By Rannie Amiri – CounterPunch
Bahrain has one of the most advanced medical systems in the Middle East, the best ICT sector in the region and the fastest growing economy in the Arab world.
But despite all these accomplishments, the country seems to be missing just one little thing: a doctor who can identify signs of torture.
– Benjamin Joffe-Walt writing for Change.org, 12 November 2010
February 14th was Bahrain’s turn for its “day of rage” against the striking social, political and economic inequities found in the tiny island kingdom. For those familiar with its modern history, however, they know there was no need to dub it such; Bahrainis have long raged against policies of exclusion, marginalization and sectarianism embodied in al-Khalifa family rule.
To fully appreciate Bahrain’s inherent volatility, it is important to understand both its demographics and political structure. These have been detailed in past essays which new readers can review. Briefly, of 1.2 million people in the Persian Gulf nation, only about 530,000 are Bahraini nationals. Of these, at least 70 percent are Shia Muslims. The king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and the al-Khalifa dynasty that has ruled Bahrain for two centuries, are Sunni Muslims.
If meaningful, representative, democratic institutions were present in the country, the sectarian incongruity would be a mere footnote. Unfortunately, that is far from the case. The civil, political and human rights of Shia citizens have been trampled on for decades by the monarchy. This wholly belies the claim that Bahrain is a beacon of democracy and reform among Persian Gulf nations (a notion likewise promulgated by its stalwart ally, the United States).
The notorious citizenship laws—giving non-Bahraini Sunnis expedited citizenship and voting rights in a backdoor attempt to alter the state’s confessional makeup—is one of many examples of how the monarchy has long bred resentment and anger among the majority population.
The disenfranchised, poverty-stricken Shia hold no significant positions in government. Although they comprise 80 percent of the labor force, they are absent from the public sector. They are completely unrepresented in the security services: of the 1,000 employed in the National Security Apparatus, more than two-thirds are non-Bahraini (Jordanians, Egyptians, Pakistanis etc.) and overwhelmingly Sunni. Bahraini Shias constitute less than five percent of the NSA and occupy only low-level positions or act as paid informants.
The paramilitary Special Security Forces operates under the supervision of the NSA and numbers 20,000—90 percent of whom are non-Bahraini. The SSF does not include a single Bahraini Shia officer.
These security forces, housed in Manama’s upscale neighborhoods of course, are routinely unleashed on Bahraini Shia protesting their lot—imported henchmen serving to oppress the king’s subjects.
Last summer, the government rounded up dozens of human rights workers, religious leaders and opposition figures who demanded an end to the regime’s habitual use of torture. Twenty-five were charged with “contacting foreign organizations and providing them with false and misleading information about the kingdom.” Half were charged with attempting to stage a coup. . In total, 450 have been arrested, including the well-known pro-democracy blogger Ali Abdulemam.
Claiming they were tortured by security forces before being put on trial, the government’s expert medical examiner concluded the bruises, wounds, cuts and burns found on detainees’ bodied were not the result of torture.
Indeed, its specter looms over all those who oppose al-Khalifa rule.
In February 2010, Human Rights Watch released a landmark report titled “Torture Redux: The Revival of Physical Coercion during Interrogations in Bahrain.” It chronicles the routine use of torture and degrading treatment for the purpose of extracting confessions from political opponents. The organization’s 2011 World Report reaffirms the practice continues. Even more disturbing, Bahraini children have not been spared physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the secret police.
But choosing Feb. 14 as Bahrain’s day of rage was not done randomly. It marked the tenth anniversary of the referendum on the National Action Charter, which Sheikh Hamad promised would transform the Kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, and the ninth anniversary of the 2002 constitution purportedly enacting it.
It was all for show. Despite Bahrain’s elected parliament, real power lies with the upper house Shura Council. The Shura Council has the authority to approve or rescind any legislation passed by the lower house Council of Representatives. Shura members, unsurprisingly, are directly appointed by the king.
Monday’s protestors, who acted peacefully by all accounts, were met by riot police using live ammunition. Scores were injured. The uprising’s first martyr, 27-year-old Ali Abdul Hadi Mushaima, was killed by a gunshot wound to the back. At his funeral procession Tuesday, security forces fatally shot Fadel Salman al-Matrouk, 31, a mourner who had gathered with others in front of the hospital where Mushaima died.
Sensing the potential for unrest, the king granted each Bahraini family $2,650 in cash before protests even began. After Mushaima and al-Matrook’s deaths, he went on television to express his regret and promise an investigation into their deaths. As in Egypt, the regime’s actions woefully lagged behind events on the ground.
Thousands of Bahrainis occupied Manama’s Pearl Roundabout Tuesday and Wednesday, with the youth at the helm. They chanted, “No Shiites, no Sunnis, only Bahrainis.” Tents were set up and preparations were made for a long peaceful encampment.
