I was challenged by the term “anti-reform groups,” which was used by an opposition figure in Bahrain to describe a majority comprised of Sunni, Shiite, and expatriates living in Bahrain who oppose the protesting factions. For me, the term “reform” means moving forward toward democratic rule, women’s empowerment, modernization, economic development, and enhancing education, health, and social services. In this short article, I will briefly address this issue by looking at the Bahraini opposition’s stance toward a number of key reform issues in juxtaposition with what Bahrain has achieved under the so-called “anti-reformist” rule.
The Family Law
A June 2011 study describes the process by which the Shiite opposition party, Al-Wefaq, refused to pass a law granting Shiite women more rights. The study, by Jane Kinninmont of the London think-tank Chatham House, describes Al-Wefaq’s attitude of anti-modernization (anti-Westernization) and the influence of the clerical hierarchy on its policymaking mechanism.
There is a total absence of women in Al-Wefaq’s higher leadership as well as an absence of Sunni membership, making Al-Wefaq an exclusively male, Shiite partisan club that is inspired and directed by clerics. Since Al-Wefaq’s boycott of parliamentary elections, three women have gained parliamentary seats, in comparison to none in previous elections in which only men were nominated and sponsored by Al-Wefaq.
The Opposition, Hizballah, and Iran
Bahraini protests over the past 10 years have largely been characterized by the presence of Bahraini flags, however, on occasions there is a presence of flags of Hizballah and photographs of Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei, as seen in the following links (1, 2, 3). The flying of Hizballah flags was noted and reported by the U.S. embassy in Manama as early as 2004.
Iran’s fiddling in Bahrain’s international affairs began soon after the Islamic revolution in 1979, while allegiance of Hizballah to Iran is a well-known fact and has been publicly declared by leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Considering these facts, many Bahrainis assume that there is an organic triangular relationship between the Bahraini opposition, Hizballah, and Iran and therefore fear a rule similar to that of Iran and Iraq.
The Opposition and the Economy
Bahrainis have experienced horrific conditions since the 1980s. Very frequently, roads to houses and offices are blocked by rioters using blocks, broken vehicles, burning tires, burning garbage cans, heavy motor oil, and steel chains, risking the safety of motorists. Properties and cars have been set on fire, policemen and foreign laborers have been burnt to death with Molotov cocktails, and journalists and reporters have been threatened and attacked.
The continued violence has taken a toll on the economy. Property prices have collapsed, companies have closed down, and foreign establishments and banks have left the country, causing many highly paid Bahrainis to lose their jobs. To make things worse, the opposition organized a campaign in October 2011 to disrupt the economy.
According to international data, Bahrain is enjoying higher levels of social and economic freedoms in comparison to other Middle Eastern countries. Bahrain enjoys a high standard of living comparable to that of more affluent countries in the region, with a good education system, excellent national health services for all citizens at almost no cost, and nearly 100% coverage of piped water and electricity. Bahrain’s literacy rate is high, its infant mortality rate is among the lowest, and immunization rates are among the highest in the world.
Women enjoy more social and political freedom in comparison to many countries in the region and they enjoy unlimited economic freedom. In 2008, a female Bahraini entrepreneur was named by President George W. Bush as "an inspiring example for the whole region."
Bahrain enjoys a semi-democratic system that is rivaled by many neighboring countries. The opposition should understand that the West reached its advanced level of democratic transformation after hundreds of years of wars and political struggle compared to Bahrain’s transition of only 10 years. Yet, the United Kingdom’s parliamentary system is similar to Bahrain’s, formed of a lower elected house, “The House of Commons,” and an upper appointed house, “The House of Lords.”
All of the above achievements were accomplished after Bahrain’s independence in 1971, though the opposition describes this as the period of the forty year rule of the corrupt prime minister. The opposition has yet to prove to us, the “anti-reformists” that a fraction of the above achievements has been implemented in any of the countries ruled by clerics—whether Sunni or Shiite—from Somalia to Iraq to Iran and to the Taliban’s Afghanistan.
Proponents of clerical rule in Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other countries claim that they will implement an Islamic democracy similar to that of Turkey. My answer to them is that there is no democracy in religion, only a stiff religious hierarchy. Turkey has been balanced thus far by a strong secular movement backed by a secular army in addition to Turkey’s keen interest to be considered a member of democratic Europe.
Sameer Khalfan is a freelance consultant based in Bahrain.