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Touring Bahrain

12:52 PM, Apr 1, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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Al believes that the Baharna are Shia because after the death of the prophet of Islam, those who defended the succession of the three caliphs who preceded Ali—Abu Bakr, Omar. and Othman—pushed to the margins of Arabia those who sought Ali’s immediate succession. There may be something to Al’s narrative, but what became known as the Sunni-Shia divide was not so highly schematized until much later. Shiism is associated with political dissent partly because it was the habit of those in power to force to the peripheries rivals of the established order, which was later seen to be Sunni insofar as it followed in the wake of the four rightly guided caliphs. The Umayyads moved their adversaries out of Damascus and into Iraq, which eventually became the capital of the Abbasid dynasty, which while not Shia was not based on Arab kinship either, as was the leadership of the Umayyad empire. The Abbasids in turn exiled their enemies from Baghdad, their seat of political power, scattering them throughout the empire.

The second great Shia uprising that targeted the Abbasids, just recovering from the Zinj rebellion, was that of the Qarmatians. Their stronghold was here, Bahrain. The political dispensation of the Qarmatians, or “those who wrote in small letters,” seems to have been utopian—and their disposition was fanatical. They launched attacks against caravans destined for the hajj pilgrimage, which they believed to be a pagan superstition. In the year 930, the Qarmatians seized Mecca, where they littered the holy waters of the well of Zamzam with the corpses of pilgrims and stole the Ka’ba, the large black stone in the courtyard of the great mosque of Mecca that is the focal point of the hajj. The rebels brought the rock back with them to Bahrain, where they kept it for 20 years before the Abbasids paid a huge ransom to have it returned.

If Bahrain’s ancient Qarmatian extremists are among the most radical sects in Islamic history, I can find none of their influence among the members of Al Wefaq. Al says he’s not a member of the group, but when we finally arrive he seems to know everyone in the office, mostly working men who volunteer their time to the cause. This is the one Gulf state where most of the menial labor force is not foreign, and so it is the Baharna who drive cabs, tend gardens, and pick up garbage, rather than say Pakistanis, Sudanese, or Yemenis, well-paid foreigners who serve in the armed forces here, where Shia are largely unwelcome. These days, with so many workplaces closed due to the political turmoil, the Al Wefaq office seems especially busy, with deputies briefing members of the international press and volunteers preparing lunch.

What strange Shia these men are, eating lunch side by side, all of them kneeling on one leg, crouched on the floor. Strange, I mean, because in many ways the Shia are the engine of Muslim Middle Eastern politics, from the initial schism with the death of the prophet, to their early rebellions up to the twentieth century. Even before Khomeini’s 1979 revolution, the Shia contribution to radical causes was extensive. They constituted the core of the Iraqi Communist Party, and in Lebanon, long before Hezbollah was born, the Shia looked to the left for political representation. Shia bars in Beirut are still plastered with posters of their left-wing heroes, their portraits, posters, and ballads. It’s true there are many Hezbollah supporters among Wefaq’s deputies and the rank and file. Al has Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei as his spiritual model, or marja’a. And yet there is nothing discernibly radical about Al Wefaq, which says it just wants a fair shake, a constitutional monarchy. They don’t want to topple the regime but simply want it to abide by the country’s constitution, to write laws against discrimination, and to allow the Shia parliamentary representation proportionate to their numbers. In other words, Al Wefaq aspires toward many U.S. values.

And yet defenders of the ruling Al Khalifa family explain that Bahrain’s rulers are Westernized and point to the liberal cultural atmosphere, where Saudi tourists can drink and procure women. That is to say, there seem to be many Arabs and Americans alike who believe that booze and whores are pillars of Western civilization. Other Western values are less important to the Al Khalifa, like rule of law, equality under the law, etc. Yesterday Al Wefaq announced that 250 people have been detained and 44 have gone missing, many of whom, Al Wefaq officials believe, will turn up dead in the coming days and weeks.

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