Early Thursday morning, while protestors slept, the situation took an ugly, violent turn. Riot police stormed through the camp, killing four and injuring 100. Sixty people are reported missing (numbers at the time of this writing, all likely to increase). Tanks were out in full force as hundreds flooded into hospitals. Manama is now in lock-down.
Statements of those present come from an AP report:
“They were beating me so hard I could no longer see. There was so much blood running from my head … I was yelling, ‘I’m a doctor. I’m a doctor.’ But they didn’t stop.”
“We yelled, ‘We are peaceful! Peaceful!’ The women and children were attacked just like the rest of us … They moved in as soon as the media left us. They knew what they’re doing.”
“Then all of a sudden the square was filled with tear gas clouds. Our women were screaming. … What kind of ruler does this to his people? There were women and children with us!”
Bahrainis’ demands are clear: the resignation of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa—who has governed since 1971—to be replaced by an elected premier, the release of all political prisoners, a new constitution, an end to the systematic discrimination against Shias and all forms of sectarianism, repeal of the citizenship laws, fairness in distribution of jobs and housing, freedom of the press and religion, and an end to torture.
The al-Khalifa monarchy and its imported mercenaries are at a crossroads. The protestors’ demands are reasonable and legitimate. The king would be wise to accede to them before overthrow of the entire regime becomes their only acceptable alternative. After Thursday’s violent crackdown against unarmed civilians, there may now be no other option.
By Ali Jawad – Global Research
One of the lasting legacies of the failed US-led war on Iraq is without doubt the rise of sectarianism in the general discourse on Middle Eastern politics. Sectarianism has been pitched as the ‘modern’ story of the Middle East, yet its driving causes and true nature remain subject to sweeping and misplaced generalizations, particularly in the Western media. The subsequent rooting of a sectarian political discourse in understanding the dynamics of the Middle East, flavoured by myths and fallacies, primarily serves to further the interests of imperialist and colonialist powers in the region. At another level, this discourse seeks to insulate discredited Arab leaders (i.e. Moderate “allies”) from the grievances of their own peoples as invented threats posed by an “other” are hyped up to disorientate the power of the masses.
In this regard, the recent scathing attack launched by the Egyptian Public Prosecutor (EPP) against Hizbullah, despite being somewhat expected, was revealing insofar as its sectarian dimension is concerned. Buried in between a long list of accusations against a “Hizbullah cell” uncovered in Egypt, the EPP stated the accused were “planning to carry out hostile operations within the country (Egypt) and attempting to spread Shiite thought in Egypt”.
During recent times, it has become fashionable for Middle Eastern premiers and oil-kings to protest against an ethereal threat posed by Shiism. The summoning of the “spread of Shiism” pretext, as seen above in the case of Egypt, is essentially used as a political tool. Further, the Egyptian line of attack in this respect is by no means an anomaly. In mid-March of this year, the kingdom of Morocco severed diplomatic ties with Iran accusing Tehran of “cultural infiltration” and attempts to “implant the Shiite Muslim ideology” in the country. In the emirate kingdoms of Bahrain and Kuwait, allegations of Iranian interference in the former, and charges claiming the formation of an insidious “Kuwaiti-Hizbullah” in the latter, are similarly propped up and dealt with within a strictly sectarian context.
Politically, the use of sectarianism in the present Middle Eastern context serves several purposes which can broadly be divided into local, regional and international dimensions. To identify these dimensions, it is necessary to probe below the surface of this worn out, yet doggishly resurgent, charge of Arab leaders against the threat posed by “Shiism” in order to reveal the causative factors behind this renewed focus on sectarianism.
First, by positing a so-called “threat” posed by a Shiite sectarian agenda, Arab leaders conveniently conceal and deflect attention from the deeply entrenched socio-economic disparity that exists between Shiite communities and their counterparts in several Gulf nations. In countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Shiites are forced to locate themselves on the peripheries of society under the juggernaut of systemic discrimination. Further, an environment of heightened sectarianism also provides an effective red herring for these kingdoms to silence demands calling for fairer representation and accordance of rights.
With respect to Shiite communities and their development in the Arab and national contexts, this factor presents a massive hurdle in the way of reform. As an example, the case of Lebanon underlines the central importance that the ability to pressure the central government plays in effecting change. Until the late Seventies of the last century, i.e. more than three decades after the National Pact (al-Mithaq al-Watani) was signed, Shiites found themselves relegated to the outer rims of Lebanese society. Downtrodden and ignored by the state, Lebanese Shiites bottled up their grievances within a sub-national narrative. In this milieu of resignation, the dynamism brought in by the charismatic Shiite leader, Sayyed Musa Al-Sadr, relied primarily on matlabiyya (a politics of demand) to transform the fortunes of Lebanese Shiites. Thus, the present-day hyping up of sectarian polemics by Arab leaders in the Gulf, acts as a significant stumbling block in the way of urgently needed, and long overdue reform of internal political and socio-economic structures. Demands for fair representation and equal rights that ought to be accorded by virtue of citizenship are instead silenced through the use of a sectarian deception.
