Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bahrain After Six Months

First published in 5PM Bahrain
Bahrain After Six Months
The Arab Spring has taken an unexpected dormant twist. The new reality of the Middle East, still authoritarian and increasingly chaotic, unstable and sectarian after the revolutions of spring swept all over, comes without the slightest surprise to those who have covered the modern history of the region. Chaos, instability and sectarianism have been present to some degree all throughout the region at some point or another with a just as varying degree of consequences; the present situation is albeit radically different as the unrest has spread in a matter of months to virtually every corner of the region, including relatively stable parts thereof such as the Arabian Gulf.
The tide of revolution reached the shores of Bahrain early in February when massive protests erupted throughout the capital and adjacent villages of the tiny island-kingdom and has never abated since then with different degrees of intensity and deteriorating at times into full-fledged violence. What began as a peaceful movement demanding better rights, an end to discrimination based on sect and to economic disparity, quickly escalated into a serious unrest of which now we understand even less, and that somewhat late, brought Bahrain to the headlines of the international news probably for the first time ever and probably not with the right background information.
In most of the Western world the opinions of the experts about the events in Bahrain and elsewhere demonstrated not only a very poor understanding of the obvious structural differences between the revolution that took place in Egypt and the situation in the Arabian Gulf (with some protests taking place in the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia as well) but also of the internal conflicts inside Islam and the complex relationship of Islamic monarchies and republics to the West. Truth being said, the experts that dominated the public discussion knew as little as the man on the street and suddenly everyone turned overnight into a political commentator of the first order.
The word revolution became the household name for the uprisings in Bahrain and then an infinite number of additional demands were voiced by the activists in the ‘free world’ in order to complete a peaceful transition from regimes to democracies of some sort. Revolution, I would like to add, was too quick an addition to the repertory of Middle Eastern souvenirs, firstly because the region has a bad experience with revolutions overthrowing ancient regimes (with the cases of Iran, Libya and Syria in mind and a glance at Turkey with a lot of paucity) and also because a revolution constitutes a fundamental change of power taking place within a relatively short period of time in irregular, violent or at least extra constitutional fashion – somehow unmet in this case.
The intention of the peaceful protests at the now defunct Pearl Roundabout was very noble and a true momentum of political power was reached in Bahrain through the feeling of unity that took to the streets and that somehow, at the blink of an eye, extended the arm of the Arab Spring will into the oil-rich monarchies and faced not only the Arab rulers but also their Western friends with very difficult questions of nearly impossible resolution. This is however only a part of what we saw, and regardless of the feeling of unity among protesters and the coming together of diverse Sunni and Shia political elements, the popular support for the uprising was not universally accepted by many.
This created the two versions of the uprising proposed by Bahraini blogger and entrepreneur Suhail Algosaibi:  That of a people fighting for freedom and democracy and that of a nation intimidated by unruly mobs and rioters. It is unfortunate that both versions are actually true and co-exist within the same narrative. Although the protests initially did not have a sectarian focus and all what was demanded were better rights for people, it is clearly now and as of today that radical sentiments of resentment against the government and the ruling monarchy fueled the movement throughout and this did not only anger many Bahrainis but also alienated them.
The government’s response to the deliberate provocation caused by the blend of a demand for better rights and a challenge to the hegemony of the ruling families throughout the region, was completely brutal and out of proportion. This made it possible for demands of better rights to amalgamate masterfully with political agendas into a single continuum in which peaceful protests quickly escalated into riots and the response of the government forces and also of single individuals and groups in support thereof, matched just as well, the level of radicalism that was on top of it, promoted actively by state TV and that found its realization in countless sacking of workers, expulsion of students and other forms of sectarian discrimination, both publicly and privately.
According to classical political theory it is not revolutionaries who make the revolution – they only have the ability to sense when power is in the streets and then are able to drive the people en masse to take over this power; political power is a terrible force insofar as it is eminently human and therefore it is very hard to control or to predict whither it is going. One of the key limitations of revolutionary politics is that this political power of the kind needed for a revolution is out there in the streets for too little time and timing is crucial in the creation of a revolutionary momentum even if short-lived.
When the short life-span of political power lying in the streets is up, revolutionaries seize power through violence, and this is when political power is ultimately destroyed – violence is not political and it is not a power, it is the rather solitary strength of one man or one group against a whole people, unlike political power that as a force contains the wills of entire nations. This is critical to Bahrain’s current situation because in spite of the crucial demands made by the protesters, the climax reached at Pearl Roundabout might be already overstated and its life-span might be over by now. After six months it is possible to understand that there is no grand revolutionary moment in Bahrain for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, political power in the region is not only tightly controlled but also limitedly available to those who hold the reigns because the mixture of administering tribal political structures and membership in international global economies allows for very little of a public space without turning the pendulum in benefit of one or the other direction and destroying the fragile balance. A revolution in Bahrain demands not only local reforms but a change in Western policies toward the region, the cessation of military alliances; the end of the critical relationship of the global economy to oil and less turbulent expectations toward and about Iran.
Secondly, democracy and freedom are currently under fire in most of the Western world in a climate of multicultural unrest, financial crises and anachronistic policy-making so that the rule of majority – the way we have understood democracy for long – might prove lethal when transplanted to the Arabian Gulf in its current form: The heterogeneous ethnic, religious and cultural landscape of the region is likely to be atomized and further radicalized by the postmodern comeback of religion that would necessarily mean a religious rule in which liberalism in whatever form it might have existed until now, will be effectively gone up in smoke and the limited civil liberties achieved in the last decades evaporated for good. Secularism just like atheism, is an idea whose application is hard to realize outside a Western context and that no less than democracy, is greatly challenged today in the parts of the world that promote it.
Thirdly, not all the political channels have been exhausted. What has been exhausted until now is the stubbornness and unwillingness of all the political groups to find middle terms; it is usually the case in successful political negotiations that none of the parties involved will receive all what they demand and a large measure of compromise is necessary. Long before the current unrest, critical commentators on Bahrain such as K. Niethammer and J.E. Peterson have pointed out the stalemate in which the political process stands for long with authoritarian impositions on the part of the government and radicalized demands on the part of the opposition.
The spontaneous revolutions of which Rosa Luxemburg spoke once, the sudden uprising of an oppressed people for the sake of freedom alone without the ensuing chaos of military defeats, conspirators, propaganda plots, coups and unanimous agreement between all the fractions is not really what we have seen in Bahrain because such revolutions, as in the case of the short-lived Hungarian revolution in 1956, have virtually no leaders and in which freedom is the only moving force – this is certainly difficult to achieve amidst sectarian strife, political vendettas, organized media apparatus on both sides and the widespread use of marketing and public relations as tools of political pressure.
The National Dialogue that was meant to repair the tragic outcome of the events failed not only because the opposition withdrew from the talks but also because of the minimal representation they were allocated. This being said, it is also obvious to the onlooker that the feeling of unity among the different opposition fractions is found to be broken down once the climax of Pearl Roundabout fades from view and the pro-government and loyalist fractions are taking full advantage to the situation as they point a finger to the disorganized political agenda that cannot be separated from human rights plights that have been heavily politicized.
In order to return back to earth from either version – peaceful revolution or unsettling chaos – it is necessary to stop all violence (symbolic and physical) on all sides so that a true sense of normalcy returns in order to re-open political channels again. If this is achieved, perhaps it would be intelligent to realize that no reforms are possible unless a certain degree of trust – even if small – is achieved between the parties involved. The results of BICI are important but they are not what will mend what is broken inside Bahrain’s society, they only constitute information necessary in order to move on and adjust the necessary political and legal means to repair what has been broken and to bring to justice all those who were involved in violent acts from either side – regardless of how much powerful or not was this or that side.
The best that can be expected under present circumstances is a large degree of reforms embodied in the King and the Crown Prince that might open the way for more transparent political processes that in time (and this means years and decades) could change dramatically the weight of power held by the hardliners inside the government and the monarchy, shifting it toward a more inclusive environment that will allow for political normalization and a transition to open democratic processes that should keep in line radicals in whichever form they exist. Whether this process is going to be called a democracy is not something we can predict right now, but a constitutional monarchy in which power is shared with more equality and fairness, might be the temporary solution to the chaos that the radical alternatives will unavoidably give in to.  Bahrain is not a war zone, and being such a small country with some degree of resources, the problems can still be fixed before all hell breaks loose in the form of either more violent crackdowns or extreme political solutions that the whole region will come to regret.
Written By: Arie Amaya-Akkermans, freelance writer and translator

