By YVONNE RIDLEY
EVERY time I sit down to write an article another expression of people power erupts somewhere within the Arab world, so it’s hard to know where to begin. The most exhilarating thing for me has been the unity displayed in these amazing popular movements; there’s been no room for sectarianism, sexism, ageism or any other ism. It truly has been all for one and one for all.
When I walked through Tahrir Square at the height of the Egyptian revolution and saw the spirit of brotherhood between Christians and Muslims with my own eyes, I was moved to tears. For years, the destructive regime of Hosni Mubarak had sought to keep the two faith communities apart and now there is sinister evidence from secret Ministry of Interior documents that it was Mubarak’s henchmen who planted bombs in Coptic churches to fuel the sectarianism that pitted Muslim against Christian. However, the Egyptian people broke free from such divisive tyranny and came together in a unity that transcended religions, cultures, gender and generations. This was a revolution for all, with no discrimination between people of faith and those of no faith.
You would have thought that this would be a universal cause for celebration but it wasn’t. In some privileged circles in the Arab world the fixed smiles disguised contained rage. Revolutions of the kind we’ve seen reshape the Arab world threaten the rich, their fabulous lifestyles and their often brutal grip on power. For decades, these tyrants, despots and dictators have wallowed in obscene luxury paid for by the vast reservoirs of oil and gas beneath the sands on which they sit. Anyone posing a threat to this privilege has felt the wrath of this band of thugs: torture, abuse of human rights, false imprisonment, detention without charge and mysterious disappearances are the hallmarks of such regimes.
They look on from their marble palaces and mansions fearing the warmth generated by the Arab spring because they know people power is the biggest threat to their very existence. The King of Morocco, perhaps the most astute monarch of them all, reacted quicker than most to this human tsunami and he has, for the time being anyway, introduced reforms and changes without being asked to do so or clear off. But some of the other royals and rulers have developed a bunker mentality and refuse to end the brutality against their people. Their days are numbered but they are in denial.
Now they are using the old colonial trick of divide and rule that put their dynasties in power in the first place, when British Imperialists and their Western allies redrew the map of the Middle East to match their own interests, not those of the local population. The resultant discord in Palestine is a running sore in the region; there the split has been developed along political lines and efforts to bring about Palestinian reconciliation have been stymied by the US for the past four years. A strong united front in Palestine is the last thing that Israel and its US backers want.
In the Gulf, some of the royal families who make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are playing the divide and rule game with the sectarian card. These are desperate measures, among their most heinous, as they cling to power, illustrating the depths to which they will go in order to secure their untenable positions as hereditary rulers.
The kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in particular have ripped open old wounds and rubbed in tons of salt to revive and agitate age-old bitter divisions, both real and imagined, between Sunni and Shia. From his tribal stronghold of Riyadh, King Abdullah and his advisors have used the threat of sectarianism as the excuse to send his troops to Bahrain, claiming that the move was essential to prevent the very unrest that they are, in fact, fomenting.
Scholars for dollars, and other clerics who are not secure in their positions, have added fuel to the fire by accusing the majority Shia population in Bahrain of causing mischief and unrest; the Arabic word for this is “fitna”, and sums up the net effect of the scholars’ pronouncements.
The unrest seen in Bahrain and the violent official response has not been caused because of a split between Sunni and Shia, any more than the “Irish Troubles” erupted because of the religious differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Unrest in Ireland stemmed from the oppression and human rights abuses by one dominant group over another, as it does in Bahrain. Just as the Catholics in Northern Ireland were governed by rulers well-versed in discrimination, the Shia majority in Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni regime bolstered by hired guns from Pakistan and other Sunni Muslim-majority countries. There are very few Shia represented in the army and police, and unemployment is disproportionately high in the Shia community which is also plagued by poor housing and living conditions. It’s the age-old story of the privileged shovelling ever more hardship onto the poor, working classes.
The Saudi King is 86 and his health is ailing; he has far more important issues to worry about in his own backyard, but has opted to focus on Bahrain and turn the crisis into a sectarian issue. The intervention of Saudi and other GCC troops a few days ago sent shock waves around the Muslim world. The only seal of approval came from the repressive regimes that are still clinging with white knuckles to the notion that their people will not rise up and tear them off their 24-carat thrones.
Demonstrations around the world against the GCC intervention have reserved most of their venom for the Saudi regime. In London, for example, Park Lane and Mayfair were brought to a halt as 4,000 demonstrators marched to the Saudi Embassy from its Bahrain counterpart. These were not exclusively Shia-led demonstrations, even though it is well known that the two million Shia living in Saudi’s Eastern Province, where most of the oil reserves are concentrated, face officially-sanctioned brutality from the Riyadh authorities.
Tiny Bahrain is the tinderbox that threatens to ignite a sectarian war which could rage across the Arab world dividing and ripping apart families and communities. Just look at what the US-led invasion of Iraq did; sectarianism was never a huge issue in Iraq until Bush’s “Shock and Awe” came along in 2003. The tragedy is that the match that could light the inferno is held by a few power mad, filthy rich, old men who want to protect their lifestyles and dynasties. It will be a tragedy for the world if these few dinosaurs from a colonial past and representing all that was wrong with Empire, are able to get away with their treachery but the signs are not good, as the representatives of the colonial present in Israel demonstrate; they are allowed to get away, quite literally, with murder as they continue their military occupation and colonisation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip. Will Saudi Arabia’s military interventionism in Bahrain be allowed to do the same? Only time will tell.
Yvonne Ridley is a British journalist who is also European president of the International Muslim Women's Union. She regularly contributes to TheMuslim.Ca