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The Bahrain Uprising, Saudi Troops and Hussein the Martyr

3:28 PM, Mar 24, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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Nonetheless, Al’s understanding of Shiism gives him a pretty conservative worldview—“It’s our responsibility to improve things, including our own station, and it is wrong to abandon our lives to fate,” he says. “But there are limits to political change that will not be resolved until the Imam Mahdi returns.” Perhaps the real Arab revolution, he thinks, is not what is happening on the streets but is an internal one that is yet to occur. “Islam was supposed to put an end to tribal divisions,” he says. “And yet now we have divisions based not only on tribe but sect as well.”

That internal revolution is the subtext when Al and I are stopped later in the afternoon at another checkpoint, even after he has taken the green headbands off the rear mirror. “Maybe I look Shia,” he says to me as the soldiers approach the driver’s side window. They’re wearing the camouflage uniforms of the GCC force—they’re Saudis. This time we’re told to stay in the car, and to pop open the trunk. “You were in the Pearl Roundabout, weren’t you?” one of the soldiers asks, referring to the large monument commemorating the country’s pre-petroleum economy based on pearl diving. The roundabout served as the main site of the uprising in Bahrain, until security forces dismantled it.

Al, who indeed had been at the Pearl Roundabout earlier, takes a strange detour around the question. He says he was actually in Lebanon, and I am wondering if the Saudi in the dark mask covering his face who has stuck his head in the car can see my jaw drop. It happens to be true he was in Lebanon for part of the time, but this is just the sort of thing that is likely to rile up these occupying forces sanctioned by their Wahabbi government to bear arms against foreign Shia. “So you were visiting your friend Hassan Nasrallah,” one of the Saudis says. “Of course not,” says Al. Nasrallah has taken up the cause of Bahrain’s Shia, and in return the Al Khalifa government has cancelled all flights between Manama and Beirut, and instructed Bahraini nationals inside Lebanon to leave the country.

One of the soldiers asks Al to open the glove compartment, where he’s hidden the two headbands. “What are these?” a soldier wearing a Salafi-style beard asks. Al is compelled by the Saudis to recount the story of Hussein and his martyrdom on a 7th-century battlefield in Kerbala. “We have martyrs, too,” says one of the soldiers. “What’s Kerbala?” he says dismissively.

Al had previously explained to me that the story of Hussein is generally misinterpreted, even by some Shia. Where many see the story of his tragic betrayal and his death at the hands of a superior force as an emblematic tale of Shia suffering and resignation, it is in reality a story of hope and aspiration. The grandson of the prophet knew he was going to lose, but he went anyway. “We believe that Imam Hussein,” Al had told me, “his companions and family members were the real winners at Karbala. Yes, they lost the military battle but they won for their values and beliefs. And that victory gave a great impulse for Shiism to survive.” This central tableau in Shia Islam is a political narrative, not about self-abnegation but about faith and endurance.

Maybe that’s why Al and the rest of the Shia here are able to withstand the taunts of their persecutors. But it also suggests that if the campaign of violence against them persists, it is going to reach a point where the hope and faith invested in the figure of Kerbala moves the Shia to action against the injustice they are suffering, and they are going to have a much better chance of success than their martyr.

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