It is now the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. The tenth day of Muharram is called Ashura, and is celebrated by Shia because it marks the martydom of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussain at the Battle of Kerbala. The martydom of Hussain is thought by many to be an important symbol of the struggle against tyranny and oppression. Such connotations are naturally problematic for authoritarian regimes such as the Bahraini government, for it is virtually impossible, especially given current circumstances, for a religious occasion signifying a fight against oppression to remain apolitical.
For this reason, and given the recent crackdown in Bahrain, the authorities are eager for Ashura to be as muted as possible. Not only was the ‘temporary’ ban on public gatherings issued about 3 weeks before Ashura, but the regime have been targeting clerics and religious figures. Al Wefaq have reported that cleric Sayed Kamil al Hashimi has been arrested, and Sheikh Hassan al-Ali and Elias al Marzooq referred to the public prosecution. Religious singer Abather al-Halwachi has also been summoned. The Ministry of the Interior state that these people ‘delivered politicized sermons and chanted in a way that negatively provoked the crowd.’
In addition to these arrests, the Ministry of the Interior have been emphasizing the idea that religious places and occasions should not be exploited for political ends. The MOI stated:
The Assistant Undersecretary stressed the importance of maintaining the integrity of religious ceremonies and places of worship. The use of such sites and activities as tools to divisively politicize the participants must stop. While freedom of religion is celebrated in Bahrain, it is not an iron curtain behind which politically explosive activities can be used to incite people toward violence.
Considering the fact that the pro-government group National Unity Assembly were given tacit approval to hold a protest on the premises of Al-Fateh Mosque, it seems somewhat capricious that the MOI are saying that religious places and occasions should not be used for political purposes. Also, loyalist MP Jassim al Saeedi was spared referral to the public prosecution after making sectarian and anti-semitic remarks. He was reported to have said: ‘Stupid people realise the reality of those individuals, they are Jews, infidels and sons of temporary marriages – basically they are sons out of wedlock.’ As usual, it is one rule for loyalists, and another for those who are not.
In line with their clampdown on Ashura, the MOI have also warned the owners of the Matams where these allegedy ‘hateful’ sermons took place. I’m not sure what these warnings involved, though al-Wefaq state that some Matams were threatened with closure. There is also evidence that security forces are taking down banners, flags, and slogans commemorating Ashura. This video shows security forces taking down black flags in the village of Karzakan.
This photo allegedly shows security forces vandalizing Ashura posters and banners in A’ali yesterday morning. Al Wefaq also report the same happening in Tubli, and Jurdab. The following video also reportedly shows security forces removing a statue of Iman Hussein in A’ali.
The Ministry of the Interior’s commitment to removing such religious iconography is quite interesting, especially considering how busy they must be at the moment. It is also slightly ridiculous that they should commit so many resources to removing such banners when they were happy to do nothing last year as some groups erected posters depicting nooses or swords next to slogans calling for the maximum punishment of those spreading ‘fitna’.
Although the MOI were active in destroying religious symbols last year, it is telling that they are still doing so, even after some claim that the the uprising ‘is over’. Whether or not the fear generated by the government’s constant scaremongering about a Shia-Iranian theocratic plot has created a corollary fear of Shia religious expression is hard to discern, though it would not be surprising. It was also ironic that Sameera Rajab had to describe reports of an imminent terror attack ‘baseless‘, months after the government have been trying to instill a sense of fear and panic among citizens. While such fear is a useful divide and conquer tool among Bahrainis, it is not so useful for flighty expats, who may up and leave when confronted with the possibility of such danger.
Whatever one’s views are on religious and politics, it would be unreasonable for an occasion symbolizing resistance to oppression to not take on political overtones. If calls to end oppression are not disingenuous, and ultimately seek to challenge an authoritarian state, then they cannot be dismissed on the grounds that they are religious. Nor is it fair to assume that such calls denote an inherent marriage of religious and politics, and an inevitable precursor to a religious order that will simply continue its oppressive practices, albeit in a slightly different manner. While I do worry about the involvement of religious figures in politics, the regime and its supporters exploit this idea of a ‘Shia theocracy’ to make people doubtful that Bahrain is ready for democracy.It is also unreasonable to expect that some aspects of religion should not permeate into the political sphere, especially where oppression is concerned. The idea, for example, that Isa Qassim is interfering in political affairs when calling for an independent investigation into the bomb attacks in Bahrain is absurd.
