The pace of popular protest and change in the Middle East has been bewildering. In such cases limited information, new realities, and subtle biases make the resort to conspiracy theory understandable. Tunisia caught everyone by surprise. When the demonstrations erupted in Egypt suddenly a connection was seen, and widely feared. Who was running the show? What forces were at work?
We had the privilege of being eyewitnesses to much of what took place in Egypt, and we can state that if there were greater forces at work, we did not see them. But, this is the nature of conspiracy theory; it is below the surface, unseen.
Conspiracy theories work off of truths, and therefore have merit. But they also tend to look for unified solutions, and I would argue this often betrays them. Life is complex; multiple forces are at work, a grand narrative is near impossible.
Yet while due to our experiences I believe we have a decent handle on the complexity of Egypt, the situation in Bahrain is beyond me. The Egyptian English website of the popular independent newspaper al-Masry al-Youm carries two articles on the situation there. The first is an analysis of the return of ‘stability’ as the protests have largely come to a halt. It seems that security forces have succeeded in driving back the momentum of the demonstrators, and may be undertaking a quiet crackdown against key leaders.
The second is an interview with Dr. Abdullatif al-Mahmood, the spokesman for the National Unity Gathering proposed by the government to lead dialogue between oppositional forces. The situation has certainly moved past dialogue as a solution, but some of his words may betray his status as a neutral, trusted interlocutor.
The problem with the Shias is that most of them have no loyalty to the homeland. Their loyalty to the sect and its plots comes first. How can we trust them when they put up pictures of Khomeini everywhere they go when he was the military leader of Iran, as well as the religious and secular political leader? How can the state trust them?
A quick primer on the issues at stake: Bahrain has been ruled by a Sunni monarchy for the past two hundred years, supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. It rules, however, over a majority Shia population. I am unable to say if its rule has been just, or if it has been successful in developing a sense of national unity. Nor am I able to say if the Shia population is loyal to Iran, or if there has been Iranian interference in Bahraini sovereignty. In his interview Dr. al-Mahmood raises interesting points, which are worthy for consideration.
Yet now we run into the problem of lack of familiarity and information. Can his words be trusted? Within the article he makes this startling accusation:
This is all within the framework of a US plan to create a vast Shia state loyal to Iran in the Gulf and in Iraq.
Al-Masry: How is the US aiming for the region to become governed by Shias loyal to Iran, despite the hostility between the two countries?
Al-Mahmood: This is not true. The truth is that there is no hostility between Iran and the US. There are mutual interests and roles between the two. International relations are governed by interests and not by good or bad relations.
And the conspiracy theory deepens. But it deepens in an unexpected way. Not only is this particular uprising (at least) directed by Iran, it is orchestrated in conjunction with the United States.
Before outright dismissal, where might the truth in such an assertion lie? The United States’ interest lies firmly, if uneasily, with Saudi Arabia as the dominant regional power, if only for the open pipeline of oil supplies. Moreover, media coverage of Bahraini protests, from both al-Jazeera and CNN, has been significantly less than what was given to Egypt. Furthermore, US administration comments took President Mubarak harshly to task, whereas pressure on Bahrain’s monarchy has not moved significantly beyond the call to respect human rights. When Gulf Cooperation Council forces landed in Bahrain to help pacify the situation, the US hardly blinked. This conveys the conventional wisdom in Bahrain. Saudi interests dominate, especially since it has a minority population of Shia, and the first domino must not fall. The US will back Saudi Arabia, especially in curbing an Iranian urge to increase its regional influence.
Where then is the deeper, conspiratorial narrative? If it exists, it could go like this. In this part of the world I have heard just enough US-Iran rumors as well as assumed Western anti-Islamic biases to see a logic:
If united, the Arab world, or, variously constructed, the Islamic world could be a powerful competition to Western hegemony. Following World War I and the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate, the Western powers, namely Britain and France, divided the region into little nation-states. These were reared on the principles of nationalism, in order to give them separate identities and keep them squabbling among themselves. The British, it is said, also nurtured radical Islamic ideologies (Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Wahabbism in Saudi Arabia) to further divide internal populations along religious lines. Extending the thought, the state of Israel was also planted to be a thorn in the side of the Arab world.