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Er Norge en øy?

Er Norge en øy?

Fredag for drøyt en uke siden (22/7 2011) lærte vi alle en leksjon i politisk geografi. Vi lærte en lekse vi aldri vil glemme – såfremt vi da ikke virkelig ønsker å glemme den. Vi lærte lærte å kjenne den fra før så lite kjente Utøya. En øy så liten at mennesker fra utenfor Norges grenser vil ha problemer med å finne den på et kart. Det har ikke vært vanskelig å finne eksempler  på denne typen lærdom i 2011, et år der vi har fått en rekke leksjoner i smertefull politisk geografi: Misrata, Manama, Daraa, Tahir. På den annen side har disse hendelsene hjulpet oss, ikke bare til å bli kjent med nye deler av verden, men også til å forstå noe om egenskapene til de landene disse stedene ligger i. Bahrain viste seg å være mye større og viktigere politisk enn det landets størrelse skulle tilsi; Syria mye dødeligere; Egypt langt mindre forberedt på revolusjon, USA mindre innstilt på endring, og EU mye raskere til å reagere, osv. Leksjonen som Norge ga oss, var imidlertid svært annerledes. Først og fremst fordi vi ikke forventet den. Dernest fordi den ga oss overraskende informasjon om det norske samfunnet. Vi lærte at Norge ikke bare er et land som ligger i det rikeste nordlige hjørnet av verden. Vi lærte også at det norske samfunnet meget vel i seg selv kan være en øy. Som Utøya idyllisk og vakker, perfekt og sivilisert, hovedsakelig skogkledd, eid av et politisk parti og overveldet av en katastrofe.

