Robert Fisk: These are secular popular revolts – yet everyone is blaming religion

Our writer, who was in Cairo as the revolution took hold in Egypt, reports from Bahrain on why Islam has little to do with what is going on

Robert Fisk
Sunday 20 February 2011 01:00 GMT
(Getty Images)

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-Qa'ida'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.

Bobbysocks Obama and Clinton have managed an even weirder somersault. Having originally supported the "stable" dictatorships of the Middle East – when they should have stood by the forces of democracy – they decided to support civilian calls for democracy in the Arab world at a time when the Arabs were so utterly disenchanted with the West's hypocrisy that they didn't want America on their side. "The Americans interfered in our country for 30 years under Mubarak, supporting his regime, arming his soldiers," an Egyptian student told me in Tahrir Square last week. "Now we would be grateful if they stopped interfering on our side." At the end of the week, I heard identical voices in Bahrain. "We are getting shot by American weapons fired by American-trained Bahraini soldiers with American-made tanks," a medical orderly told me on Friday. "And now Obama wants to be on our side?"

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. There was a special piquancy to the latest footage from al-Qa'ida yesterday, recorded before the overthrow of Mubarak, that emphasised the need for Islam to triumph in Egypt; yet a week earlier the forces of secular, nationalist, honourable Egypt, Muslim and Christian men and women, had got rid of the old man without any help from Bin Laden Inc. Even weirder was the reaction from Iran, whose supreme leader convinced himself that the Egyptian people's success was a victory for Islam. It's a sobering thought that only al-Qa'ida and Iran and their most loathed enemies, the anti-Islamist Arab dictators, believed that religion lay behind the mass rebellion of pro-democracy protesters.

The bloodiest irony of all – which dawned rather slowly on Obama – was that the Islamic Republic of Iran was praising the democrats of Egypt while threatening to execute its own democratic opposition leaders.

Not, then, a great week for "Islamicism". There's a catch, of course. Almost all the millions of Arab demonstrators who wish to shrug off the cloak of autocracy which – with our Western help – has smothered their lives in humiliation and fear are indeed Muslims. And Muslims – unlike the "Christian" West – have not lost their faith. Under the stones and coshes of Mubarak's police killers, they counter-attacked, shouting "Allah akbar" for this was indeed for them a "jihad" – not a religious war but a struggle for justice. "God is Great" and a demand for justice are entirely consistent. For the struggle against injustice is the very spirit of the Koran.

In Bahrain we have a special case. Here a Shia majority is ruled by a minority of pro-monarchy Sunni Muslims. Syria, by the way, may suffer from "Bahrainitis" for the same reason: a Sunni majority ruled by an Alawite (Shia) minority. Well, 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 then 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. In 2006 and 2010, for example, the main Shia party in Bahrain gained only 18 out of 40 seats. 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 – hardly a major weapon of the IRA – to support their contention that its opponents include "terrorists".

In Bahrain there is, needless to say, a sectarian as much as a secular battle, something that the Crown Prince unwittingly acknowledged when he originally said that the security forces had to suppress protests to prevent sectarian violence. It's a view held all too savagely by Saudi Arabia, which has a strong interest in the suppression of dissent in Bahrain. The Shias of Saudi Arabia might get uppity if their co-religionists in Bahrain overwhelm the state. Then we'll really hear the leaders of the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran crowing.

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. Yemen is a heavily armed society, tribes with flags, nationalist-rampant. And then there is Libya.

Gaddafi is so odd, his Green Book theories – dispatched by Benghazi demonstrators last week when they pulled down a concrete version of this particular volume – so preposterous, his rule so cruel (and he's been running the place for 42 years) that he is an Ozymandias waiting to fall. His flirtation with Berlusconi – worse still, his cloying love affair with Tony Blair whose foreign secretary, Jack Straw, praised the Libyan lunatic's "statesmanship" – was never going to save him. Bedecked with more medals than General Eisenhower, desperate for a doctor to face-lift his sagging jowls, this wretched man is threatening "terrible" punishment against his own people for challenging his rule. Two things to remember about Libya: like Yemen, it's a tribal land; and when it turned against its Italian fascist overlords, it began a savage war of liberation whose brave leaders faced the hangman's noose with unbelievable courage. Just because Gaddafi is a nutter does not mean his people are fools.

So it's a sea-change in the Middle East's political, social, cultural world. It will create many tragedies, raise many hopes and shed far too much blood. Better perhaps to ignore all the analysts and the "think tanks" whose silly "experts" dominate the satellite channels. 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 great Arab Muslim world? And – just for a moment – keep religion out of this.

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