The biggest fault line in the Middle East, however, is the Sunni-Shia divide. (I have even heard one voice saying that modern Shiism itself is a British invention.) 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, and the remaining 10% is concentrated in Iran and Iraq, with pockets elsewhere such as Lebanon, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula. Shia Islam believes that Islamic leadership should remain within the family of Muhammad, whereas Sunni Islam developed a political theology that was more egalitarian, or, interpreted differently, justified obedience to whoever usurped leadership in the Muslim community. At one point in history a minority Shia power emerged from Tunisia and ruled much of the Arab Sunni population from Egypt. Today, it is minority Sunni governments which rule over Shia populations in Bahrain, and formerly, in Saddam-era Iraq and previously.
Returning to the conspiracy theory, then, in terms of good relations with the Islamic world and unhampered flow of oil, the US would do well to favor Sunni nations such as Saudi Arabia. Yet, if the US inherits what was (if indeed it was) British policy of divide-and-conquer, under-the-table arrangements to strengthen the minority Shia and promote Iranian interests can make sense too. After all, Iran has abundant petrol resources also, as does Bahrain.
Crazy, you might say? Isn’t Iran ruled by a maniacal despot bent on the destruction of Israel and the Great Satan of America? It certainly seems so. Does anyone believe Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons, despite their statements to the contrary? But, in the Middle East, there has often been a vast difference between public posturing and private sentiment. Could it not be so in the US as well?
Egypt is seen as a bulwark in defense of the Israeli state, being a signatory to the Camp David Accords. With the fall of Mubarak many worry that an anti-Israeli popular sentiment may undue this historic peace. Yet what is often not realized is that all the while Mubarak reaped the benefits of US support upon which preservation of peace hinged, his administration allowed if not promoted the popular sentiment against normalization of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. The same can possibly also be seen in Syria, where President Assad’s popularity is supported by a strong anti-Israel rhetoric. Yet some analysis sees Israel currently worried if the ongoing demonstrations there unseat this ‘enemy’.
Could the official and popular sentiment in the United States against Iran also be manufactured? If so, it would provide the administration cover to maintain good ties with Saudi Arabia while it fans the flames of Shia-Sunni conflict, laying the groundwork in case a formal shift in ties to Iran ever becomes necessary. Such a scenario is easy to imagine: Saudi Arabians have links to al-Qaeda, and the nation has little semblance of democracy or respect for human rights. Iran, meanwhile, is also undergoing popular demonstrations. Should these topple Ahmedinijad, or at the least lead to a coup d’etat, might we find among the Persians a better civilizational friend? Would not the virtues of their people compare favorably to the (now labeled) backward Bedouin terrorists and debauched sheikhs of Saudi Arabia?
I am not arguing for the conspiracy theory by any means. But all conspiracy theories, at some level, make sense. What I am putting forward, especially as it concerns Bahrain, is that I don’t know much of anything. This ignorance, plus a little knowledge, is fertile ground for conspiracy. But just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you, either.
Unfortunately, this is where our world is these days. In time the confusion will dissipate and we will get used to the new realities, becoming comfortable in our illusion of understanding. Yet paradoxically, it is understanding that is vitally necessary. What I have written above is a narrative current in the Middle East. I hope I have carried it forward in a manner respecting its plausibility. Why? Not so that we might lend it credence, but so that we understand and better respect those who hold to it. They are struggling to make sense of the rapid pace of change as much as we are.
Or, they may be manipulators. If so, better understanding will help us to navigate a tricky world of power and self-interest. Those committed to good must be able to see clearly through deceit and ill motivation. Yet they themselves must not yield to the power of an overarching conspiracy theory, neglecting the complexity of each situation. Where demonstrated manipulation exists, it must be rejected. Yet they themselves must know their own heart, that in their commitment to good they are often tempted similarly to smaller manipulations. At least, they are believed smaller. Are others any different?
Among the demonstrators in Bahrain are human rights activists who appear to be committed to democracy and liberal principles of government. Perhaps they are not, or perhaps these are being manipulated by others with more sinister motivations. It is hard to know the right from the wrong. May we have humility in all we profess, conviction to profess what is good, and hope that the profession of good may be mirrored even by those of whom we doubt. Above all, perhaps faith is necessary, that God will sort out our human mess, and redeem every impulse of good, so that all intertwine in a mosaic of his good, just, and eternal principles. May we aid, and not stand in the way.