Sunday, May 20, 2012

The End of Pragmatism; Or, Why Bahrain Would Have Locked Up Chen Guangcheng

I spent much of last week thinking and talking about political dynamics in Bahrain and other Gulf countries as part of a workshop for a book project on Sectarian Politics in the Gulf. A consistent theme of that discussion, especially in the Bahrain context, was what I've called elsewhere the "securitization of the Shi'a problem"--or, more generally, of the problem of religious-cum-political minorities.

As I see it, this phenomenon, toward which Bahrain's ruling family has now decisively shifted, involves two main elements: a political calculation, and an ideological orientation. The political calculation is that the entire economic and political reform model represented by post-1999 King Hamad and Sh. Salman is fundamentally flawed; that political stability in Bahrain or elsewhere will never come as a result of placating dissatisfied citizens with the promise of economic and (to a lesser extent) political benefits, but by repressing them--if possible with the help of like-minded neighbors.

The corresponding ideological orientation explains the rationale behind this political calculation: that Shi'a as a class of citizen will never be satisfied with anything less than total domination of the state and indeed the Muslim world generally. They are the Roman Catholics of Islam, harboring dual loyalty to Iran qua state-sponsor of Shi'ism. They are connected by a trans-national communal solidarity whose goal is only Shi'a empowerment. They are, in short, disloyal and unworthy subjects of the Gulf states and their rulers, the latter having succeeded in affording citizens both economic prosperity and modernization, as well as political stability in a region where it is otherwise unknown.

I would argue, then, that the post-February progression of Bahrain can be summarized exactly as this transition in political orthodoxy. The opposition's rejection of the crown prince's dialogue initiative in February and March 2011 set in motion a series of events that cemented this change in thinking from Bahraini Shi'a as a political problem to security problem. Whereas the state had long taken preventative measures--demographic re-engineering, electoral redistricting, Shi'a exclusions from the police/military--to hedge against the possibility that King Hamad's political and economic project failed, still these measures were always conceived as constituting a Plan B. The post-uprising record demonstrates clearly that this strategy has now graduated to Plan A.

One recent news item seems to my mind to illustrate perfectly this shift away from political pragmatism. No doubt one will have heard of the blind Chinese political dissident, Chen Guangcheng, who has just recently arrived in the United States following an unlikely ordeal involving an escape from house arrest to the American Embassy in Beijing, etc. etc. Now, the parallel of this case with that of another well-known dissident from Bahrain--'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah--should be obvious enough. Both are thorns in the sides of their respective regimes; both, on account of the latter's now 90-day-plus hunger strike, are physically disabled; and both were seeking to escape their imprisonment to a third-country. (One hesitates to imagine what would have happened if al-Khawajah or any other Bahraini activist had taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Manama.)

Yet, while the Chinese government made the pragmatic political calculation that an activist Chen Guangcheng at New York University is better than an activist Chen Guangcheng in China, the Bahraini authorities have consistently rejected 'Abd al-Hadi's medical release to Denmark (where he holds citizenship and lived in exile for much of his life). Or, rather, some of the Bahraini authorities rejected the deal.

When talks about an agreement to release him heated up in early April, Bahrain's Foreign Minister (and one imagines his ally King Hamad) was pushing hard for a compromise that would see 'Abd al-Hadi leave Bahrain. Indeed, several individuals have mentioned that the transfer order was even signed by Interior Minister Sh. Rashid himself, only to be nullified by the prime minister at the 11th hour. Almost immediately thereafter, 'Abd al-Hadi was transferred from the Interior Ministry clinic to the BDF hospital under the control of the hard-line defense minister (and ally of the prime minster) Sh. Khalifa bin Ahmad, ostensibly for an upgrade in medical care but presumably to ensure that he could not be released.

Thus has ideology-induced myopia and personal vengeance (note al-Khawajah's now-famous attack on the prime minister in 2004) precluded in Bahrain what in the case of China and Chen Guangcheng seems such an obvious and efficacious solution: simply get rid of the guy. Not only do you avoid (in the case of al-Khawajah) his becoming a martyr, but you also probably earn a bit of goodwill from Western governments and others critical of your continued mistreatment of political opponents. Last but not least, it's likely also that shipping al-Khawajah off to Denmark would steal much of the power of his activism with respect to those still in Bahrain. Certainly, even Khomeini could not command a revolution from France.

That despite these many practical benefits Bahrain's rulers were unable to arrive at the same political calculation as the Chinese speaks both to the degree of fracture within the Al Khalifa, but more importantly to the nature of that fracture, which again is a division over the very conception of the problem facing Bahrain, and how to solve it. If China's policy embodies the idea of political pragmatism for the sake of a more important long-term aim, the path cut by Bahrain over the previous 16 months would seem to elude easy categorization. And that's precisely the problem.

Update: Wow, what can you say about this? Just.. wow. Robert Haddick in Foreign Policy: "The Persian Gulf Needs Its Own NATO, And America needs to lead it." Fix Bahrain by bringing the U.S. into the GCC? Of course!

Update 2: Writing in Al-Watan Sawsan al-Sha'ir explains in her ever-reasonable tone why Bahrain participants at this week's UN Human Rights conference in Geneva are "traitors":
"[modes of] treason may vary, but they all emit the same stench and are equally bleak and slimy. ... Our laws allow[] civil society institutions to be used as landfills of funds that pour from different sources. No wonder their members, accompanied by beauties, move from one European capital to another and thence to Washington where they blow their reeking sectarian venom and shed crocodile tears. ...

You wistfully think that, by dispatching those delegations and spending the money you took from Iranian, Bahraini or Kuwaiti Shiites, you can fulfill your plan. Right now, some of you are negotiating a deal which is about to be concluded. A traitor will always remain a traitor. Hard luck! Try again.
Now THERE is some pragmatism for you.


  1. There's an old Bedouin proverbs about it being better to have the camel inside the tent pissing out, than to have it outside, pissing in.

    The Chinese seem to have realized that in the digital age, one has bigger problems than urine-soaked rugs.


    I doubt Chen Guangcheng came up in this meeting...

  3. I apologize for jumping in here, but I have a question about Bahrain you may be able to answer.

    In the process of doing some research on demographics, I found that there seem to be some discrepancies related to the figures, in this case percentage wise, purporting to provide accurate information as to the numbers related to religious minorities.

    Any thoughts?