When Minority Becomes Authority

The double standards of the Western powers are once again quite evident from the Bahrain conflict.

For the past few weeks, while the world has mainly focused its attention on the mysterious circumstances surrounding Osama bin Ladin’s death, it seems to have largely ignored the volatile situation prevailing in Bahrain, which may at any time, explode into a major regional conflict. The root cause of the problem is a prolonged, systematic and torturous denial of basic human rights to the overwhelming majority, by a small minority which has despotically ruled the country for more than two centuries. But the global champions of democracy and majority rule have deliberately shut their eyes to this tragic situation, on account of their own vested interests. Let us have a closer look at the history of this country and the events leading up to the present alarming crisis.

Made up of 36 islands, with an area of 707 square kilometres and population of 718306, the Kingdom of Bahrain is situated on the western side of the Persian Gulf, between Saudi Arabia to the east and Qatar to the west. More than two-thirds of its people are Shia whereas the Sunni rulers are not more than 25 per cent.

Historical evidence suggests that Bahrain was inhabited by some people about 50,000 years ago. By the year 4000 BC, it had become the centre of the prosperous Dilmun trading culture having connections with the ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Civilisation. In 1521 AD, it was occupied by the Portuguese, who were driven out by some Bahrainis with Iranian support in the early 17th century. The Iranian domination was brought to an end in 1783 by the Alkhalifa family (a Sunni clan belonging to the central Arabian peninsula) who has uninterruptedly ruled Bahrain and suppressed its Shia majority since then. In 1861, it became a British protectorate and in 1932, it became the first Persian Gulf country where petroleum was discovered, though most of its oil wells were depleted by the 1980s. In 1971, Bahrain emerged as an independent state, with Sheikh Isa bin Salman Alkhalifa (who had already been its ruler since 1961) as its Emir. Promulgated in 1973, the country’s constitution provided for a popularly elected National Assembly having very limited powers. The assembly worked till 1975, when it was dissolved by the Emir, in the wake of sharp differences between his cabinet and the Assembly.

in 1991, during the war for the liberation of Kuwait, Bahrain allowed the US ships to operate from its territory to attack Iraq and the Bahraini troops themselves took part in the ground offensive and aerial bombardment of Iraq.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 kindled a new hope in the hearts of the long suppressed Shia majority of Bahrain to strive for getting rid of their oppressive regime. Thus, in the 80s, allegedly backed by Iran, a number of unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the government were brutally foiled by the authorities. Contrary to the desires and aspiration of the majority, the Emir’s government joined the anti-Iranian group of countries during the Iran-Iraq War and in 1987, facilitated the US naval ships to escort Kuwaiti vessels through the Gulf, when they were in danger of an Iranian attack for carrying Iraqi oil. Again in 1991, during the war for the liberation of Kuwait, Bahrain allowed the US ships to operate from its territory to attack Iraq and the Bahraini troops themselves took part in the ground offensive and aerial bombardment of Iraq. Thus, by the mid-1990s, Bahrain had become a reliable and strong support-base for the Western powers in the region. It was something which the majority of the population did not like.

Besides this, the majority Shias have always complained of not getting their due share in employment, education and the distribution of national wealth. They insist with the help of reliable facts and figures that the size of their majority is being systematically reduced in the country, by deliberately bringing in Sunni professionals, workers and even mercenaries from other countries, including Pakistan. The police which has always played a key role in the suppression of opposition is said to be dominated by such foreigners. Thus, until a few years ago, the Shia population in the country which was almost 70 per cent has now been reduced to 60 per cent. In the past few decades, their have been intermittent civil disturbances, protests and demonstrations, calling for greater political freedom, granting of basic human rights, more access to information and a greater role in government affairs. But instead of addressing such genuine grievances, during his 37 years of authoritarian rule, Isa bin Salman Alkhalifa resorted to the use of brutal force to crush the opposition. When in 1994, serious clashes erupted calling for the restoration of the dissolved National Assembly, in the hope of hushing up the matter, he started lengthy negotiations with some opposition leaders. But after several months, the talks ended up in failure and he ordered a major crackdown against the opposition activists. This massive operation involved arbitrary detentions, torture and persecution of prisoners and forcible exile of hundreds of opposition supporters, without giving them the right to appeal against their exile. A large number of opposition sympathisers were fired from their jobs, without any crime. Such harsh tactics provoked further violence and during the next few years, students, civil rights activists and even women had frequent skirmishes with the law enforcing authorities in the capital Manama.

When in 1999, the Emir died of a heart attack, he was immediately succeeded by his son Hammad bin Isa Alkhalifa who, realising the need for reforms, released a large number of political prisoners, granted citizenship to hundreds of stateless Shias and paved the way for the formation of a bicameral legislature consisting of Consultative Council (To be nominated by the King) and the Chamber of Deputies (to be elected by popular vote). However, the 2002 elections were boycotted by the main Shia and secular groups. They decided to take part in the 2006 elections and for the first time, a Shia candidate was appointed as Deputy Premier. But such half-hearted reforms failed to satisfy most of the people and they again took to the streets in their thousands as a part of the pro-democracy movement currently going on throughout the Middle East and the Arab world. But as usual, the Bahraini authorities blamed Iranian agents for being behind the violence and ordered the expulsion of a number of Iranian diplomats. Moreover, in order to crush the insurgency, they asked help from Saudi Arabia which is the main ally of the West and arch rival of Iran in the region. In response, it readily sent its 500 troops to Bahrain, a move which is bound to escalate tensions in the region and further flare up the proxy war that has been going on between Iran and Saudi Arabia for quite some time in the whole region.

The double standards of the Western powers are once again quite evident from this conflict. Apparently, they project themselves as the most vocal advocates of political freedom, human rights and democracy all over the world. Under the umbrella of the United Nations, they acted swiftly to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya for the protection of its ordinary civilians. But their lukewarm response to the on-going injustices, atrocities and violation of human rights in Bahrain clearly reveals that they have no sympathy for the majority of Bahrainis. Their inaction against the country’s dictatorial regime means that indirectly they are supporting it only because it is one of their most important allies in the region in their confrontation with Iran. In other words, those who vigorously chant the slogan of ‘majority is authority’ are willingly allowing a minority to permanently subjugate the majority, only because it is suited to their own vested interests.

By: Professor Abdul Rauf

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