The Narrative of Resistance - Bahrain and Iraq
Political Interests in Iraqi Media
The current leadership of Iraq is deeply attached to the core values of Shi'a Islam and those values are ingrained in the country’s political discourse, propagated through their respective media outlets. While those values appeal to the sympathy of Muslims, especially to Shi'a, Iraqi media never mention “the Sunni government” of Saudi Arabia. Attacks on Saudi Arabia are made indirectly by associating the country with the United States and Israel, denoting a contextual objectivity14 used by numerous media outlets in Iraq, which present the story in a seemingly impartial manner that remains sensitive to local sensibilities. It is this same contextual objectivity that embodies the complex underlying arguments used by the authorities in Bahrain regarding the alleged ties of the demonstrators to Iran, blurring the lines between what the audiences perceives as objective, thereby justifying the government’s subsequent actions, and what the message actually communicates. Eventually, the discursive discrepancies grow between “demonstrators,” “Iranian agents,” and “revolutionaries” or “martyrs.”
In many ways, the media reflect the views of society at large, and since 2003 Iraq has been no exception to the rule. Deborah Amos, a correspondent for NPR, argues that in the current atmosphere of chaos and conflict “Iraq’s media landscape now reflects the ethno-sectarian divide in the country.15” This fosters strife and erodes a sense of national identity and unity, which in turn makes the population profoundly distrustful and skeptical towards the national media. Corroborating Ibrahim Al-Marashi’s description, Amos characterizes the Iraqi media as powerful fissiparous empires “coalesced around ethno-political groups . . . who have print, radio and TV communications at their disposal.16” In pointing out that there is no neutral media outlet, Amos highlights that broadcasts are funded by ethnic political parties, political Islamists, Arab business interests representing sectarian groups, and the Iraqi government. Today, sectarian political factionalism increasingly occurs on media platforms rather than in the streets.
In this context, numerous Iraqi media have established politically motivated communication channels focused on information management (censorship) and perceptions (propaganda). They tend to rely considerably on the aesthetics of dramatization (a means exploited as well by Al-Wifaq in Bahrain), while seeking to break the latest “news.” The dramatization is enhanced when they report live events, creating a psychological link between the audience and the object of the reporting, which makes the media consumer overly concerned with events and discourses. This trend explains the highly graphic nature of some programs showing mutilated bodies of “martyrs,” for example.
Iraqi media outlets with a heavy Shi'a hue also aim to discredit the reports disseminated by Saudi or Bahraini media by alleging that Saudi media maintain suspiciously close ties to the White House or by questioning the legitimacy of the Bahraini government. In the Bahrain affair, particularly, Iraqi media accuse Saudi Arabia of being pro-Zionist in order to play on widespread anti-American sentiments across the Arab world to serve other political interests. In discussing the parties to the crisis in Bahrain, they often refer to “the foreigner” (the United States) and “their mercenaries,” or “hired guns” (the Saudis)17. Again, such discourse strongly resembles that of Iran’s media outlets. Needless to say, the protests led by Sadr did little to help Bahraini demonstrators, who have been struggling to convince their own government that they are not acting on behalf of foreign interests.
Commenting on the Bahraini slogan “Not Shi'a nor Sunni, Just Bahraini”, the Iraqi newspaper Al-Wasat denounced Saudi Arabia’s alleged intention of using sectarianism to spread chaos in the region, while the “Shi'a majority in Bahrain, despite the oppression, injustice and aggression it faces from its Sunni neighbor,” struggles against sectarian strife that has shed “the blood and tears of the martyrs.”18 Al-Wasat is directly funded by the Islamic Virtue Party, Al-Fadhilah, headed by Sheikh Mohammad Yaqubi, an influential Iraqi Twelver Shi'a cleric, and Hashem Al-Hashemi. It is a rival to Muqtada Al-Sadr’s group and tends to garner support from the lower strata of society among the Shi'a in the south of Iraq. The news site elaborates on how the Bahraini government abandoned its Shi'a citizens, turning them into the victims of neighboring Sunni powers. The fluid shift between victimization and heroism, punctuated with visceral attacks on Saudi Arabia and the broader Sunni community, feeds the transnational sectarian divide propagated in the Iraqi and Iranian narratives, while simultaneously condemning this approach. The consequent polarization in the self-perceived victim’s narrative turns into sectarianism and transforms the fight for social and political equalities into a Manichean discourse serving Iraqi political interests within a religious framework.
Al-Jewar, a news site funded by and affiliated to Al-Hakim and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which garners support from the Shi'a population and is Iraq’s most powerful party, lambasts Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent the Al Khalifa family, accusing them of fomenting sectarian divisions and threatening the national unity of Bahrain19. Al-Jewar juxtaposes the kingdom with Israel, a perceived aggressor against their “brothers” in Lebanon (namely Hezbollah), and challenges Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy as a nation and as a religious model.
Interestingly, other mainstream Arab media outlets in the region (mainly Saudi-funded) are barely covering the events in Bahrain, leaving a vacuum in terms of discourse among the various groups who have vested interests in what is happening. A case in point is the commercial media franchise Al-Sharqiya; founded by former Iraqi Ba’athist entrepreneur Saad Al-Bazaz, who moved to Dubai after running counter to the Shi'a-dominated government and who faces accusations of discriminating against the country’s Shi'a population, it barely mentions the protests in Bahrain. When it does, articles consistently refer to Iranian interference20. Nonetheless, Al-Sharqiya remains the most trusted TV channel for news among Iraqis, with one third of the population citing it as a reliable source of news.
2 Though an Iraqi Shi’a Marja, he resides most of the time in Qom, Iran
7 The National Action Charter of Bahrainis a document put forward by King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain in 2001 in order to end the popular 1990s Uprising and return the country to constitutional rule.
12Insofar that historical and cultural symbols of Shi'ism appeal to the sentiments of the masses and have often been used by religious leadership to foment uprisings.
14 Cf. work by Mohammed El-Nawawy & Adel Iskandar, The Story Of The Network That Is Rattling
Governments And Redefining Modern Journalism
16 Ibrahim Al-Marashi, ”The Dynamics of Iraq’s Media: Ethno-Sectarian Violence, Political Islam, Public
Advocacy and Globalization,” Open Society Institute, 2007.
27 The Fedayeen was a paramilitary organization loyal to the former Ba'athist government of Saddam Hussein. The name was chosen to mean "Saddam's Men of Sacrifice".