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Oslo Journal: ‘The Referees Are Gone’

4:38 PM, May 10, 2011 • By SOHRAB AHMARI
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Ever since learning that he would be attending the Oslo Freedom Forum, I had been hoping to meet Ali Abdulemam, a Bahraini journalist and founder of BahrainOnline, the country’s premier pro-democracy and human rights platform. Last September, I wrote about Abdulemam’s plight after the Bahraini government arrested him – on the charge of “spreading false information” – and shut down BahrainOnline. Having been released from prison in February, Abdulemam was due to address the Forum on the “Dawn of a New Arab World.”

Abdulemam, however, was a no-show. In fact, the cyber-activist and father of three has been missing since March 18, when he posted a cryptic message on his Twitter feed: “I get tired from my phone so I switched it of[f] no need for rumors plz [please].”

Maryam al-Khawaja, another Bahraini dissident who did make it to the Forum, had little information about Abdulemam’s status. Her own father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a former regional director for Front Line Defenders, is currently facing trial on national security charges with sentences ranging from life in prison to execution. On May 8, Khawaja, along with 20 other political detainees, was presented to the court in Manama. (Khawaja’s lawyers were informed that his trial was about to begin just 11 hours after his first court date.) According to Front Line Defenders, Khawaja showed visible signs of abuse, including a fractured jaw.

Maryam al-Khawaja, who was educated in Denmark and spent the 2009-2010 academic year teaching at Brown on a Fulbright, returned to Bahrain in early February to document the regime crackdown against protestors. She escaped just a few weeks ago, apparently just in time. “If I had stayed a little later, I would probably in prison right now,” she told me. “Since then, I haven’t been able to go back.”

As an Iranian-American, I’m often suspicious of the nature of the Bahraini opposition – even as I sympathize with Bahrainis’ struggle to secure their fundamental rights from a brutal police state increasingly unable to maintain the façade of a “moderate” Arab regime. The Shi’a-majority Bahraini dissidents, I fear, may be unwittingly helping the mullahs in Iran, who would like nothing better than to subvert a U.S.-allied regional rival and gain a foothold in the Persian Gulf as they have in the Levant. I shared these concerns with Maryam.

“Most of the Shi’as in Bahrain are of Arab descent, not Persian descent,” Khawaja said. “They actually have stronger ties to Iraq than to Iran.” She also recalled that it was al-Wefaq – Bahrain’s strongest opposition party – which first denounced Iranian meddling in Bahraini affairs, before the Bahraini government ever did. “It was the protestors who first denounced any kind of foreign intervention,” she explained. “Whether it’s Iranian, Saudi, or Qatari, we don’t want it.”

Khawaja told me that the Bahraini opposition has no interest in wilayet al-faqih, Iran’s theocratic governance model that vests ultimate authority in a supreme leader. “The youth are more and more secular, and they’re definitely more reformist in their way of thinking of what the government should look like,” she said. “Most people talk about democracy, not an Islamic republic. Most people don’t want an Islamic government.”

Ever since launching a mass protest movement targeting the legitimacy of the clerical regime, the Iranian people have shown that they, too, have no interest in theocratic misrule. Yet the Iranian pro-democracy agenda is largely absent from this year’s Oslo Freedom Forum. This is understandable: the Arab uprisings have largely eclipsed the Green Movement and, unlike their Arab counterparts, Iranians have been unable to make any tangible gains in their struggle for free elections and popular dignity.

The Forum was, however, headlined by Iranian jurist Shirin Ebadi. Ebadi, who mostly spoke about turmoil in the Arab lands, delivered her address at Oslo’s city hall – where, in 2003, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She identified Syria as the most important battleground in the quest for a free Middle East. I briefly chatted with her afterward. I often find myself in disagreement with Ebadi, who devotes far too much of her time and energy to criticizing the democratic West and particularly the United States. Even so, I was curious to find out how she explains the success of Arabs in challenging dictatorship – and Iranians’ corresponding failure to do so.

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