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 Bahrain, Who Is the Real Abdulhadi Al Khawaja?

Zainab Al-Khawaja

After 110 days without food, jailed Bahraini activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja last week ended his hunger strike. His attorney says al-Khawaja is satisfied he has succeeded in his mission to bring international attention to reported human rights abuses in Bahrain.  In June 2011, Al-Khawaja and 20 others were charged with a long list of offenses against the tiny island state, chiefly establishing and administrating terror groups to topple the Royal regime and change the constitution.

The cases of the 21 have are now being re-examined by a civilian court, and a hearing is expected to be held in the coming weeks.

International human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Frontline  condemned his arrest and imprisonment and called on the United States and the European Union to speak out against Bahrain’s crackdown on protesters.

Middle East Voices has been covering Al-Khawaja’s case since he was taken away by security forces in a middle-of-the-night raid on his apartment in Manama, April 9, 2011. We spoke by phone with one of his daughters, Zainab, on April 10, the following day. She described a horrific scene in which masked security agents used sledgehammers to beat down the apartment door, taking away her father, her husband and two brothers-in-law:

 …and then he held my father from his neck, from his throat, and he started pulling him away…he was dragging him on the stairs while other security forces were hitting him and kicking him and punching him…they were taking them away like they were two prisoners of war, with their heads forced down. And I saw drops of blood on the stairs. And I knew that my father had been really hurt…

In April, MEV spoke with daughter Maryam Al-Khawaja during a protest at the White House in Washington, D.C.  She appealed to US President Obama to take a stand on the violence in Bahrain:

Our children’s lives are just as precious as yours.  If you love your children, then you should love ours too…

 Bahrain, Who Is the Real Abdulhadi Al Khawaja?

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa

 

This wasn’t Al-Khawaja’s first arrest; in fact, as a founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), he has a history of brushes with the Bahraini government: Perhaps the most publicized was his 2004 arrest and one-year imprisonment for  “inciting hatred against the State,”  after a speech he gave at the Al Uruba (“Arabism”) Club in Manama in which he criticized Bahrain’s Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa, accusing him squandering public money and blocking key economic and social reforms.

Then in October 2009, Al-Khawaja was convicted (later pardoned) of inciting hatred against the government for a speech he had made in January of that year, on Ashura, the tenth day of the Islamic calendar year, which commemorates the killing in 680 CE of Imam Husain ibn Ali, grandson of the prophet Mohammed’s grandson. Shi’a Muslims consider Hussein to have been the rightful successor to Mohammed, so Ashura it is a particularly mournful time of year, marked by many Shi’a with lamentation and public displays of grief.

Justin John Gengler is a Doha-based Bahrain analyst who attended some of the 2009 Ashura celebrations in Manama. Gengler analyzed Al-Khawaja’s Ashura speech as part of his 2011 doctoral dissertation, “Ethnic Conflict and Political Mobilization.”  He says it would be impossible to understand the speech without keeping in mind the context in which it is being given—“the very acme of the Ashura celebration, the tenth night.”

“Inasmuch as the festival commemorates a dispute over political succession in the early Muslim community,” Gengler said, “a dispute that those who eventually became known as the ‘Shi’a’ lost in humiliating fashion—Ashura is inherently a political occasion that lends itself naturally to the expression of political grievances and notions of political injustice rooted in centuries of collective Shi’a memory, whether in Bahrain or elsewhere.”

The speech, titled, “Let’s Bring down the Ruling Gang,” connected the political struggle of Bahraini Shi’a to events during the Umayyad Dynasty of Islamic History, in which Imam Husain was killed.  “Later in the speech, says Gengler, “the subject of the ‘ruling gang’ transitioned naturally from the corrupt ‘Umayyad Dynasty, in which the right to rule ‘moves within one family from father to son, and which looted booty and lands, and which made God’s wealth [i.e., natural resources] into a state, and enslaved the people’–all this he equated to the contemporary Al Khalifa ‘ruling gang’ that plunders Bahrain and which claims to rule on the same basis of hereditary success.”

Note:  The video (below) of Al-Khawaja’s 2009 speech contains content considered inflammatory by many. The video does not reflect in any way the views of Middle East Voices or Voice of America.  According to Justin Gengler, the video is edited so that portions of the speech are missing, and the translation also omits some sentences, but Gengler says it is not “inaccurate or unrepresentative of the speech as a whole.” We have also had native Arabic speakers review the content.

Bahraini authorities accused Al-Khawaja of using the occasion of Ashura “to give religious or sectarian legitimacy to the potentially violent overthrow of the government.”  The international rights group Frontline Defenders maintained Al-Khawaja had merely “referred to the human rights situation in the country, including instances of sectarian discrimination and corruption, and called for resistance to abuses by the ruling regime “by peaceful means and civil disobedience.” Human Rights Watch urged his release from imprisonment:

Speaking out harshly against a country’s rulers should not be a crime. A government that claims to be promoting democracy and human rights, as Bahrain does, shouldn’t be putting people in jail for what they say and write. – Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, March 11, 2009

Gengler says Al-Khawaja’s speech was more or less spontaneous rather than part of an organized rally. “Far from a natural ‘leader’ of the Shi’a community able to mobilize large numbers of supporters,” Gengler said, “Abdulhadi has no religious credentials to speak of.  In fact, Gengler says, Al-Khawaja is a member of a minority Shi’a community in Bahrain which opposes the Iranian model of Shi’a Islam.  He believes that Al-Khawaja was the first to express what many Bahrainis felt, and it was this which earned him the respect of many in the opposition, which might not otherwise “see eye-to-eye with him.”

But some in Bahrain’s Sunni community remain unconvinced.  Consider that blogger Proud Bahraini regards Al-Khawaja as an open admirer of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomenei.  He cites the work of Katja Niethammer of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar’s Center for International and Regional Studies.  In a 2006 working paper for the European University Institute in Florence, Niethammer characterized Al-Khawaja’s Bahrian as a radical opposition that has chosen to function as an NGO.  She described the groups tactics as “confrontational.”  In addressing Al-Khawaja’s 2004 “Aruba Club” presentation, she writes: “The authorities easily construed an incitement of hatred from his remark.  In fact, the activist [Al-Khawaja] wanted to provoke a strong government reaction, since he clearly overstepped the boundaries of possible critique.”

How, then, does one reconcile these very different characterizations of the same man?  Take our poll and tell us what you think in the comments section (below).

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 Bahrain, Who Is the Real Abdulhadi Al Khawaja?

Cecily Hilleary

Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.