Second, by reinforcing an image of a whole-scale invasion of the “Shiite” school of thought in traditionally majority-“Sunni” areas (or what was termed the Shii tide; al-madd al-Shii), Arab leaders promote an inherently confrontational and other-excluding relationship between the two major religious sects of Islam. This strategy thus aims to provoke a “religious” reaction hence providing credibility to the statements of highly unpopular and discredited leaders.
It has to be noted that this strategy has not only failed so far, but has done so miserably. Contrary to what Arab leaders like Mubarak hoped for, Sunni and Shia religious figures have stood by each other and together lambasted Arab leaders for their criminal silence and treachery towards the Palestinian cause. Notably, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was accused of “apostasy” and “grand treason” by more than two-hundred Sunni religious scholars in the wake of the brutal war on Gaza.
Third, in logical continuity from the previous point, Arab leaders like Mubarak who suffer from serious popularity deficits amongst their peoples, attempt to revitalize and give credibility to their sinking images by marketing themselves as safe keepers of “Sunnism”. The “spread of Shiism” accusation made by the EPP thus makes the case that the highly unpopular Mubarak in fact plays the role of a gatekeeper who faithfully ensures that the “Sunni” identity of Egypt is preserved.
At this level the strategy has again been met with ridicule from the Egyptian public. In a radio interview, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mahdi Akef, termed the allegations levelled against Hizbullah as unfounded and utterly baseless. The secretary general of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Jordan, minced less into his words when he praised the actions of Hizbullah as a “national, legitimate, and pan-Arab duty and an attempt to bolster the Islamic resistance in the Gaza Strip”. Instead of taking Mubarak for his word, public focus in Egypt has shifted to the involvement of Israeli intelligence in the operation targeted at Hizbullah. This factor by itself provides sufficient proof to the Egyptian and Arab streets that the actions of Hizbullah were in fact limited to supporting the resistance in Palestine, rather than the whimsically invented charge made by the EPP citing “spread of Shiism” in Egypt amongst others.
Fourth, the “spread of Shiism” pretext at the regional level is not sold merely as a sectarian phenomenon, but one that occurs in the backdrop of a growing Shiite presence in Middle Eastern politics. Shiite so-called “expansionism” is pitched as an extension of a wider political agenda, or what the Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal chooses to call “Iranian obstructionism”. Giving saliency to this aspect interlocks with the interests of the US and Israeli governments as was wittily articulated by an Arab writer who described the Egyptian government’s policy with the words: “Rescue! The Shiites are coming!” By openly declaring an anti-Shiite (read: anti-Iranian, anti resistance) platform, these Arab leaders seek to provide reassurance to the US and Israel that they continue to remain useful and relevant on the Middle Eastern chessboard.
Fifth, one of the more troubling usages of sectarianism in the present Middle East has been the enframent of political and national struggles within the mould of a sectarian identity-politics. The so-called “Moderate” Arab leaders in Cairo, Riyadh and Amman pass off differing stances as sectarian-qua-sectarian agendas. More accurately, political stances that clash with US-inspired “moderate” scripts of how things ought to play out in the Gulf, are pointed to as manifestations of the intrusion of a Shiite tidal wave under direct orders from an aspirant Shiite regional hegemon i.e. Iran.
Fuelling the fires of sectarianism in this way has meant that even pre-eminent struggles and causes in the Arab world have not remained impervious from the burdens of a sectarian-politics discourse. According to leading officials in Egypt, Gaza is seen as a ‘mini Islamic Republic of Iran’, and Hamas an abiding servant of the Iranian agenda. In order to discredit the path of resistance, the likes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia have chosen to mark it off as an Iranian-Shiite conspiracy, which if left unchecked will extend to devour the entire Arab homeland.
Largely due to this self-destructing polarization, admiration for Iran on the Arab street has skyrocketed. In the world of Arab satellite channels, live phone-ins on political talk shows are flooded by voices of solidarity with Iran and total contempt for “sell-out” Arab leaders. Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Bashar Al-Assad and Ismail Haniyeh are viewed as the symbols of remaining Arab dignity, and their indisputable popularity, heads and shoulders above the rest, is evidenced in every poll.
Finally, there remains the relation between imperialism and the rise of sectarian rhetoric in the Middle East i.e. the elephant in the room. It is said that sectarianism can be narrated “only by continually acknowledging and referring to both indigenous and imperial” histories and imperatives. Iraq has been the theatre on, and from, which the image of an ongoing sectarian struggle for the heart of the Middle East has been propagated. In the wake of the collapse of Baghdad in 2003, leading Arab intellectual Dr. Azmi Bishara took to the podium at UC Berkeley and said:
“Of course we don’t buy what they say about their sensitivity to democracy […]; what they call ‘building a democratic Iraq’, because I hear the accent. This is not […] the language of democrats. You don’t go to a country to build a democracy by splitting the country into three major religions (sects) […]; this is not pluralism, this is a recipe for civil war.”
