Dec 9, 2011

Sectarianism, Opposition Parties, and Online Activism in Bahrain

An Interview with Blogger Chan'ad Bahraini

For the blogosphere in the Gulf region, the name Chan'ad became a reference to all of those who were seeking accurate, well written, and up-to-date inside information from Bahrain in English. Chan'ad, author of the blog Chan'ad Bahraini 2.0, has been a prominent figure of digital activism in Bahrain and the region since 2004 as he works on unveiling regime tactics to fuel sectarian fear, suppress facts, and keep up state repression. After the 14 February uprising, Chan'ad, whose real name is Fahad Desmukh, played an important role in exposing the lies of state-controlled media in Bahrain and the Bahraini regime’s hiring of foreign journalists and firms to whitewash its image. In this interview, Chan'ad shares his views on the unrest in Bahrain, the regime’s handling of the uprising, the pattern of the opposition, and relative issues such as blogging, social networking, and xenophobia in Bahrain.

Mona Kareem (MK): Who are you?
Fahad Desmukh (FD): Chan'ad is the local Arabic name for mackerel. I work as a freelance journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. I grew up in Bahrain and in 2004, while I was still there, started blogging about Bahraini politics and society. In 2006 I was summoned for an interrogation by the National Security Agency because, it seems, they found activities related to my blogging suspicious. I left the country shortly after and when I tried to return, I was told by immigration officials at the Bahrain airport that I was on an entry blacklist. I have been living in Pakistan since then, and in my free time have tried to keep blogging and tweeting about the human rights and political situation in Bahrain.

MK: Bahrain reached a dead end, agree or disagree?
FD: This certainly is not a dead end for Bahrain as the current situation in Bahrain is not sustainable. Despite eight months of repression of the uprising, there has been no end for protests. Since March, protesters have been jailed, tortured, killed, maligned, sacked from their workplaces and expelled from schools and universities, and yet you can still find protests in Bahrain on almost any day of the week. At some point, something has got to give.

MK: How can you imagine the Bahraini scenario if it weren’t for the Saudi/GCC interference?
FD: If it weren’t for Saudi/GCC interference, it is quite possible that there would not have even been anything for people to be protesting about when this uprising began on 14 February. The problem in Bahrain is that the Al Khalifa regime relies on Saudi Arabia and other foreign powers as the source of its legitimacy rather than the Bahraini people. Until this changes, there will always be political strife. If it weren't for this outside interference, then—maybe—the regime would be forced to listen to its people and share some power.

MK: Many Bahrainis live in denial and state that sectarianism is only practiced by the regime. Do you agree? Or do you think instead people should admit that sectarianism exists deeply in Bahrain and has increased after 14 February?
FD: It is true that sectarianism does exist in Bahraini society and has a long history, but this must be distinguished from the regime's deployment of sectarianism as a political divide-and-rule strategy. The “social sectarianism” that exists between the Sunni and Shia communities in Bahrain is akin to the fear and suspicion that exists between any different social groups that have distinct histories and customs. The Sunni and Shia communities in Bahrain have historically lived in separate settlements, speak differing dialects of Arabic, mostly marry among themselves, and obviously have their own religious practices. It is not surprising then that there are elements in the two communities that are suspicious of and have false ideas about each other. The self-proclaimed keepers of tradition in both communities benefit from the divide, and seek to maintain this status quo.

MK: How did the regime use sectarianism?
FD: The Al Khalifa regime has managed to maintain its power precisely by exploiting this division. Abdulhadi Khalaf has explained in his work how the regime has not simply supported the Sunnis and suppressed the Shia, as is often portrayed. Rather, the strategy has been to tolerate or patronize representatives, from either group, who interact with the regime as confessional agents of their community, and to discourage or punish those who seek to co-operate across the sectarian divide and make demands of the regime on a “national” rather than confessional basis.
Indeed, it is worth noting that the first political prisoner after the start of the 14 February uprising was a Sunni former army officer, Mohammed Al-Buflasa, who gave a speech about Sunni-Shia unity at the Pearl Roundabout. Also, the first political party to be targeted by the regime was the National Democratic Action Society, or Wa'ad, a secular nationalist group that has both Sunni and Shia members. Two of its offices were firebombed; the home of one of its Sunni leaders, Dr. Munira Fakhro, was firebombed; the Bahraini regime temporarily suspended the party; and its Sunni secretary general, Ibrahim Sharif, was sentenced to five years in prison. In contrast, Al Wefaq, the largest political society in Bahrain, and an openly Shia Islamist group, was not targeted in this same manner (initially at least). The political bloc that the regime has targeted the most severely is the “Alliance for a Republic.” Although it has an overwhelmingly Shia support base and often couches its rhetoric in religious symbolism, its demands are always nationalist and non-sectarian.

