Thursday, April 5, 2012

What Carl Sagan Would Say About Bahrain

For the past two weeks, I was in Bahrain conducting interviews for my thesis. With my research partner Reza Akbari, I hope to be soon writing and publishing several articles on what we've learned. I chose to study Bahrain because I believe it is not very well understood here in Washington, DC. There are three reasons for that.

One, most Americans (myself definitely included) did not pay attention to Bahrain until the uprising last year. As a result, we only hear about what Bahrain is now without understanding what Bahrain was before. That lack of historical context not only makes understanding what's happening in Bahrain now difficult, but it also makes predicting what might happen next impossible.

Two, some Bahraini voices have a much stronger presence in DC than others. Obviously the government, with its embassy and PR firms, can broadcast its perspective effectively. At the same time, Bahraini and international human rights groups have also done an excellent job in pushing their own narrative. And, to a lesser extent, the main opposition party Wefaq has also found a platform to push its views internationally. Yet there are many (exactly how many who knows?) Bahrainis who neither support the government nor the traditional opposition. Some have created new, predominantly Sunni groups as a kind of anti-opposition. Others feel completely unrepresented by any group. These voices go largely unheard outside of Bahrain.

Three, precisely because we primarily hear from the government and its detractors, we tend to view the political crisis in Bahrain as a dyad of conflict. It is the government versus the people (or conversely the government versus the extremists). It is understandable why some push this binary understanding of Bahrain. Its simplicity is powerful rhetorically and morally, both essential for persuasive lobbying. But if we want to make effective foreign policy towards Bahrain - policy that supports democracy and serves our interests broadly defined - we have to complicate the picture. Otherwise, even the best intentioned policies could lead to counterproductive results.

I left Bahrain yesterday with a major headache. Two weeks of interviews with people with fundamentally opposite worldviews can do that to you. As my plane took off, I worried how I could squeeze all of Bahrain's complexity into the page limit of my thesis. But then looking out the window, the only simple thing about Bahrain became readily apparent: its tiny size.

Through my airplane window, the lights of Manama shined brightly against the night sky. The radiant spines of Budaya and Sheikh Isa bin Salman highways reached out to the west, King Hamad highway to the south. Glowing clusters of villages grew dimmer and sparser as the highways arced away from the capital. On one side, the vast coastline of Saudi Arabia loomed over the shimmering island of Bahrain. On the other, the darkness of the water extended to the east and eventually to the unseen shores of Iran somewhere beyond the horizon.

The entirety of Bahrain lay before me like a tiny, incandescent pearl laying on a vast swatch of dark velvet. From that perspective, all the tear gas and rubber bullets, all the burning tires and molotov cocktails, all the fiery speeches and angry chants, all the torture chambers and prison cells, all the independent commissions and official reports, all the sectarianism and social divisions, all the political struggles and secret negotiations - all of it - could not be seen. From that perspective, all I could see is one small island flickering in the darkness.

And that is the only simple truth about Bahrain. For all the immensity of its divides, it is too small to survive divided.

As I lowered the window visor, I remembered Carl Sagan's words about the Pale Blue Dot we call Earth: "Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."

No comments:

Post a Comment