Victim versus victim - Rafia Zakaria - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

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“THEY were beating me so hard I could no longer see, there was so much blood running from my head.” These were the words of Bahraini physician Dr Sadek Al-Ikri to BBC reporters about the security forces’ crackdown on peaceful protesters in Bahrain.

But this was not all. Dr Al-Ikri also told the journalists that the men beating him refused to stop even when he told them that he was a doctor and that he spoke Urdu.

The role of Pakistani migrant workers in the protests in Bahrain has since been highlighted by other international news outlets too. A report in the Guardian said that Bahrainis resent the fact that many riot police and security forces do not speak Arabic and denounce them as mercenary soldiers with little empathy for the common people.

The Canadian press reported that a majority of participants in pro-government demonstrations were Sunni Arabs and Pakistanis who have recently been granted citizenship in Bahrain.

In the words of one regime supporter, Abdelrahman Ahmed, a 21-year-old student born in Bahrain of Pakistani parents, “We always support the government and they are always on our side.”

Citizenship and demographic manipulation are at the centre of the revolt taking place in Bahrain. Currently, the Al-Khalifa family, a Sunni monarchy with close ties to the ruling Saudi royal family, rules over a population nearly 70 per cent Shia.

This dynamic of Sunni rulers and Shia subjects has begun to foster resentment regarding recent ‘political naturalisations’ through which the ruling family has been allegedly handing out Bahraini citizenship to Sunni South Asians in an effort to boost their demographic majority. The xenophobia is further fuelled by the fact that the new citizens are being actively used by the monarchy to brutalise protesters in Manama and other parts of Bahrain.

The situation is that it pits victims against victims. The vast majority of Bahrain’s migrant workers, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and others, have little hope of acquiring either Bahraini citizenship or political rights. According to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, migrant workers originating from various parts of South and Southeast Asia are little better than slaves and are often subjected to abuse ranging from regular beatings to actual torture.

The group’s website details the story of Salma Bibi, an Indian Muslim woman, who like many others was beaten by her sponsor and refused meals and her salary. A report published by IPS news service also reported the widespread practice of passport confiscation where employers seized workers’ documents denying them the basic right of freedom of movement and forcing them to risk imprisonment if they did not follow their employer’s bidding.

In this context of silence and repression, a few migrant workers have been selected by the ruling powers to receive Bahraini citizenship. In this way, their meagre rights are set against those of other impoverished sections of Bahraini society, the Shia Arab majority that feels excluded from governance and threatened with losing its demographic majority.

Many in the Shia majority are either unqualified to do the jobs done by Pakistani engineers, accountants and technology specialists or not desperate enough to perform the menial tasks done by Pakistani cooks, drivers and janitors. Despite this, the fact that some migrant workers are being coddled by the monarchy presents a deepening challenge to their own sense of belonging.

The idea of ethnically constructed citizenship, where only those who are Arab are considered deserving of Bahraini citizenship, is an inherently unjust one. The tragedy in the current situation is that this core injustice is being manipulated for the political purpose of ensuring the longevity of another illegitimate system; that of birthright kingship.

Hardworking migrants, many of whom have spent generations working in Bahrain, are put in the impossible situation where the realisation of their rights automatically comes at the expense of granting rights to indigenous Bahrainis who deserve a political voice.

In a strategy reminiscent of colonialism, xenophobia and sectarianism are both employed to force one voiceless population against another: poor Shias develop a robust hatred against migrant Sunnis and vice versa leaving both to battle on the streets of Bahrain while the ruling family watches smugly from its sequestered palaces.No progress can be made to resolve this without two core realisations, both of which are tragically unlikely to impress. The sliver of migrants granted citizenship via the benevolence of an opportunistic monarchy must realise that the political demands of the Shia population for voice and representation in a political system are legitimate if inconvenient to the economic stability of the country.

Their own desire for citizenship is in fact recognition of the idea that belonging in a polity is crucially important and the basis of national and political identity. If you recognise this underlying fact, it makes no sense to say that citizenship should similarly afford the freedom to have a voice in the political system and peacefully demand changes when demands are not being met. Similarly, Bahrain’s Shia majority should realise that if they are to benefit from the labour of migrant workers, they must in turn create a notion of citizenship that is not based on the accident of tribal and ethnic membership.

In other words, arguing that a monarchy is illegitimate because it is based on the accident of birth makes little sense when you want the same criterion to be used to justify that citizenship only be limited to those who are ethnically Arab are deserving of Bahraini citizenship.

Democracy thus cannot and must not be used to justify intrinsically discriminatory ideas that simply replace the superiority of one illegitimate group by another or to ensure that subjugation, repression and silence are all retained even after momentous revolutions.

Migrant workers and the Shia community comprise two victimised populations in Bahrain. A new system that truly aims to be just and representative must not pitch them against each other; such an outcome would be a victory for hatred alone.

The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional history and political philosophy.

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