Bahrain: Burt must see that the 'tolerance' is just for show

by - 19th December 2011

The King of Bahrain was in Britain last week while Alistair Burt, the responsible Foreign Minister, made a reciprocal visit to this desert island of 1.2million in the Gulf off Saudi Arabia.  I hope Mr Burt who is an evangelical Christian, spoke up for more than 'tolerance'.

The minority government is Sunni, and the opposition is mainly Shia, but what’s wrong with Bahrain is not simply the Shia-Sunni divide that much analysis of the brutally suppressed February 14 uprising has focussed on, since opposition politicians who are Sunni are liable for arrest too.  The leader of the opposition Wa’ad party is the Sunni Ibrahim Sharif, who is still in prison.

Bahrain’s Arab Spring did not end when Saudi tanks rolled in across the $1.2billion King Fahd Causeway – and smoke rising from on-going unrest at National Day protest marches in Sanabis near the Shaik Kalifa bin Salman Highway as I write are indicative of the opposition's resolve. 

Religious differences are certainly what have frustrated the process of democratisation since a new constitution was ratified in 2002, but it is easy for mistrust to grow along sectarian lines when religion motivates sectarianism, not conciliation.

This is a country built dangerously on sand – literally and figuratively.

Much of this expensive piece of real estate is reclaimed from the sea.  It is run by the al-Khalifa clan and the King, Crown Prince and Prime Minister are all members of it. 

Religions have been generally tolerated - but only within their own strict demarcations since so much of the work is done by non-Muslims (50per cent of the workforce is foreign).  Tradition however won’t let you change your faith and that is the problem.

Churches have crosses on; the American Mission Hospital and some of the schools have Christian staff so it all looks good at a cursory glance as the Burt motorcade sweeps in.  Tradition however forbids new believers from going to church, as is true everywhere else in the Muslim world.

The effect of that is instability.  A deep-rooted mistrust of the individual conscience can easily topple a society over, since power is bound to become arbitrary and run into sectarian channels.

Sara is a young woman from an opposition shia background who says she has fewer Facebook friends since the uprising..

Local and migrant workers have lost their jobs on flimsy pretexts or remain unpaid because their companies are run by pro-government people who now suspect their loyalty.

One teacher tells of a colleague whose husband was sacked after the protests simply for being the wrong religion.

Sara describes a shared pain:  ‘The situation kept increasing in intensity and more people were terminated, arrested, tortured and killed. I gave up at a certain time… was without hope, depressed and frustrated… I hated everything so much that I wanted to just leave the country.'

Sara became a Christian after visiting churches while on holiday in Europe. She found a peace there that helped her to forgive a friend when nothing else had worked.

‘Now I must learn to forgive a nation’, she says.

She and those like her are the only Arab spring that will ultimately count because political freedom is built only on individual conscience.  But her ability to remain in Bahrain will depends more than he may realize on Mr Burt's conversations today.

Identities have been disguised