia religious figures on allegations linked solely to sermons and peaceful demonstrations.

Can you spot the “democratic triumph?”

Khalifa Alfadhel, a law professor at the University of Bahrain and a royally-appointed member of the Bahrain Institute for Political Development (BIPD) run by the Minister of Information Affairs, seems to think it’s obvious. In two similar articles recently submitted to RealClearPolitics and openDemocracy – “Bahrain's Little Known Democratic Move” and “The suspension of Wefaq: a triumph for democracy in Bahrain” – Alfadhel characterizes 2016 as a watershed year for the country, asserting that the government has finally defeated the forces of “neomedievalism” in the name of “pluralism, tolerance and political liberalism” by closing Al-Wefaq and prohibiting religious leaders from political participation. But the problem isn’t simply that Alfadhel’s writing is rife with misinformation; it’s that he presents his unsubstantiated allegations as independent commentary. 

Addressing US policymakers in the first article, Alfdahel appeals to a caricature of secularism, Iranophobia, and anti-Islamist anxiety, writing: “Some have characterized Al-Wefaq as an ‘opposition’ party in Bahrain. This is not the whole truth…Al-Wefaq, in fact, is a proxy for Iran in Bahrain. It is a radical Shiite religious organization masquerading as a political party.”

As noted by nearly every independent NGO and foreign government outside the GCC, this is indeed far from the whole truth.

But the problem isn’t simply that Alfadhel’s writing is rife with misinformation; it’s that he presents his unsubstantiated allegations as independent commentary. Rather, his articles clearly fit a broader pattern of “strategic sectarianism” – a state-sponsored media offensive to discredit any opposition with a mix of baseless accusation and deceptive self-congratulation.

To borrow from Gulf scholars Marc Owen Jones and Justin Gengler, it is through the targeted “instrumentalization of sectarian rhetoric” that the Bahraini government has actively positioned itself as both “a primary source of, and self-styled solution to, the sectarian-based insecurity” generated by persistent political marginalization. Nearly identical arguments can be found in everything from automated Twitter accounts to official media, including statements by Alfahdel’s superior, the Information Affairs Minister.

If such discourse reveals anything of substance, then, it’s the enduring sectarian framework undergirding the government’s sustained, violent, and recently intensified campaign against dissident voices. Alfadhel’s essays are demonstrative, affording an opportunity to deconstruct the Orwellian language of sectarian authoritarianism facilitating the symbiotic relationship between religious discrimination and wholesale repression in Bahrain.

Ultimately, the sloppy invocation of ‘liberal’ watchwords unintentionally emphasizes the monarchy’s willingness to trample the most basic of democratic values – free belief, expression, assembly, and association – in order to further disenfranchise the country’s restive majority.

The repeated use of the word “party,” for example, belies the disingenuous presumption that Bahrain operates as a party democracy: it doesn’t. Formal political parties remain illegal and elections are only held for the lower house of parliament, a severely-constrained legislative body subservient to both the royally-appointed upper house and the king. With the closure of Al-Wefaq, it seems increasingly likely that the government may altogether prohibit “political societies,” the ambiguous form of political association currently permitted in Bahrain. With the closure of Al-Wefaq, it seems increasingly likely that the government may altogether prohibit “political societies,” the ambiguous form of political association currently permitted in Bahrain.

Alfadhel similarly praises the government’s recent amendment to the political society legislation – which forbids religious figures from discussing politics during sermons or participating in societies – as a positively Jeffersonian accomplishment: “This prohibition is perhaps the most significant step towards democracy in Bahrain's contemporary political history.” He makes no mention of how the ‘ban on turbans’ – as it is reportedly known within the diplomatic community – has been “exclusively” used to target Shia leaders, despite the existence of a Sunni Islamist movement.

Alfadhel additionally fails to reconcile this purported commitment to secular governance with his open admiration for Saudi Arabia – a theologically-grounded absolute monarchy – and its supposed war against Islamist “intolerance” in the form of Iran. Apparently “neomedievalism” only applies to Shia political movements.

Notably, the government has matched this latest wave of strategic sectarianism with longstanding forms of electoral gerrymandering and demographic engineering meant to undermine majority participation in the political process. Bahraini authorities have for decades engaged in discriminatory political districting to dilute Shia voting power, amplify that of government supporters, and specifically prevent Al-Wefaq from securing a larger proportion of ballots.

