Freedom of Expression

Bahrain’s Ugly, Sectarian Crackdown on Dissident Bloggers

This is a cross post by Sohrab Ahmari

Bahrain’s sleek new tourism site boasts that the island nation is “one of the most modern countries in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council].” Tell that to Ali Abdulemam, the blogger and cyber-activist recently detained by Bahraini intelligence on the bogus charge of “spreading false information.”

The father of a boy and twin girls, Abdulemam is a web pioneer and founder of BahrainOnline, the premier pro-democracy and human rights outlet in his country. Abdulemam is considered an icon among Arab bloggers for his innovative use of social media in pursuit of greater government transparency and accountability and, more importantly, for his courage in speaking truth to power.

Abdulemam is also an intellectual who thoughtfully synthesizes the Western liberal canon and Islamic thought. “He quotes Von Mises as naturally as he would Shariati or the Imam Ali,” says American Islamic Congress civil rights director Nasser Weddady, who met Abdulemam at several activist conferences. Abdulemam’s interest in philosophy, however, is driven by his passion for effecting change in his native Bahrain and the wider Arab world. Although normally soft-spoken, “Abdulemam’s whole demeanor changes when he starts talking about repression in Bahrain,” recalls Weddady. “He is as passionate an advocate for individual rights as I’ve ever met.”

When it comes to the universal right to free expression, Abdulemam is uncompromising. His principled stance on this issue had long earned him the ire of Bahraini authorities. On September 5th, they finally caught up with him as part of a broader crackdown against dissidents. Abdulemam faced the prospect of arbitrary detention and torture as bravely as ever. “I just received a call from the Nationa[l] Security [Apparatus],” he hurriedly e-mailed Weddady. A few hours later, state-run media reported his arrest while attempting to “flee Bahrain.” BahrainOnline was taken down.

While nothing new in the Middle East, the sectarian dimension to the crackdown against Abdulemam and his fellow Shia activists is particularly disturbing coming from a government that fancies itself a forward-looking beacon of progress in the region. Human rights analysts warn that the crackdown could mark a return to the ugly 1990s, when Bahrain was beset by brutal sectarian strife. The last thing the Middle East needs is the added instability caused by a Bahrain consumed – yet again – by the merciless fire of ethno-sectarian enmity. Viewed from this perspective, the crackdown is not only morally reprehensible but also strategically hazardous.

The Arab blogosphere, which has long drawn inspiration from Abdulemam’s work, is rallying behind the blogger and calling for his release. So is the Committee to Protect Journalists. More voices need to join this chorus of outrage. Like many other Gulf states, the Bahraini government is clearly convinced that “progress” is merely about high rises and stock markets. Abdulemam, on the other hand, has sought modernity elsewhere: in human dignity and individual rights. And he has been willing to risk everything for his principles.

Can we do the same?