Bahrain has a local population of some three quarters of a million, which marks it as about the size of the size of Washington DC, or the town of Bristol in the UK. And, as pointed out by Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammed, the Bahrain Ambassador to the UK just this week, Bahrain is the most religiously diverse community in the Arabian Gulf. Bahrain even has a small Jewish community. Their Minister for Culture, Sheikah Mai, talks of tolerance being not an idea, but rather a way of living.
And yet Bahrain suffers from a brutal sectarian divide that sets neighbour against neighbour in a far more noxious head to head than those we are familiar with in Northern Ireland. Policemen are killed for as pastime by Shiite extremists in Bahrain. Whilst the Sunni establishment resorts to countermeasures that are often sledgehammer-like in character.
And what does the international community do? We fan the flames.
Iran for a start. Iran could be helpful. Instead, Iran puts pressure on Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Ahmed Qassim, the spiritual leader of much of the Shiite community (photograph above). He in turn puts pressure on Ali Salman, the longest serving opposition leader in the world, who squares up to the longest-serving Premier (Bahrain has both). And Ali Salman put pressure on the opposition party he heads (Al Wefaq) not to stand at the last election in 2014.
The government’s response being to imprison Ali Salman and shut down Wefaq.
Were Iran to lift its heavy hand all of the above could be reversed. But it won’t. And so the Bahrain government won’t release Ali Salman. Which will make a sham of the forthcoming 2018 elections, as well as increasing the country’s sectarian divide.
And does the international community help? Not really. Not really at all. We browbeat Bahrain for its myriad perceived human rights failings, sometimes justifiably, sometimes less so. And when they do something good, like pass the most socially inclusive family law in the Arab world, a law that allows women to initiate divorce proceedings against their husbands, we fail to notice.
And the international community nags on. So Bahrain, at the behest of the United Kingdom which nags like the rest of them, introduces a remarkable restorative justice law to deal with young offenders. The most progressive in the Arab world. Again no praise.
Of course it is one step forward and two steps back, as prominent figures in the opposition have their nationality revoked or are imprisoned for what many would regard as the most minor of misdemeanours.
So the pressure mounts regarding allegations of torture and Bahrain, in response, appoints an independent Ombudsman to deal with allegations of the mistreatment of prisoners. My point being that progress gets little commendation, and meanwhile there is a cacophony of noise about human rights abuses, much of it of course justifiable, but so loud that it drowns out reasonable debate.
And where should the focus of reasonable debate be in Bahrain? On the 2018 elections of course. For true inclusivity at those elections. That’s what matters now.