Given last year’s destruction of mosques, and the recent revoking of citizenships from 31 Shia Bahrainis, this clampdown on Ashura denotes another sectarian aspect of the uprising. That’s not to say the motivation for such measures comes from sectarian animosity per se, but rather that a combination of centuries long Shia marginalisation combined with ritualistic and space-centric forms of religious practice. As the political situation stagnates in Bahrain, it is no surprise that people will seek inspiration from a belief system that they see as free from the stain of compromise and futility. If people truly want to keep religion out of politics, then the political sphere has to been as an effective means of allowing people to improve their lives.
At the moment, and despite the Gulf Daily News bi-weekly insistence that ‘DOORS ARE OPEN FOR DIALOGUE‘, hopes of a political solution seem bleak. The only ray of hopes comes from an announcement that the government have
‘confirmed its intention to establish a committee to re-consider the distribution of electoral constituencies ahead of the next elections and preserved and consolidated the bicameral parliamentary system’
Though until the government actually draw fair electoral boundaries, the above paragraph is not worth the bandwidth it is written on.
Lethal Shrouds, Weaponised Loudspeakers, and Freedom of Expression Events. These are just some of things you ought to be concerned about over the coming weeks. That’s right, the Bahrain government’s propaganda machine has kicked into overdrive, and it is now making even the most banal household objects seem like a potential Weapon of Mass Destruction. I don’t mean to trivialize matters, but after watching the weekly security report issued by the Bahrain News Agency (BNA), I am entitled to be a little sarcastic. For those who haven’t seen it yet, you can watch it here. Read on for highlights.
Firstly, the report begins with this introduction,
‘The security report brings you a summary of what happened during the week from rioting, vandalism and law-breaking which SOME still call it a peaceful protest. And through this week’s report once again we will show you by footage what has been labelled as peaceful as an act of terrorism, so let’s start this week’s report’.
So the BNA propaganda term are still keen to conflate any act of deviance as somehow an act of deceit, perpetrated by people who claim it is peaceful. In short, they wish to blur the lines between those who actually DO believe in peaceful protest, with those who use violence or other methods. In other words, anyone who wants political change, regardless of the methods they espouse, is a security threat. Figure 1 illustrates the general trend of government propaganda (I know it’s another flowchart – I couldn’t help myself).
The report goes onto to say how security forces foiled an attempt at vandalism after seizing a crate of molotov cocktails secreted in a bush in Karranah. Fortunately, as with the rest of the report, a cameraman was on hand to film the heroic security forces at work.
2 minutes into the video, the presenter states that ‘ Police seized from a deserted house materials used for committing acts of vandalism, including molotov cocktails, empty bottles, fire extinguishers, shrouds, candles and loudspeakers’. I don’t know about you, but I have long been waiting for the government to criminalize the use of shrouds, candles and loudspeakers. It can’t have been an easy decision. The following meme has been generated to illustrate the deliberations faced by the MOI officers who seized these potentially lethal, ‘dual-use’ goods.
The highlight of the report is undoubtedly at 2.11, where the video shows a desk covered in weapon-making tools such as tape, wires, shrouds etc. But what’s that positioned strategically on the corner of the desk? Wait, it’s 1000 Iranian rials! See Figure 2.
In case it was not obvious, the presence of this Iranian currency fits in nicely with the regime’s discourse on political unrest in Bahrain. That is to say, unrest in Bahrain is formented by Iranian and/or Hezbollah agents who get training abroad. Remember when Qatari authorities arrested four Bahraini men who were carrying, maps, dollars, and significant amounts of Iranian Toman! Never underestimate the significance of strategically placed Toman!
Let’s also not forget that the security report did not include any information about injuries suffered by civilians as a result of police violence.