MK: Wouldn’t the regime fail to use sectarianism if it had not already existed?
FD: If we look back in history, we find that the “social sectarianism” between Sunni and Shia citizens in Bahrain has been restricted to fear and suspicion and has not manifested itself in the form of violence, since the 1950s. Violent sectarian clashes peaked in 1953-54, in reaction to which Bahrain saw for the first time, the rise of a “national” political movement that explicitly sought to unite Sunni and Shia on a common platform and eradicate sectarianism. Needless to say, the regime saw this as a threat and cracked down on the movement, and on other “nationalist” movements in subsequent decades, through a combination of both co-optation and brutal violence. But in all this time since 1954, there have not been any significant cases of violent clashes between the Sunni and Shia communities. Rather, any violence that has occurred has been between the regime and the opposition. If the conflict was of a solely sectarian nature, we should have seen incidents of Sunni citizens violently attacking their Shia neighbors, or vice versa—but this has not occurred. There have been some cases of violence since February that the regime has sought to portray as having a sectarian motive, but no evidence has yet been presented to support this claim.

MK: How did the regime employ the media for its sectarian bet?
FD: The regime has used the state apparatus, especially the media, to incite sectarianism in society. Maybe the most explicit example of state sectarianism is what has been dubbed the “Bandargate affair.” In 2006, Dr. Salah al-Bander, then a British adviser to the Bahraini government, released a 240-page report blowing the whistle on an alleged conspiracy led by a royal family member that sought to foment sectarianism, including changing the demographic makeup in the country and influence the parliamentary elections. One should be skeptical of such conspiracy theories, but it is indicative that immediately after al-Bander released the report he was deported from Bahrain, and a gag order was imposed on any media discussion of the scandal. The government has refused to respond to any public demands for the scandal to be investigated.

MK: Where did the Bahraini opposition falter, what went wrong, how to get back on track?
FD: Maybe the biggest fault of the Bahraini opposition was that it did not reach out enough across the sectarian divide before the start of the protests. Yes, there were many Sunnis who joined the protest movement, but it did not have that critical mass of Sunnis needed to create cracks in the state apparatus and force the regime to listen to the people.
Having said that, it is difficult to see how this could have happened. The opposition has always sought allies in its very modest national demands for a contractual constitution, real powers for the elected legislature, and fairer electoral districts. Yet, the regime has, through the mobilization of sectarian fear, managed to ensure that Sunnis do not ally with their Shia brethren in these simple demands.

MK: So you suggest that unity is the only way to achieve these demands?
FD: This is, in my eyes, where the opposition needs to work the hardest. The most important site for cross-sectarian cooperation is in the workplace and the labor movement. It was the labor movement that was the focus of the nationalist opposition movement in the 1950s and I believe this is what the opposition should focus on strengthening. This will of course be extremely difficult to do, given how severely the regime has cracked down on the trade union movement since February. Nonetheless, I cannot see it happening any other way. This strengthening of the labor movement will of course necessarily require building solidarity with migrant workers also, who have been largely ignored up until now.

MK: Do you think it hurt the opposition that some demanded the fall of the regime instead of focusing on toppling the Prime Minister?
FD: I remember in 2004 when Abdulhadi al-Khawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights for the first time publicly accused the Prime Minister of corruption and called for him to step down. Many of the “moderates” in the opposition at the time insisted that this was too radical a demand for Bahrain and that it will hurt the movement. For most people in the world, I imagine, calling for the resignation of an unelected prime minister who has been in power for forty years would hardly be regarded as a radical demand. The mainstream opposition did not call for his resignation and nothing happened.
Similarly, after 14 February, when protesters started calling for the downfall of the regime, the mainstream opposition insisted it was too radical a demand to call for the downfall of an autocratic monarchy, one that has killed and tortured its people.
But 14 February brought about a change unseen before. At the Lulu Roundabout people were able to express how they really felt. Now that the cork has been removed, it is impossible to bottle everything up again. The chant of "yasqut Hamad" ("Down with King Hamad") has become the chant of the movement. It is spray painted all over walls, it is chanted by protesters, and it is honked by cars. I think there is a strong argument for a transition to a genuine constitutional monarchy rather than a republic. However, there is great value in letting people tell the government how they really feel. There is nothing sectarian or racist about calling for the fall of the regime. In the words of Malcolm X: "Stop sweet-talking him. Tell him how you feel. Tell him what kind of hell you've been catching and let him know that if he's not ready to clean his house up, he shouldn't have a house."

MK: Many anti-regime Bahrainis like to portray the revolution as a non-Shia movement, but isn’t it more convenient and rational to say that it is a Shia movement as Shia are oppressed and are entitled to demand equality?
Yes, it would be disingenuous to pretend as though it is sheer coincidence that Shias form the overwhelming majority of the protesters. There is a reason why anti-apartheid protesters in South Africa and civil rights activist in the United States were mostly black. This reason applies to Bahrain.

MK: Do you believe youth should have acted independently of opposition political parties? Wouldn’t that be more helpful?
It is the youth who have led this movement from the start, while most of the mainstream opposition parties offered only lukewarm support. Since 14 February, the established opposition groups have had to make their decisions keeping in mind that it is the independent youth groups, and not the political party activists, who face the bullets and batons every day at the front lines.