The ‘Balkanization’ of the Middle East has for long been an unswerving desire of imperialist powers. The oft-quoted words of Oded Yinon about the “far-reaching opportunities” presented by the “very stormy situation [that] surrounds Israel”, published in 1982 by the World Zionist Organization, are instructive in this regard:
“The dissolution of Syria and Iraq into ethnically or religiously unique areas such as in Lebanon is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front. Iraq, rich in oil on the one hand and internally torn on the other is guaranteed as a candidate for Israel’s targets. Its dissolution is even more important for us than that of Syria. Iraq is stronger than Syria. In the short run, it is Iraqi power which constitutes the greatest threat to Israel.”
Today, the political tensions of the Middle East are driven minimally by indigenous inter-sectarian factors. The systematic and organized attempt – by imperialists and their regional clients – to amplify the myth of an ongoing, all-out sectarian war is precisely in order to cover for the evident absence of actual rifts between the peoples of the Middle East. Why the likes of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Morocco are not waiting around for second invitations to jump on to this sectarian bandwagon should in itself provoke a lot of questioning. Not in the least surprising, and another reason to look into this subject more critically, has been the failure of Western media from putting forth these simple and straight-forward questions.
Sectarianism constitutes an important chapter in the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy. Whilst it could be said that the US viewed the Middle East through a more ethnic prism in the past, it is clear that the sectarian divide has provided the way forward. The declaration of the “New Middle East” agenda during the Bush administration, and its failure in infancy during the 2006 war on Lebanon, essentially served to overload the sectarian aspect in a bid to foster the right conditions for the implementation of this agenda.
So-called “moderate” Arab leaders shamefully find themselves not only aligned with the most rightist, racist coalition in Israel (which continues to steal more Palestinian land by the day), but they in fact work hand in hand with Israel to conspire against resistance movements. Netanyahu and Liebermann have taken it upon themselves to scare the world into insanity, under the pretext of an imminent Iranian nuclear weapon capability. Mubarak, Abdullah and cohorts on the other hand, are pioneering the project of spreading fear against a sinister Iranian-led “Shiite” agenda aimed at taking over the Arab heartland which, needless to state, is implemented by resistance movements such as Hizbullah and Hamas.
Sadly, for the imperialists and discredited Arab leaders, the masses no longer buy such crackpot machinations. In the Middle East, we are now witness to a post-sectarian phase; the unity and solidarity that exists between its’ peoples – in identifying the key challenges that face this region – is palpable in whichever direction you turn. Western discourse on the Middle East however, remains fixated on talk of civil wars, sectarian strife and religious tension.
The failure of the US (and other Western powers) to move away from a sectarian discourse in accounting for the dynamics of the Middle East, and the failure to impress this reality upon regional Arab clients, will predictably have significant repercussions. There are several very real issues that need to be resolved in this region, and they have precious little to do with the myth of sectarianism. Political agendas can not forever be implemented in the shadow of sectarianism. The sooner the White House realizes this, the better.
Talk by Dr. Azmi Bishara at UC Berkeley after collapse of Baghdad.
By Ali Jawad – Global Research
There has been a lot of hustling and bustling in the Middle East lately, so much so that you might be forgiven for thinking that the promised winds of “change” are firmly on their way. Not since Condi Rice’s now infamous heralding of a “New Middle East” — whilst bombs rained over Southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006 — has there been so much activity on the Middle Eastern chessboard by virtually all of its players.
Despite being trailed closely by the starkest drift to the right in Israeli politics, the election of President Obama by American voters on the declared pledge of “change” has indeed led to a changed mood of diplomacy. The recent four-way ‘mini-summit’ concluded in Riyadh involving the heads of state of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Kuwait, and an earlier visit by John Kerry to Syria, following which, he discussed the possibility of “loosening certain sanctions” on Syria “in exchange for verifiable changes in behaviour”, are supposedly indicative of this new wave of diplomacy.
Given this milieu of unprecedented regional diplomacy, it is easy to be deluded into thinking that the much awaited departure of former US president Bush has not only invigorated a new dynamism into diplomatic forays, but has also changed the political set of cards in play. In this respect, an immediate threat that faces the global peace movement is precisely this self-consoling expectation of dramatic change that would at once signal an end to all the precedents set by the previous Bush administration.