Freedom of Expression Events
King Jong Il may be dead, but his legacy lives on. Indeed, Bahrain’s Ministry of the Interior have sought to highlight the country’s committment to freedom of expression by studying appropriate places in which political groups can erm, ‘ freely’ express themselves. The MOI even have a name for this, it’s called ‘responsible freedom‘. This study has been done in order to strike a balance between freedom of expression and the interests of the public. Of course the real reason this is being done is to further regulate protest, and make it as safe and as non-threatening to the regime as possible. Another aspect of this ‘ responsible freedom’ is that no protest sites will be allowed in the capital. That means that civil disobedience is officially banned in Manama. In summary, you will be allowed to protest, so long as you do it in specific places, at specific times, and in a specific manner. Freedom of expression must never threaten the incumbent order, because that wouldn’t be ‘responsible freedom’ now would it. Rumours of an Expression of Religious Tolerance Event are also being circulated. Shia not invited.
Police to be given superpowers
On a slightly different note, but one that still involves how the state wish to discourage genuine protest – harsher sentences are to be imposed on those who attack the police. The GDN reports
Tough new laws were approved yesterday to protect Bahrain’s policemen – including life sentences…From now on anyone who assaults a member of Public Security, BDF, the National Guard or the National Security Body, will be jailed//The penalty will also be imprisonment for a period of no less than seven years if the assault results in permanent and unintentional disability, no less than 10 years if the assault deliberately causes permanent disability and life imprisonment if the assault leads to death..
While these new laws essentially raise the cost of engaging in protest, they also mask the fact that other laws are being drafted that may give the police more license to act with impunity. On May16th I blogged about how those who committed manslaughter ‘ in the line of duty’ would faced relaxed sentencing. Read the blog here
Propaganda and Police
So as we can see, the police are portrayed as a positive force, protecting everyone’s interest by foiling terrorists and disrupting nefarious foreign plots. The new laws designed to protect them coupled with the new protest legislation signal a further deepening of ‘ legal’ forms of control. In addition to brute force, these ‘legal’ mechanisms simply form another layer of control, ones that aim to entrench authoritarianism by providing a veneer of lawful legitimacy.
Up to four civilians are reported to have been killed in Bahrain in the past two days, making January one of the most deadly months since March 2011. In addition to this, 41 policemen were injured. This comes after a considerable yet not unexpected escalation of violence, which mainly involved the targeting of riot officers with molotov cocktails, iron rods and stones. Many are blaming Isa Qassim’s controversial speech for the rising violence, and while his words certainly helped validate it, it was the BahrainFist operation that was chiefly responsible, and that was planned long before Isa Qassim gave his sermon. Somewhat ironically, NUA chairman Sheikh Abdulatif Al Mahmood said that the protesters were trying to incite a war, despite the fact he gave an address last year that wasn’t entirely dissimilar to Qassim’s. Even the BBC seemed to blame Isa Qassim, while simultaneously dumbing down any sense of what might have led to the violence. Anyway, as predicted, the attacks on the riot police have provided government supporters with an opportunity to paint the security apparatus as victims, demonise al-Wefaq, and throw in some timely information about an Iranian backed plot.
For their part, the national press have wasted no time in highlighting the hardships faced by the security forces. Akbar al-Khaleej led with a story of the Prime Minister visiting injured security officers, while the Gulf Daily News featured a story you’d expect to hear in relation to the Israeli-Palestine conflict, entitling it ‘Children and women are human shields‘. The police sources being interviewed stated that they are only allowed to use tear gas, which is ineffective against the protesters’ arsenal of molotovs, irons rods and swords. Indeed, the policeman goes on to state (in immaculate English I might add) that the protesters make their own tear gas, which is apparently stronger than the stuff used by the security services. If this claim is true, I imagine weapons manufacturers will be in Sitra faster than you can say ‘weaponised mahyawa’.
