Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

For once, can we keep religion out of secular revolts?

Mubarak claimed that Islamists were behind the Egyptian revolution. Ben Ali said the same in Tunisia. King Abdullah of Jordan sees a dark and sinister hand - al Qaida's hand, the Muslim Brotherhood's hand, an Islamist hand - behind the civil insurrection across the Arab world. Yesterday the Bahraini authorities discovered Hizbollah's bloody hand behind the Shia uprising there.

For Hizbollah, read Iran. How on earth do well-educated if singularly undemocratic men get this thing so wrong? Confronted by a series of secular explosions - Bahrain does not quite fit into this bracket - they blame radical Islam. The Shah made an identical mistake in reverse. Confronted by an obviously Islamic uprising, he blamed it on Communists.

The events of the past two months and the spirit of anti-regime Arab insurrection - for dignity and justice, rather than any Islamic emirate - will remain in our history books for hundreds of years. And the failure of Islam's strictest adherents will be discussed for decades.

In Bahrain we have a special case. Here a Shia majority is ruled by a minority of pro-monarchy Sunni Muslims. At least the West - in its sagging support for King Hamad of Bahrain - can point to the fact that Bahrain, like Kuwait, has a parliament. It's a sad old beast, existing from 1973 to 1975 when it was dissolved unconstitutionally, and reinvented in 2001 as part of a package of "reforms".

But the new parliament turned out to be even more unrepresentative than the first. Opposition politicians were harassed by state security, and parliamentary boundaries were gerrymandered, Ulster-style, to make sure that the minority Sunnis controlled it. Indeed, there is a distinctly Northern Ireland feel to Sunni perspectives in Bahrain. Many have told me that they fear for their lives, that Shia mobs will burn their homes and kill them.

All this is set to change. Control of state power has to be legitimised to be effective, and the use of live fire to overwhelm peaceful protest was bound to end in Bahrain in a series of little Bloody Sundays. Once Arabs learnt to lose their fear, they could claim the civil rights that Catholics in Northern Ireland once demanded in the face of RUC brutality. In the end, the British had to destroy Unionist rule and bring the IRA into joint power with Protestants. The parallels are not exact and the Shias do not (yet) have a militia, although the Bahraini government has produced photographs of pistols and swords to support their contention that its opponents include "terrorists".

But these interconnected insurrections should not be seen in a simple ferment-in-the-Middle-East framework. The Yemeni uprising against President Saleh (32 years in power) is democratic but also tribal, and it won't be long before the opposition uses guns.

And then there is Libya. Gaddafi is so odd, his Green Book theories so preposterous, his rule so cruel (and he's been running the place for 42 years) that he is an Ozymandias waiting to fall.

So it's a sea-change in the Middle East's political, social and cultural world. It will create many tragedies, raise many hopes and shed too much blood. But if Czechs could have their freedom, why not the Egyptians? If dictators can be overthrown in Europe - first the fascists, then the Communists - why not in the Arab Muslim world? And - just for a moment - keep religion out of this.

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