If history is anything to go by, then promises of change should be viewed with a measure of suspicion. When these promises emanate from an edifice of empire, a level of mistrust given age-old historical experience to the contrary, is justified. Yet, the global peace movement and wider grassroots activist circles were never informed by the subjectivity of suspicion when they rose against the failed policies of Bush and his cohorts, rather, their principled stands for justice were driven by a pursuit and appreciation of reality. It is therefore necessary to objectively analyse the conditions surrounding the “New Middle East” experiment that was openly declared in 2006, and contrast its basic frameworks against the early moves of the Obama administration.
In the summer of 1996, an Israeli thinktank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, issued a paper entitled: ‘A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm’. Contained in it was not only the
blueprint for the invasion and overthrow of the Saddam regime, but also a more comprehensive strategy of “redrawing the map of the Middle East”. Amongst the “prominent opinion makers” who contributed to the paper were the usual hawkish neo-cons and pro-Zionism advocates in the US — Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, James Colbert, David and Meyrav Wurmser, the latter of whom was a co-founder of the MEMRI project. More significantly, there remain three markedly relevant features in the substance of the so-called ‘clean break’ strategy that have the potential to decisively influence the shaping of the current Middle East.
Firstly, the ‘clean break’ strategy was specifically formulated for implementation by the Netanyahu-led Likud government, which has now been elected by the Israeli electorate. Its major premise of throwing aside the “land for peace” track for a romantically phrased “peace for peace” paradigm effectively dovetails with Netanyahu’s vision for how ‘peace’ is to be achieved in the Occupied Territories, with Syria and the wider Arab world.
Secondly, the paper places central importance on the role and strategic position of Syria. In it, its destabilization is suggested with the aim of undoing the nation’s perceived role as a lynchpin in this connected chain of “dangerous threats” in the region stretching from Iran to Southern Lebanon. Particular detail is given to this factor so much so that the paper moves from offering a geostrategic appraisal to providing a surmised methodological framework on how to destabilize and/or overthrow nations; suggesting an assortment of military
direct/indirect strikes, using anti-Syrian proxies (both politically and militarily), embarking on a regional strategy to effectively ostracize the country, and finally launching a massive PR campaign that would demonize Syria and would thereby “remind the world of the nature of the Syrian regime”. As peace activists, it is worth storing the above points in our deeper recesses because in addition to being expressly illegal according to norms of international law — not that we are under any delusions about whether or not the neo-cons respect any law — they also outline the general methods that are employed by empires in dealing with adversaries.
Finally, the role and efficacy of regional neighbours that are allied with the US, in fostering the right conditions and pretexts for implementing this new strategy is to remain paramount in achieving the desired results. These regional players can play a significant aiding role in shaping the “strategic environment” by “weakening, containing, and even rolling back” the threats posed by the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah alliance.
Deconstructing the “New Middle East”
George W. Bush’s failed promise of a “global democratic revolution” following the “watershed event” of the “establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East” did not only fail miserably, but instead led to several inescapable eventualities that remain a symbol of this grand strategy. Firstly, the politicization of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program in order to exert pressure on Iran and to contain its’ perceived threat to the stability of the region (read: desired geopolitical order). Secondly, the saliency of sectarian and ethnic divisions on the Middle Eastern socio-political landscape. Thirdly, the formation of a so-called ‘Moderate-bloc’ of nations constituting regional players that act as a front against the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah alliance. Finally, the declaration of a “New Middle East” created an almost mythical worldview in the Israeli mindset, whether by design or accident, which believed that the Arab-Israeli question could not only be settled on unilateral terms but also decisively, once and for all, with sheer Herculean force. On all four accounts, the Obama administration has yet to hint at any significant “change” that requires the altering of these yardsticks which remain symbolic of the “New Middle East” agenda.
In spite of the deep economic crisis that has gripped world capitals, the historical ‘prerogatives’ (i. Natural resources, ii. Security of the state Israel, iii. Preservation of a certain regional geopolitical order which thereby realizes a significant chapter in wider US preponderance in the Eurasian space) held by the US for securing the strategic Middle East region remain firmly in place. The Middle East will thus remain a focal point of Obama’s foreign policy efforts. A recent talk by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a top foreign policy advisor to Obama, provides a keyhole premonition of the continuity of an age-old policy of confrontation and threat of military force against Iran. Writing for the Asia Times, Pepe Escobar disclosed this new US position, contained in a letter to Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, as follows: “if you help us get rid of non-existent Iranian nuclear weapons, we’ll get rid of our missile shield”.
The verbose politics of “clenched fists” should not leave the peace movement under any illusions about the nature of things to come, just as much as new Secretary of State Ms. Clinton is under no illusions about the next steps on the empire’s to-do list: “We’re under no illusions. Our eyes are wide open on Iran.”