Despite Alfadhel’s pretenses, Gengler recently found that redistricting along “sectarian lines” has also largely hurt the “electoral prospects of populist and secular candidates,” resulting in a lower house “permanently divided among Sunni Islamists [and] loyalist tribal ‘independents’” following Al-Wefaq’s 2014 boycott and subsequent dissolution.

At the same time, as documented by UN experts, the government has increased its use of arbitrary denaturalization orders to punish and ultimately deport hundreds of predominantly Shia activists, critics, and human rights defenders. The counterpart to this policy – the government’s naturalization of thousands of foreign Sunni security personnel – has served the complementary purpose of boosting its Sunni support base and “praetorianizing” the security apparatus against Bahrain’s majority population.

Why does Bahrain’s “democratic triumph” seem so patently illiberal?

Maybe it’s because 2016 truly is a watershed year for Bahrain, as Alfadhel suggested – the year sectarian authoritarianism is finally whitewashed as progressive reform. Dismissing the 2011 pro-democracy movement in which more than half Bahrain’s citizen population participated as an “Iranian-backed sectarian uprising,” Alfadhel asserts that the government must continue to “exclude intolerant actors who do not adhere to democratic principles,” “obstruct the social contract,” and “subvert the will of the Shiite electorate.” Maybe it’s because 2016 truly is a watershed year for Bahrain, as Alfadhel suggested – the year sectarian authoritarianism is finally whitewashed as progressive reform.

In Alfadhel’s take on liberal political theory, it’s not a near-absolute monarchy that obstructs the social contract; rather, it’s the monarchy alone that can safeguard democracy from the masses. Further, the king and his government must not only determine the content of democratic principles but even the will of the Shia majority, some of which Alfadhel has referred to by the sectarian derogation “rejectionist.”

In addition to this paternalistic excuse for democratic reform, the government has also calibrated its use of sectarian rhetoric to rouse US, UK, and GCC security concerns over Iranian influence while obscuring broader restrictions on any form of dissent, Shia or otherwise. Despite the conclusion of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which found no evidence of Iranian involvement in the country’s pro-democracy movement, Bahraini authorities have consistently painted peaceful demonstrators as a radical pro-Iranian fifth column.

In an automated version of Alfadhel’s recycled arguments, Jones recently found that the government and/or pro-government supporters have created hundreds of fake Twitter accounts for the express purpose of “repeating propaganda that conflates acts of violence, terrorism, and unrest, with both Arab Shia and Iran.” Though Twitter took note of his investigation and blocked some 1,800 automated accounts, sectarian “bots” remained responsible for more than half the Tweets posted under #Bahrain this past June.

When the time is right – and often inadvertently aided by Iranian posturing – Bahraini authorities have capitalized on this securitized sectarianism, cashing in fickle ‘democratic’ concessions for US defense assistance. In the midst of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, for example, the Bahraini government’s early release of the former secretary-general of the Wa’ad opposition society, Ibrahim Sharif, prompted the US State Department to lift a punitive arms ban. But once American weapons sales resumed, the authorities quickly rearrested Sharif on charges related solely to his political speeches – a rapid about-face that has become an increasingly common government tactic.

This case is particularly instructive for understanding Bahrain’s instrumentalized sectarianism, however, because Sharif is not a Shia religious figure; he’s Sunni and Wa’ad consists primarily of left-leaning secularists. In 2011, a military court sentenced Sharif to five years in prison for peacefully criticizing the government and calling for a “republican system.” Sharif served four years of that sentence as well as a subsequent one-year term, but the prosecution has appealed in the latter case with the intent of extending his incarceration. Is Sharif also some illiberal bogeyman threatening Alfadhel’s fledgling, secular democracy? 

Is Sharif also some illiberal bogeyman threatening Alfadhel’s fledgling, secular democracy? Or is he representative of the thousands of Bahraini prisoners of conscience held solely for political or religious beliefs, thousands of “little known” victims to a deepening authoritarianism shielded by strategic sectarianism? Given the current scale of repression in Bahrain, the real answer becomes more obvious with each passing day.

Ultimately, if the government continues to imprison or deport every critical voice – under the cover of a shrewdly curated sectarian narrative – Alfadhel’s distortion of democracy may well triumph in Bahrain. By that point you certainly won’t hear any opposition.

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