The Middle East Channel

The other side of radicalization in Bahrain

In a July 6 interview with Egyptian journalists carried in the Al-Ahram daily, a leading Bahraini revealed that his country's February uprising was "by all measures a conspiracy involving Iran with the support of the United States," the latter aiming "to draw a new map" of the region. "More important than talking about the differences between the U.S. and Iran," he insisted, are "their shared interests in various matters that take aim at the Arab welfare."

Who is this Bahraini conspiracy theorist? A radical Arab nationalist, perhaps? Or a leader of the popular Sunni counter-revolution that mobilized successfully against the Shia-led revolt? Not exactly. In fact, he is none other than Marshall Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Khalifa: Minister of Defense, Commander-in-Chief of the Bahrain Defense Force, and, as his name indicates, a prominent member of Bahrain's royal family. His outburst decrying American duplicity in Bahrain is but the latest in a string of similar incidents and public accusations that once more raise the question of political radicalization in Bahrain. But this time, in contrast to the usual narrative, the radicalization is not emanating from the country's Shia majority.

The rise of this anti-American narrative among Bahrain's pro-government Sunnis can be traced back, ironically, to a March 7 protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Manama organized by Shia political activists. Those present condemned the muted if not outright hostile American response to their then still-hopeful popular revolution. A seemingly trivial detail of that demonstration -- a box of doughnuts reportedly brought to the protesters by the embassy's then-Political Affairs Officer, who had ventured outside to hear their complaints -- provided fodder some weeks later for a widely-circulated online article portraying the official as a veritable enemy combatant. Photographs of him and his family, along with his local address and phone number, would soon appear on militant Salafi forums, where readers were urged to take action against this Hezbollah operative. Within a few weeks, the U.S. embassy had a new Political Affairs Officer; the old one had been very quietly sent home. 

Around the same time, Bahrain's most hawkish government newspaper, Al-Watan, ran a series of editorials detailing the U.S.'s alleged duplicitous dealings in Bahrain. Titled "Washington and the Sunnis of Bahrain," the articles chronicled a wide range of U.S. policies and institutions meant to undermine Sunni rule of Bahrain and of the Arab Gulf more generally. These include the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative, the National Democratic Institute, Human Rights Watch, and the (subsequently "reorganized") American Studies Center at the University of Bahrain. 

In late June, this series gave way to a new and even less-subtly titled one: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain," which draws on the president's Muslim name to portray not only a country whose strategic interests have led it to abandon the Arab Gulf to Iran, but a U.S. president who harbors personal ideological sympathies for the Shia. Spanning nearly a dozen issues from June 26 to July 6, the articles ended only after an official protest by the U.S. embassy.

This is more than a mere media campaign. Bahrain's largest Shia opposition society, al-Wifaq, held a festival last weekend to reiterate its demand for an elected government to be submitted at this week's sessions of an ongoing National Dialogue conference. Loyalist Sunnis countered with a rally of their own, one aimed not at domestic policy but at ending U.S. "interference" in Bahraini affairs. A 15-foot-wide banner hung directly behind the speakers' podium bore the flags of "The Conspirators Against the Arab Gulf," -- the United States, al-Wifaq, Hezbollah, and Iran. Below it was the message: "Bahrain of the Al Khalifa: God Save Bahrain from the Traitors."

Rising Sunni cleric Sheikh ‘Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud told listeners that, among other things, it is the United States that has divided Bahrain into Sunnis and Shia, just as it had done in Iraq. "If the regime is too weak to stand up to the U.S., they need to declare that so people can have their say," he continued. "And if the regime needs a ... rally ... in front of the U.S. embassy, the people are ready." And then the crescendo: "And if the U.S. is threatening to withdraw its troops and the facilities it gives to Bahrain, then to hell with these troops and facilities. We are ready to live in famine to protect our dignity."  This is from a man who just months ago led pro-government rallies that attracted several hundred thousand Bahraini Sunnis.

This anti-U.S. mobilization by regime supporters in Bahrain is ominous, and of course ironic inasmuch as the Obama administration's lukewarm response to the February protests was premised in large part on the assumption that a Bahrain controlled by the Shia would be a Bahrain without the U.S. Fifth Fleet. But unfortunately the story only gets worse. 

Underlying this popular sentiment is a still more troubling cause: a longstanding political dispute dividing members of Bahrain's royal family that the current crisis has brought to a head. Post-February, Bahrain has seen the empowerment of the less compromising factions of the ruling Khalifa family -- in particular its prime minister of 40 years -- at the expense of the more moderate king and crown prince. The former holds precariously to power; the latter, despite concerted U.S. efforts to revive his political standing highlighted by a June 7 meeting in Washington with President Obama, has been all but banished entirely following his failure to broker a deal to end protests in the early days of the crisis.

What is most remarkable about Mahmud's exhortation of fellow Sunnis is not his threat directed at the United States, but the threat directed at his own government. His suggestion that if "the regime is too weak to stand up to the U.S., they need to declare that so people can have their say" is no less than an explicit challenge to Bahrain's ruling faction: either do what is necessary to guarantee the country's interests, or get out of the way of those who will.

That King Hamad has yet to put a stop to either strand of rhetoric -- the embarrassing months-long harassment of the American embassy and president, or the overt criticism of his own political handling of Bahrain's crisis -- evidences a fear of losing what precious little support he still enjoys from among the country's significant Sunni Islamic constituency. Indeed, rather than move to silence these radical voices, King Hamad has perhaps out of necessity legitimized them. On June 21, he went so far as to pay a personal visit to the home of Mahmud where, according to Bahrain's state news agency, he "lauded [him] for his efforts to serve his nation and religion."

When protests in Bahrain erupted in February, the primary storyline featured a friendly Sunni government under siege by a pro-Iranian Shia majority, an inherently anti-Western faction feared to have been only further radicalized by the sweeping security crackdown necessary to quell the unrest.  For U.S. policymakers, having now endured months of scrutiny for their unwavering support of the Bahraini government while backing pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere, the irony of the recent anti-American turn by Sunni Islamists must appear little humorous, particularly as the movement has been enabled if not cultivated outright by pragmatic members of the very family whose rule the U.S. has worked so steadfastly to preserve.

Justin Gengler is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University in Michigan and former Fulbright Fellow to Bahrain. He blogs at Religion and Politics in Bahrain and is on Twitter at @BHPoliticsBlog.

AFP/Getty Images

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