Heightened sectarian saliency in Middle Eastern politics cannot be viewed independently from a strategy of isolating Iran from regional politics. Selling anti-Iranian rhetoric to Arab kingdoms necessarily determines the nature of discourse toward the sizeable and strategically positioned Shia populations across the Persian Gulf rim. When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak pronounced in April of 2006 that “Shias are mostly always loyal to Iran and not the countries in which they live”, it was by no means a slip of the tongue but rather a well calculated move that even lead one of the ‘clean break’ strategy’s “prominent opinion makers” to label Shias in the Persian Gulf as “Iran’s Levant clients”.
It is altogether not surprising on the back of this grand regional strategy, for the tiny emirate kingdom of Bahrain to accelerate a process of ‘demographic engineering’ by providing citizenship to extremist anti-Shia hotheads from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, to undercut its majority Shia population. Although the systematic marginalization of Shias reflects a deep-rooted policy of the Bahraini Al-Khalifa monarchy, nevertheless, one can neither ignore current justifications for this suppression on rationales of the “New Middle East” agenda, nor intentional American indifference to grave human rights violations which take place in a nation that hosts the central base for the Naval Command’s Fifth Fleet.
In the aftermath of recent clashes in Saudi Arabia, in which three Shia Saudi citizens were killed in the close precincts of the second-holiest site in Islam, a prominent Shia leader latched on to the occasion to highlight the deep-seated discrimination and marginalization of Shias. He also issued a resolute warning to the establishment by declaring in no uncertain terms that the “dignity” of the Shia population “is greater in worth than the unity” of the Kingdom. Mai Yamani, a Saudi national and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, whilst writing about these clashes notes that the suppression of Shias constitutes “part of the Kingdom’s strategy to counter Iran’s bid for regional hegemony”.
With respect to rising political sectarianism, the policy of the Obama administration has thus far been virtually identical in both respects, namely; in its sustenance of a political agenda that leads to heightened sectarian tensions on the one hand, and its deliberate disregard of sectarian-motivated agendas by regional ‘allies’ on the other, which effectively cement these divisions.
Late last December, Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal charted out his ‘path to peace’ for the Middle East in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post. The central concerns outlined in his vision for peace are not only symptomatic of those shared by the wider so-called ‘Moderate-bloc’ of Arab nations, but they in fact also provide a good indication of the changing tides in the Persian Gulf that have been the cause of much unsettling for the likes of Saudi Arabia. In particular, these concerns revolve around two core headings: i) the future of the Arab Initiative, and ii) the growing influence of Iran.
Viewed from another angle, the apparent urgent emphasis provided to the Arab Initiative and the closing window of ‘opportunity’ for its implementation, reveals an interesting reality that reflects the successes achieved by the path of Resistance; a path that evidently stands starkly at odds with the gifted job-roles given to the so-called ‘Moderates’ in the region. The highly agitated Saudi-Jordanian-Egyptian alliance views a resistance that has forced concessions upon a hereunto invincible Israeli adversary as a major threat to their own thrones. These realities are not hidden from the Arab street, and the growing grassroots support for Hizbullah and Hamas are a testament of this shift.
The second concern i.e., the growing influence of Iran or what Prince Turki Al-Faisal conveniently terms ‘Iranian obstructionism’, bears many commonalities with the first but transcends it in one vital respect: Iran symbolizes the possibility of the success of the ‘alternate path’. In the Arab consciousness, Iran provides a successful paradigm of a state that is self-dependent and stands up to imperialism in spite of long years of imposed wars and backbreaking sanctions. The findings in last year’s poll carried out by the University of Maryland and Zogby International hardly come as a surprise in this regard. Additionally, Iran has not been shy to recognize the path of resistance and in showing its’ unreserved support for it, whereas the standard position of the so-called ‘Moderate-bloc’ of Arab nations has been to undermine the path of resistance. This factor has also played a major contributory role in developing a positive view of Iran on the Arab street.
On the basis of this outlook, the geostrategic importance of Syria as a nation that stands by the side of the resistance, as well as an Arab state that positions itself outside of the so-called ‘Moderate-bloc’ and its chosen political agenda, becomes not only apparent but very significant. When President Bashar Al-Assad announced in the Doha Summit (during the height of the brutal war on Gaza) that the Arab Initiative was “dead” and all that remained was to “transfer the registry of this Initiative from the registry of the living to that of the dead”, it left the likes of Saudi Arabia shuffling their cards as they weighed their next options.
In very crude terms, the death of the Arab Initiative would at once spell the exclusion of the Saudi-Jordanian-Egyptian alliance from the Middle Eastern chessboard or at least mark their modest insignificance. The recent overtures made to Syria by the US and the Saudi-Jordanian-Egyptian alliance thus need to be viewed against this context. From the standpoint of the US and its Arab allies, the popular ‘public anarchy’ on the Arab street — in support of resistance movements — can no longer be contained except by fragmenting the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah alliance, even if this were to require swallowing bitter pills.