Despite the fact that Bahrain’s villages are now becoming a creative hotbed for pioneering crowd control technologies, the policeman’s ‘human shield’ claim is a little spurious. I mean, if the police are only allowed to use tear gas, how on earth do protesters use women and children as human shields? Do they tell them to suck up all the tear gas before it reaches them? Do they fling the chubbier kids onto the cannisters, vainly hoping that they will provide a better seal to stop the smoke from escaping into the villages? Do the women lure the officers into ‘mut3a’ tents before clonking them on the head with an oversized, cartoon club? All real possibilities.
As if this human shields argument wasn’t enough, the Gulf Daily News also reported today that some Pakistanis in the security forces were demanding that their embassy tell the Bahraini authorities to do more to protect them. The emerging theme is that the security forces want more weapons to defend themselves against the protesters, a sentiment mirrored by a group of citizens who gathered at the clocktower , Sahwa al Fatih, and Mohammed Khalid . Whether any of these people read the BICI report is unclear, though last time the security forces were given more deadly weapons things did not end well, and that was when the protests were predominantly peaceful. That both the security forces and the protesters are now invoking the ‘self-defence’ argument is absurd, not least because it implies that no single party is responsible for initiating the violence. There is also a great irony in the fact that these policemen have some recourse to protection through their embassies, whilst many Bahrainis feel that they have no recourse to protection, least of all from the police.
All this talk of lacking sufficient arms suggests that the police have stopped using other weapons. This photo posted on the 25th January shows a policeman holding a shotgun, while this video allegedly shows a protester having shotgun pellets picked out of him. In addition to shotguns, the security forces are still using their jeeps to disperse protesters, a tactic that reportedly led to the death of 17 year old Mohammed Ebrahim – who died this morning after being run over yesterday. And if jeeps aren’t enough of a weapon, there’s always the good ol’ combination of fists, boots and batons, as this human-shield-less man found out the other day. Last but not least, some policemen still appear to be throwing metal rods and molotov cocktails back protesters.
So it would seem that despite the considerable arsenal at the hands of the security services, they still need more weapons. As expected, increasingly violent resistance in Bahrain’s villages has riled the loyalists, and given the regime more reason to justify a crackdown. Whether or not the government plans to give more arms to its security forces is uncertain, though they are probably more than a little embarrassed by videos of protesters chasing policemen out of villages with stones and molotov cocktails. As predicted though, BahrainFist has resulted in an aggressive stance from the regime and its supporters, who no doubt think the idea of police reform should be scrapped in favour of equipping the security forces with bigger, scarier weapons. Incidentally, on the topic of reform, do videos like this suggest increased police restraint? If so it seems wildly inconsistent.
It is of course terrible that 41 riot officers got injured. Pre-meditated attacks are wrong and should not be condoned, yet to uncritically portray the security forces as mere victims of motiveless violence is just misleading and inaccurate. Without anyone to hold the police accountable, they will increasingly act with impunity. Indeed, placing all the emphasis on protester violence whilst suggesting police are merely victims ignores the fact they are still engaging in unacceptable behaviour. Obviously state violence works to aggravate activists, as does their continued intransigence on political reform, but much of this violence also results from a lack of space to protest. The fact that even applying for a permit to hold a rally shows a ‘determination to break the law‘ is palpably absurd. Not granting permission for political parties to hold peaceful rallies is obviously going to encourage more violent activism. As Della Porta and Tarrow propose
as mainstream challengers steadily lose their capacity to inspire and organize large-scale popular protest, radical organizations and entrepeneurs operating on the fringes of the political spectrum attempt to seize the initiative through the use of violent of tactics.
Anyway, despite the regimes continued willingness to deny space to the legal opposition, violence towards policeman will almost certainly not stop them from coming into the villages or working in Bahrain. Judging from the ‘Bahrain embassy in Pakistan page‘, there’s countless Pakistanis wishing to head over and get a job here. If anything, continued violence will only swell their numbers, further augmenting a whole community whose livelihood depends on continued unrest. Not that you can blame them though, the pay is pretty good.
Many people believe the MOI are covering up yet another death. They say the man pictured here died after getting drunk & high and then crashing into a group of police cars. People are reporting that he was tortured. With little efforts to restore its credibility, it’s very much hard to believe the MOI are telling the truth, especially after the debacle concerning Yousif Muwali.