The Narrative of Resistance - Bahrain and Iraq
The crackdowns on demonstrators in Bahrain by the Al Khalifa leadership have intensified. Concerns over Iranian interference in Bahrain are grounded in real territorial claims by the Islamic republic, but Ali Salman, the Shi'a opposition head in Bahrain, has warned Iran and Saudi Arabia against using his country as a "battlefield" in a proxy war. "We don't want Bahrain to turn into a conflict zone between Saudi Arabia and Iran," he said. "That's why we object to the Saudi intervention. We call for immediate withdrawal of the troops, and we reject Iranian interference." Turning to Kuwait for mediation, even though it has failed, was a strategic move that made sense in the broader context of political legitimization and regional stability.
While the opposition clearly maintains that it acted in accord with its own perceptions of national interests and denies any affiliation with Tehran, the largely Sunni Bahraini authorities argue the opposite to legitimize the crackdown, with tacit support from the GCC members and the United States, which has remained relatively silent on the matter. Later reports of an agreement between Saudi Arabia and the United States, by which Saudi officials gave their backing to Western air strikes on Libya in exchange for the United States muting its criticism of the authorities in Bahrain, did little to quell anti-American sentiment in the region and is more than likely fueling counter-rhetoric by Iran and its allies.
The Manichean approach framed by the myth of martyrdom as understood in the broader Shi'a eschatology is more obvious on protesters’ banners and in Iraqi media than it is in the political rhetoric of Al-Wifaq. From the intifada of 1991 to today’s intifada, Iraqi Shi'a leaders have been quick to liken the current uprising in Bahrain to their past revolts against Saddam. The focus by Shi'a groups on the sectarian overtones of the protests, already a major factor against national unity and political workings in Iraq, is spreading through the media in the guise of solidarity movements.
Iran’s recent announcement that it will send an aid flotilla to Bahrain, to depart on May 16 from Bushehr, echoes the aid flotillas that have been sent to Gaza30, also ostensibly to bring humanitarian aid. The flotilla will be named after female Bahraini poet Ayat Al-Ghermezi, who allegedly was raped and killed during the crackdown. While the status of the woman could not be confirmed, the Iranian government reinforces sectarian identity and transforms it into a legitimate transnational group, binding Shi’a groups together in opposition. Likewise, Sadr’s latest visit to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, in an attempt “to solve the crisis in Bahrain and ensure the safety of the Bahrainis,” according to Sadr’s website31, hints possibly at Qatar’s aspiration to become a more prominent regional player, offsetting Saudi Arabia’s unchallenged position, with the possible cooperation of Iran. After all, Al-Jazeera has covered the abuses, crackdown and violence in Bahrain in some depth and emphasizes in its reporting the victimization of the protesters, without nonetheless taking a sectarian approach.
The role of Arab nationalism, although an ideology of diminished appeal, is not to be undermined. The notion of resistance and social justice in the intifada echoes deeply in the Arab psyche, starting with the movements against colonization, imperialism and mirroring the narrative of the Palestinians. The intifada is perceived as a call to muster people around one cause for the greater good. But shrouded in the hue of sectarian ideology as promoted by the current newspapers in Iraq, it may only serve to erode national identity, while reinforcing the fissiparous nature of Iraqi society, potentially destabilizing to other countries, while benefiting Iran.
Finally, concerted political action and economic cooperation, especially with other Gulf countries, could offset the sectarian rhetoric promoted by Iraqi political and religious elements closely linked to Iran. As it stands, the Arab summit has has been postponed until March 2012 at the request of the Iraqi government. Invoking political unrest, Iraqi lawmakers and politicians have incensed GCC members over their criticism of the Sunni minority leadership in Bahrain. The rising tension is a foreboding sign for the future of Iraqi-Bahraini relations, which is bound to affect Iraq’s relations with other Gulf countries, and consequently rapprochement with Iran. Although no longer a GCC associate member, providing Iraq with a provisional consultative status in the regional organization could pave the way towards resituating the country strategically and bring its policies into alignment with the interests of its Gulf Arab neighbors.
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".