MK: If the Crown Prince becomes the king of Bahrain, will that be better than nothing?
FD: Yes it will be better than nothing. If Bahrain were to transition to a genuine constitutional monarchy, all the other members of the royal family would stand to lose their guaranteed positions as ministers, ambassadors, judges and military officers. The Crown Prince however would be the only one who stands to benefit, as he would retain his position. Having said that, the Crown Prince has so far given little reason for the people to believe that he has the desire or the political ability to take on the rest of his family in trying to implement such a transition.

MK: The Media has turned its back to Bahrain with Saudi pressure and other factors, how do you think Bahrainis should respond to that?
FD: While the international media has not been paying as much attention to Bahrain as other Arab uprisings, when they do report on the situation it is generally sympathetic to the cause of the pro-democracy movement and critical of the regime. This is not where the problem lies. The real problem lies at home where the state-controlled local media has managed to divide and scare the people along sectarian lies. Bahrainis need to challenge this narrative through people-to-people contact and solidarity building.

MK: Do you believe the regime has an electronic army that works on bashing oppositionists and their supporters?
FD: I don not think there is any hard evidence to prove that the regime has such an electronic army, but anyone who blogs or tweets against the regime in Bahrain is familiar with the barrage of foul personal attacks that comes in response. We also know that the government has hired Washington D.C.-based Public Relations company “Qorvis,” which offers online reputation management as one of its services. According to a Huffington Post article, “the firm uses ‘black arts’ by creating fake blogs and websites that link back to positive content, ‘to make sure that no one online comes across the bad stuff,’ says the former insider. Other techniques include the use of social media, including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.” So potentially, this may be happening in Bahrain, but there is no hard evidence for it yet.

MK: In the last year, blogging has been replaced in Bahrain with social networking. Do you think that was a productive shift considering how much more organized and argument-strong blogging is, comparatively speaking?
FD: Much of the group brainstorming, planning, and organizing of online activism movements still takes place on discussion forums like BahrainOnline, rather than on blogs, Facebook, or twitter. However, real-time social media tools like Facebook and twitter were essential for real time information dissemination and feedback. The latest information about a protest or police attack could be spread around the country and the world within seconds. This does have its down side, as it means that false rumors can and are spread just as faced using this social media tools. But of course the real blame for this is the people who spread or choose to believe this false information without any real evidence for it.

MK: Remembering Ali Abdulimam?
FD: I was actively involved in the online campaign to free Ali after he was arrested in 2005 along with two other administrators of BahrainOnline. It was the first case of a blogger being detained in the Gulf as far as I know. His short time in detention brought him international recognition and allowed him to meet and share notes with other cyber-dissidents around the world. All the while his website continued serving hub for opposition debate and discussion, and in August 2010 he was arrested again along with scores of other people as part of a widespread crackdown on the opposition. He was released this February after the start of the uprising, but rather than keep quiet, the first thing he did after leaving prison was to join the protests at Pearl Roundabout. He spoke to the international media about the torture and abuse he faced during his detention. So when the Saudi-backed crackdown began in March he was to be rounded up. The security forces raided his family’s home to find him, but he is believed to have fled before their arrival. He has been missing in the eight months since then, and was sentenced in June in absentia to fifteen years in prison by a military court. I hope he actually is in hiding somewhere safe as I have heard.

MK: Do you think the choice of many netizens to remain anonymous have weakened the credibility of news coming from Bahrain?
FD: A great many netizens in Bahrain have always chosen to hide behind pseudonyms because of the threat from the state that has always existed. I myself tried to hide my identity while I was in Bahrain. You can assess the trustworthiness of anonymous online sources by looking at: (i) whether they are regarded as trustworthy by people who you trust highly, and (ii) how consistently accurate a source’s published information proves to be after observing them over a period of time. The problem that was witnessed in Bahrain was that after the start of the uprising there was a sudden rush of people joining twitter without understanding how it works or those who weren't as concerned about sources. At the same time you had hundreds of new twitter accounts being created overnight that appeared to be actively spreading false information about the unrest and crackdown.

MK: If Sunnis committed anti-Shia acts, then do you think Shia acted reactionary by making remarks against naturalized Bahrainis who are being stereotyped as mercenaries?
FD: Yes I think xenophobia is just as condemnable as sectarianism. However there is a difference in Bahrain’s case. Most of the opposition activists I have met are keen to make the distinction that when they use the term “naturalization” they are usually referring to “political naturalization.” That is, the use of naturalization for demographic engineering as a political tool. Having said that, I do not think it is particularly helpful to repeatedly use this term as a blanket insult against people, many of whom are just looking for a decent life. Nor should we deny the existence of xenophobia in Bahrain.

MK: Shouldn’t the naturalized Bahrainis be accepted in society instead of being rejected and hated? The remarks used against them exclude them for being racially non-Arabs or recent arrivals?
FD: Yes, just because the policy of political naturalization should be condemned does not mean that naturalized people should be hated. This applies especially to the many naturalized citizens, or their children, who were born and raised in Bahrain and regard it as their home. If the opposition was wise it would try harder to reach out to them, even those working in the security forces, to make them understand that they are both being exploited by the same fat cats.

* Published in Jadaliyya - December 2011. 

1 comment:

  1. A great interview & very informative.