Norges øy-karakter fremkom som en overraskelse da landets regjering og store deler av folket i kjølvannet av de tragiske hendelsene der én mann massakrerte flere titalls mennesker (mange av dem på en øy), forlot rammene til det kontinentale Europa og flyttet til øya: Utøya. Der er en selvtilfreds uskyldsfølelse enehersker.  Kriminelle og radikale individer som Anders Behring Breivik, med sine talltike internasjonale forbindelser, ideologiske påvirkninger og politiske bevegelser som har lite eller intet å gjøre med Norge, ble på fastlandet. Det ser ut som om få andre mennesker ble værende der, kun noen få isolerte selvkritiske røster.

Når resten av nordmennene ankom øya lovet landets regjering å reagere på terrorisme, ekstremisme og vold med mer frihet og mer demokrati. Dette ble mottatt med høylytt ros fra hele den øvrige verden, bare med den effekt at det forsterket det plettfrie selvbildet til enhver naiv øyboer som ikke hadde gjort noe galt.   De av oss som ble værende på fastlandet, så på Utøya, og så med beundring på hvor raskt man der gjenopptok aktiviteter og gikk tilbake til den vanlige rutine. De var tilsynelatende forberedt på forbli uberørt, med uendrede idealer og intensjoner om å begynne gjenoppbyggingen av øya si. Dette slik at folk raskt skulle innse at det som hadde skjedd, bare var en ekstremists handlinger. Den Utøyiske øya Norge sa farvel til de vanskelige realitetene i terrorismen med en kjærlighetshandling, og satte umiddelbart i gang med sorgprosess-politikk.

Det er likevel veldig vanskelig å være en øy som er omgitt av en korrupt, ondsinnet verden full av ekstremistiske ideologier, politisk ukorrekte partier, fakta-fri journalistikk, mulige internasjonale konspirasjoner og utilfredse, men undertrykte dissiderende stemmer. Dersom dette hadde vært et hvilket som helst annet land, ville vi nok ha sagt at de nå går igjennom en smertefull periode der de ennå ikke er fullt klar over dimensjonene i det som skjedde. At de kanskje trenger litt tid og mye terapeutisk rådgivning for å begripe den aggressive virkeligheten rundt seg. Vi ønsker kanskje å bidra med å sende inn eksperter innen mental helse fra hele verden, folk med erfaring fra konfliktsoner, for å hjelpe dem med å lege sårene og sørge over sine døde. Men budskapet de formidler til oss fra øya tilsier at det går bare bra.

Vi prøver å sende dem signaler, men de er for opptatt i gjenoppbyggingen av øya. De døde – for det meste unge mennesker, uskyldige som de var – blir martyrer for en politisk sak. De ikke like siviliserte følelsene som uttrykkes av dem som ble værende på fastlandet – sinne, tårer, frustrasjon, angst for fremtiden, trakassering av minoriteter, og følelse av mangel på reell politisk deltakelse - er virkelig ikke hjelp  for dem i det Utøy’ske prosjekt for mer demokrati og mere frihet.

Det virker som om Norge har delt seg i to ulike leire med ulike oppfatninger av hva som skjedde. I den ene versjonen blir det sett på som en tragisk og unødvendig konsekvens av ikke å adressere mange menneskers skuffelse over systemet? – at denne har blitt omdannet til forakt.  I den andre versjonen ser man bare det som skjedde som et bevisst angrep på de høyeste og ukrenkelige verdier i regjeringens politiske prosjekt.

Jeg ønsker å sende en invitasjon til øyboerne om å gjennomføre et besøk på det norske fastlandet før de erklærer sin uavhengighet. Dette for en siste gang å forsikre seg om at spøkelsene fra fortiden vil ikke komme og hjemsøke dem i søvne, slik at de kan vedta lover som vil forhindre fastlandsfolk, agitatorer og ekstremistiske elementer fra å besudle deres utopi. Invitasjonen er ikke en oppfordring til en rettssak, slik den som foregår på fastlandet, der morderen møtes med bevisste fornærmelser og beskyldninger; det er snarere en formaning om å reflektere over hva som kan muligens ha gått galt. Ikke med politiske og administrative forordninger, men med våre holdninger, vår medfølelse. Om å tilby et lyttende øre til andre som ikke tenker som en selv. Til den menneskelige siden av demokratiet.

