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Bahrain’s embrace of extremism

The arrest of al-Wefaq’s Shaikh Ali Salman is a calculated move designed to radicalise the largely peaceful opposition movement

Since the United States began operations against the Islamic State in coalition with several authoritarian governments in the Middle East, Bahrain has accelerated its repression of political dissent.

Activists have been arrested with increased fervor, while confessions obtained through torture have been used to justify death penalty sentences for peaceful protesters. Likely due to a desire to maintain a strong coalition in the fight against the growing regional extremist threat, the West has mostly remained silent in the face of Bahrain’s blatant human rights abuses. Unfortunately, this shortsighted approach, which has emboldened the despotic Bahraini government, could lead to increased extremism in the country.

In the most recent, and arguably most high profile, display of this repression, Bahraini authorities arrested Shaikh Ali Salman, Secretary-General of al-Wefaq Political Society, on 28 December 2014. This is not the first time Shaikh Salman has been targeted by the Bahraini government. In the mid-1990s, he was arrested for participating in a popular uprising that eventually led to promises of reform when King Hamad bin Salman came to power in 1999.

However, the king did not fulfill his promises, instead unilaterally creating a constitution that gave him the authority to rule without question. As a result, King Hamad currently enjoys the power to form the Executive Cabinet, appoint the head the Supreme Council of Judiciary and appoint the more powerful half of Bahrain’s parliament.

After more than a decade of this kind of rule, the situation in Bahrain exploded on 14 February 2011.

Inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, thousands of Bahrainis from all walks of life converged on the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain’s capital to demand political reform. What followed was a brutal government crackdown that shocked the world and drew international condemnation that began when riot police shot and killed 21-year-old Ali Mushaima at close range as he fled the violence. In the ensuing months, thousands were arrested, hundreds were wounded, and dozens killed.

The country has been in constant turmoil ever since. The protest movement has faced widespread and systematic government repression, including excessive use of force, house raids, arbitrary detentions, torture, dismissal of workers and students for political opinions, demolition of mosques, and the political and social marginalisation of all who speak against these policies. Close to 100 individuals have lost their lives due to government violence. Thousands of peaceful Bahrainis remain behind bars, victims of archaic anti-terrorism legislation that is used to justify politically motivated convictions.

This institutionalised violence, however, has not convinced the people of Bahrain to return to their homes. Today, tens of thousands of Bahrainis continue to participate in opposition marches, while smaller protests occur on an almost nightly basis.

Even in the face of such deadly government action, Shaikh Salman has never called for radical or dramatic change. His vision for a political solution in Bahrain is to establish a constitutional monarchy with the al-Khalifa’s as the royal family. He remains steadfast in his commitment to peaceful resistance and urges protesters to avoid responding to the regime's provocation with violence. His is a long-term approach, exemplifying to Bahrainis that the fight for self-determination and human rights is a marathon, not a sprint.  By throwing Shaikh Salman in prison, the Bahraini government effectively dismisses this measured approach towards reform.

However, the Bahraini government’s stance goes beyond rejecting moderation. By choosing to take a hard-line and oppressive stance against even peaceful dissent, the government empowers all those who would use violence. This may be precisely what the government is counting on. By removing all avenues for peaceful dissent, the government is pushing the opposition towards violence, which the government can in turn use to vilify all dissidents. Make no mistake; Bahrain’s ruling family will gladly accept a few Molotov cocktails to keep its stranglehold on politics.

If Western governments want to prevent further conflicts in the Middle East, they must proactively condemn governments that foment anti-democratic tendencies and abuse basic human rights. As the West learned in Iraq, political inclusiveness is a fundamental condition for longstanding peace. However, Bahrain’s allies have largely ignored the government’s creation of conditions that are almost sure to cultivate extremism in its own country. If the West wants to avoid further conflict in the Gulf, it must demand that authoritarian governments tackle the root of such extremism - the denial of political representation, self-determination, and basic human rights.

In responding to the arrest of Shaikh Salman, American University in Washington DC Professor Kristin Diwan quipped: “So I guess there's no legal opposition in Bahrain.”

As the government criminalises peaceful forms of dissent, it purposefully motivates fringe extremists across the region to grow more and more violent. Without a swift political solution and clear international pressure, the West could soon find itself interceding with yet another war-torn and unstable ally in the Middle East.

- Husain Abdulla, originally from Bahrain, is the founder and Executive Director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain. As Executive Director, Husain leads the organisation’s efforts to ensure that US policies support the democracy and human rights movement in Bahrain. Husain also works closely with members of the Bahraini-American community to ensure that their voices are heard by US government officials and the broader American public. Husain graduated from the University of South Alabama with a Master’s degree in Political Science and International Relations and a BA in Political Science and Mathematics.

- Matar Ebrahim Matar, is a former Member of Parliament who served as Bahrain’s youngest MP representing its largest constituency. In February 2011, along with 18 other members from his al-Wefaq political party, he resigned from Parliament to protest the government's crackdown against pro-reform demonstrators. During the 14 February uprising, he served as a major spokesman for the pro-democracy movement. Matar was subsequently arbitrarily detained, and, after his release, left Bahrain for exile in the United States. In 2012, he received the 'Leaders for Democracy Award' from the Project on Middle Democracy (POMED).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo credit: Heavy-handed police tactics and government repression have failed to quell unrest (AFP)