The victory of the Netanyahu-Liebermann coalition in Israel presents an immense challenge to the Arab coalition’s attempts to effectively sell this façade of a viable ‘peace track’ to Syria and to the Arab world in general. Even by the shoddy standards of truth that we have become accustomed to in our times, the sudden metamorphosis of a racist-bigot like Liebermann, whose comments about the ‘transfer’ of Arabs are not concealed from the Arab world, into a ‘kingmaker’ for a track of peace comes across as simply ridiculous. In this respect, one of the salient but less spoken about roles that is presently being played out by the Saudi-Jordanian-Egyptian alliance, is its transformation into a mouthpiece replacement for Israeli silence.
Nevertheless, it is important to underline the mounting support within Israel for engaging in Syrian peace talks as evinced by the recent advice offered to Netanyahu by a panel consisting of “prominent figures who formerly served in key posts in the defense establishment, government and the business community”. Writing in a Ha’aretz op-ed, diplomatic editor Aluf Benn emphasised the need for Netanyahu’s government to accede to the track of the Arab initiative — a stance that is antithetical to the classical Likud position — by noting: “Netanyahu can go further than previous prime ministers and announce that the Arab initiative is an unprecedented opportunity for closing ranks against the threat of Iran and the extremists in the region…”
At any rate, selling an image of Israel as the sincere peacemaker at times and expansionist war-monger on others does little to straighten out any ‘path to peace’. On March 2nd 2009, the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now released a report saying that the Israeli Ministry of Construction and Housing had plans to build 73,302 housing units in the Occupied West Bank — of which 15,000 units have already been approved. The report noted that if all the plans are realized “the number of settlers in the Territories will be doubled”. In a confidential EU report leaked to the Guardian, Israel was noted to be “actively pursuing the illegal annexation” of East Jerusalem with present settlements expansion progressing at a “rapid pace”. In the face of these terminal threats to the two-state solution, the Obama administration has responded with a timid and pathetic characterisation of Israel’s actions as “unhelpful”.
The Challenges Ahead
Whether this geopolitical tug of war to redraw the battle lines in the sands of the Middle East will end up in the favour of the US, Israel and their Arab allies is yet to be seen. Recent comments by Syrian top officials indicate that Damascus is not about to be moved by mere words and promises of change. Foreign Minister Walid Moallem underlined that Damascus would not accept any less than a complete return to the 1967 borders and respect for the natural rights of Palestine: “Syria would be willing to renew only indirect talks, on two conditions: Israel’s commitment to withdraw to the 1967 borders, as well as its commitment that the Syrian channel will not be used to harm the Palestinians.” Muhsin Bilal, the Syrian Information Minister, was less reserved with his choice of words when he declared that the victories exacted by the Lebanese and Palestinian resistances against the “Zionist” entity had botched the “New Middle East” agenda.
Regional developments such as the growing mediating role of a pragmatic Qatar and increasing Turkish buoyancy, have also worked in the favour of the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah alliance by somewhat distorting the traditional ‘power blocs’. In addition to these regional changes, a sense of Syrian ‘realism’ in dealing with a ‘defeated’ Israel, augmented by the natural dynamism and unequal grassroots support for Iran and resistance movements in the region, present a formidable and hitherto undefeated opponent.
To peace activists, the success or failure of this political squabbling is insignificant when placed against the grave human price that is almost certain to result from the pursuit of such a political agenda. For Western politicians who still value rational strategic planning; the analysis of ‘facts’ — and not engineered ‘truths’ – and their synthesis in forming a balanced perspective of reality, the inescapable calamities that would be the necessary resultant of adopting this aggressive, confrontational political agenda cannot be overlooked.
At this juncture, it is important to highlight a common fallacy that is epidemic in the Western media and unfortunately, one that has also trickled into the discourse of certain sections of the peace movement. Neo-con and pro-Zionist voices were quick to highlight that any sort of engagement with the likes of Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas (collectively homogenized as radical ‘Islamists’) poses a high-risk to the ‘civilized world’. These radical Islamists, we were told, can simply not be engaged with; talks with Iran would run parallel to the building of the ‘bomb’, talks with Hizbullah would create a ‘state within a state’, engaging with Hamas would signal the exclusion of (the illegitimate) president Mahmoud Abbas. Although the truth is far distant from these sensationally irrational spurts, unfortunately, the ‘radical Islamist’ tag has remained firmly embedded in building perspectives towards the likes of Hizbullah and Hamas within some quarters of the peace movement.