Kanskje vi da kan være i stand til å overbevise dem da, om at Utøya, det tapte paradis’ øy, tilhører hele Norge og ikke bare tilhører saker, grupper eller politiske ideer. At øya tilhører hele Norge, med sine bragder og sin stolthet, men også med sine fiaskoer, sine feil og sin til nå selvpålagte stillhet. Kanskje vi kan da i stand til å overbevise dem om å komme tilbake.

Is Norway an Island?

Is Norway an Island?

Last week we all learnt a lesson in political geography. This lesson will not be forgotten easily - unless we really want to forget. We learnt about the existence of the otherwise little known island of Utøya, that people outside Norway would have difficulties locating on a map.  Lessons of this kind have not been hard to come by in 2011, a year in which we have learnt a lot of painful geography – Misrata, Manama, Daraa, Tahrir.  On the other hand, these lessons have helped us, not only to identify new parts of the world, but we have also learned something about the nature of the countries containing these places. Bahrain turned out to be much bigger and important politically than its size reveals; Syria much deadlier; Egypt much less prepared for revolution; the United States less committed to change and the European Union much quicker to react, etc..

The lesson of Norway however, was very different. First of all because we were not expecting it. Secondly because it gave us surprising information about Norwegian society. We learned that Norway is not only a country located in the wealthiest northern corner of the world. We also learnt that Norwegian society may very well in itself be an island. Like Utøya, idyllic and beautiful, perfect and civilized, largely forested, owned by a political party and overcome with disaster.

The island character of Norway came as a surprise when in the aftermath of the tragic events in which dozens of people were massacred by one man, the government of the country and many of the people left the confines of continental Europe and moved to an island.  There, a smug sense of innocence is the absolute ruler. Criminals and radicals like Anders Behring Breivik stayed in the mainland, with an assortment of international connections, ideological influences and political movements that have little or nothing to do with Norway. It seems that few people, only a few isolated self-critical voices stayed in the country. As the rest of Norwegians arrived in the island, the government promised to respond to terrorism, extremism and violence with more freedom and more democracy, receiving loud praise from all over the world for this. 

Only to reinforce the immaculate self-portrayal of the naïve islander that has done nothing wrong.  Those of us who stayed in the mainland looked onto the shores of Utøya and marveled at how quickly they resumed activities and went back to the normal routine. They were seemingly prepared to go on unmolested with the same ideals as before and intent to begin the reconstruction of their island. This so that people would quickly admit that these were just the acts of an extremist. The Utøyan island of Norway said good-bye to the difficult realities of terrorism with an act of love and immediately set in motion the politics of mourning.

It is very hard nevertheless to be an island surrounded by a corrupt evil world of extremist ideologies, politically incorrect parties, fact-free journalism, possible international conspiracies and discontented but silenced voices of dissent. If it were any other country, we would say that they are going through a painful period in which they are still not fully aware of the dimensions of what happened and that they might need some time, and a lot of therapeutic counseling to come to grips with the aggressive reality around them. We might want to ship in mental health experts from all over the world, trained in conflict zones, in order to help them heal and mourn their dead. But the message they conveyed to us from the island tells us things are just fine.

We try to send them signals, but they’re too busy in the reconstruction of the island. The dead – mostly young people – innocent as they were, are being turned into martyrs of a political cause. The not so civilized feelings of those who stayed in the mainland - anger, tears, frustration, anxiety about the future, harassment of minorities, and lack of true political participation – are truly not helping them in the Utøyan project of more democracy and more freedom.

It seems as if in the understanding of what happened; Norway has split into two alternating versions. In the one version it is seen as a tragic and unnecessary consequence of failing to address the disappointment – turned into resentment – of many people. In the other, one only sees what happened as a deliberate attack on the supreme and sacrosanct values of the government's political project.

I want to extend an invitation to the islanders to pay a visit to the Norwegian mainland before they declare independence. This in order to make sure for a last time that the ghosts of the past will not come and haunt them in their sleep, so that they can enact laws that will prevent the mainlanders, agitators and extremist elements from tainting their utopia. The invitation is not a call for a trial like that taking place in the mainland against the murderer with deliberate insults and accusations; it is rather an exhortation to reflect on what might possibly have gone wrong. Not with policies and administrative decrees, but with our attitudes, with our compassion, with lending a listening ear to the other that doesn’t think like me – to the human side of democracy.

Perhaps we might be able to convince them then, that Utøya, their island of lost paradise, belongs to all of Norway and not only to causes or groups or political ideas; to all of Norway with its achievements and pride, but also with its failures, its mistakes and until now self-imposed silences. Perhaps we might be then able to convince them to return.