In addition to being a classical tactic to ‘otherize’ the enemy if a process to ‘dehumanize’ it fails, we should note that despite adhering to a different kind of politics, these entities are neither irrational political players nor is their existence qualified by a ‘culture of death’. For the sake of example, the Hizbullah resistance movement overlooks an extensive social programs network that is virtually unequalled throughout the entire Middle East. Its longstanding record of peaceful coexistence and a highly-advanced integration paradigm (infitah) within the public sphere of a multi-sectarian Lebanese topography are doubted by none. The same however, cannot be said of US-Saudi sponsored Salafist client groups in Lebanon for whom the tag ‘Islamist’ fits rather well. All in all, resistance movements like Hizbullah and Hamas enjoy a great deal of popular support on the Arab streets. They have also shown a great degree of tolerance towards the West in spite of the long list of grievances that have resulted from negative Western interference in their countries. Here, it is highly beneficial to refer to a speech delivered by Nadine Rosa-Rosso at the ‘International Forum for Resistance, Anti-Imperialism, Solidarity between Peoples and Alternatives’ that was held earlier this year in Beirut.
In summary, the politicization of the Iranian nuclear programme and the recycling of false pretexts by Israel to launch regional wars should not be viewed as haphazard aberrations, but rather as logical consequences of a grand regional geopolitical strategy. The “New Middle East” agenda is the infrastructure upon which an imperial superstructure of hegemony, sustained by the disregard of law and rule of brute force, is raised to control this region.
Human rights activists and lawyers who advocate against the innumerable abuses that have occurred so far in this “War on Terror” cannot ignore this political agenda which is in fact the origin of all ills.
One cannot speak of dealing with the looming threat of military strikes against Iran without first dealing with the “New Middle East” agenda. Similarly, one cannot speak of a post-Bush era or lavishly mark “new beginnings” without first doing away with the lasting remnants of a policy that has brought on so much suffering to the region, and continues to leave it on a knife’s edge. Strangely — most would say criminally — the experiences of the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq appear to have done little to develop a more informed US foreign policy in its dealings with this region. If there is any special disgust within the global peace movement with respect to these failed wars, it lies in the fear that a repeat is as likely to occur.
With the proclaimed advent of a “new beginning” by the Obama administration, there is a pressing need for the peace movement to engage in a comprehensive study of the “New Middle East” agenda in its different aspects and dimensions. Our collective failure to critically examine this agenda on the one hand, and to circulate its underlying assumptions and necessary consequences to the Western public on the other, will inevitably expose the peace movement to accusations of adherence to an outdated, dogmatic discourse.
The “New Middle East” agenda is inherently confrontational and raises the spectre of war in the region. For as long as it remains on the table, the whole Middle East will teeter on the brink of unspeakable calamities.
1. ‘Kerry calls for easing US sanctions against Syria’, The Boston Globe, March 5th
2. ‘Generic Invader Nonsense – Obama on Iraq’, Media Lens, March 5th 2009
3. ‘A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm’, Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies,
4. ‘Bush demands Mid-East democracy’, BBC News, November 6th 2003
5. ‘US-Russian partnership will end shield row’, Press TV, March 16th 2009
6. ‘The Obama-Medvedev Turbo Shuffle’, Asia Times Online, March 5th 2009
7. ‘From ‘axis of evil’ to ‘clenched fist’’, Asia Times Online, February 28th 2009
8. ‘Hillary Clinton offers handshake of friendship to Syria’, The Times, March 3rd 2009
9. ‘The Iran-Hamas Alliance’, Hudson Institute, October 4th 2007
10. ‘Bahraini rulers importing extremism’, Press TV, February 15th 2009
11. ‘Thank Sheikh al-Nimr instead of imprisoning him’, Rasid News Service, March 17th
12. ‘Saudi Arabia’s Shias Stand Up’, Project Syndicate, March 2009
13. ‘Peace for the Middle East’, Washington Post, December 26th 2008
14. ‘Nasrallah most admired Arab leader’, Press TV, April 17th 2008
15. ‘President al-Assad at Gaza Summit: Gaza Destiny is ours, Arab Peace Initiative Dead,
Standing by our People and Resistance in Gaza with all Available Means’,
Syrian Arab News Agency, January 18th 2009
16. ‘Liebermann, Avigdor – Israeli politician and deputy prime minister’, Electronic Intifada
17. ‘Netanyahu advisors tell him to push ahead with Syria track’, Ha’aretz, March 16th 2009
18. ‘A way out for Netanyahu’, Ha’aretz
19. ‘The Ministry of Construction and Housing is planning to construct at least 73,300
housing units in the West Bank’, Peace Now, 3rd March 2009
20. ‘Israel annexing East Jerusalem’, says EU, Guardian, 7th March 2009
21. ‘Criminal Unhelpfulness’, Agence Global, 18th March 2009
22. ‘Syrian FM: Still at war with Israel’, Ynet News, 22nd March 2009
23. ‘Bilal: Arab solidarity in confronting challenges’, Syrian Arab News Agency, 18th
24. ‘What do the financial crisis and US Middle East policy have in common?’,
Jerusalem Post, 6th December 2008
25. ‘The Redirection’, The New Yorker, 5th March 2007
26. ‘The Left And Support For Anti-Imperialist Islamist Resistance’, Counter
Currents, 11th February 2009