Murtaza Hussein | 1 January 2012 – 02/01/2012 – 1:33 p | Hits: 299
Amidst the violence of Bahrain’s revolution, an uprising broadly characterized by violent clashes between pro-democracy protestors and government security forces, a different and equally disturbing narrative was taking place throughout the country.
The recent Bahrain Independent Commission Inquiry (BICI) reveals the broad scope and extremely violent nature of the ethnic pogroms which were reported to have targeted the migrant worker class during the unrest. The stories are recounted with a cold, clinical detachment which belies the scenes of horror described therein:
“…a gang carrying metal bars and knives attacked a group living in a building in Naeem…The residents who managed to escape the building were met by the group waiting at the entrance to the building. This group beat the deceased to death.”
“A construction worker and Muezzin (person who performs the Islamic call to prayer) suffered serious brain injuries after he was brutally assaulted and had his tongue severely lacerated. Commission investigators…later visited him at the hospital where he was still in a vegetative state.”
In addition to documenting a campaign of government suppression, the BICI report illustrates in great detail the level of systematic violence which was directed towards South Asian migrant workers during the breakdown of the rule of law which accompanied the revolution.
A general reign of terror descended over Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani expatriate communities who were targets of widespread violence and intimidation by protestors during the unrest. While the violence was further fueled by reports of the Bahraini government recruiting mercenaries from South Asian countries that the primary victims were Bahraini residents, clearly identifiable as members of the large expatriate working class, seems indicative of a deep-seated resentment and xenophobia towards them from the broader society.
This resentment found grotesquely violent expression during the events of the revolution and raises grave questions about the long term safety of working-class expat populations in countries facing the revolutionary upheavals of the Arab Spring.
Far from the bustling souks and glittering high-rises of central Manama lie the impoverished, waste-strewn shantytowns which are home to the majority of Bahrain’s labor class, expatriates from South Asia and the Philippines who by some estimates make up as much as 40% of the country’s population.
Inhabited by the construction workers, drivers, store-clerks, cleaners, and domestic servants who take the jobs refused by native Bahrainis, these camps as a rule lack proper sanitation and social infrastructure and are often subject to raids and demolition by the local authorities when deemed to be too close to “proper” residential areas and too far from the barren deserts where they are tolerated.
Cut off from public life by officially enforced physical separation, the enormous economic disparity between themselves and other Bahrainis and the racial and linguistic differences which prevent them from having a voice with which to speak to authority, the labor class exists in near-complete isolation from mainstream society.
Indeed, the corrosive attitude of Bahraini officialdom towards foreign workers was encapsulated in the words of former Minister of Labor Dr. Majeed Al Alawi speaking at a GCC conference in 2010, “Foreign workers pose a threat to our existence…in some areas of the Gulf you cannot tell whether you are in an Arab country or an Asian one…we cannot call this diversity because no nation on earth would accept this erosion of its own culture on its own land.”
Tellingly, no similar warnings were made about the threat of the large Western expatriate population potentially “eroding” Bahraini culture.
This poisonous official attitude towards a huge percentage of the population of Bahrain has inevitably trickled down to the general population as well. Segregated from and contemptuous of their imported help, most of the interaction Bahrainis have with their labor class comes through the context of the structural violence of the kafala system, a form of modern indentured servitude where workers livelihood is placed entirely at the mercy of their Bahraini “sponsor”.
Any question of human rights and equality under the law is extraneous to the de facto caste system which prevails throughout the country. It is in this atmosphere that migrant workers have become a convenient target for the frustrations of the rest of society.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights has worked in earnest to catalogue an archive of human rights abuses; however a culture of fear among indentured workers prevents the vast majority from being able to speak openly about abuse.
The day to day of lives of the official underclass in Bahrain is often characterized by acts of casual violence and maltreatment from their employers as well as from the population at-large. Even South Asian expatriates from the professional class who have lived for generations in Bahrain are subject to the same environment of fear and violence based on their ethnic background.
Andrew Gardner, in his book “City of Strangers” describes the pervasive attitude of contempt and terror which characterizes the nature of the relationship between Bahrainis and their foreign cohabitants. In the words of one working professional of Indian descent, “Walking down the street, if I see five or six Bahraini guys coming towards me I take the other road…I hate to say this but they have no respect for our lives.”
This atmosphere of malice and antipathy translated into mass, systematic violence during the revolution when the breakdown of the rule of law resulted in attacks against migrants on a scale unprecedented in recent history.
On 19 March 2011, Fareed Maqbul, a Bangladeshi laborer living in Bahrain, was found dead. Forensic analysis showed that he had received several fractures to the skull and face resulting in severe hemorrhaging of the brain in addition to numerous broken bones and lost teeth.
The BICI report on his death cited witnesses who saw Maqbul walking alone in Manama when he was attacked by a group of individuals carrying wooden planks and sharp objects. After being brutally beaten, he was struck by a vehicle while trying to escape and was discovered later on the street.
Maqbul’s horrific death was but one of many violent episodes described in excruciating detail in the BICI’s findings. In total, four expatriate laborers were murdered and 88 were injured in mob lynching by protestors during the unrest.
Far from being spontaneous acts of violence amid an atmosphere of chaos, the report makes allegations of a systematic and co-ordinated campaign of terror against expatriate communities. A report submitted to the commission by the Ministry of Foreign affairs alleges that “gangs set up road blocks and check points, where they stopped motorists and pulled them out of their cars, beating foreigners.
Stores operated by foreign nationals were threatened to close or face retribution.” Over 2000 expatriates fleeing their homes sought refuge at the Pakistani embassy after attacks by protestors on their neighborhoods. In one instance, 40 South Asians were locked in a restaurant which protestors then attempted to set on fire before being stopped by intervention from community religious leaders including a Shia imam.
Mosques known to be utilized by migrant workers were targeted by mobs for vandalism and destruction. One individual who worked at a mosque reported being unable to leave it for 14 days out of fear for his life after protestors cut down palm trees to block the surrounding streets and vandalized the building.
One of the prominent justifications for violence against migrants cited in the BICI report was the perception that foreigners had taken jobs which should belong to Bahrainis; never mind that the type of work done by migrants is mostly of the poorly paid, highly dangerous sort at which the overwhelming majority of Bahrainis would balk.
This attitude of general contempt and hatred for the undifferentiated foreign “other” is a dangerous and precarious situation for a country with a large migrant population. Deep seated xenophobia is perpetually capable of erupting in acts of spectacular and horrific violence as occurred during the revolution and recent events have shown that Bahrain is far from being stable or at peace today.
None of this should suggest that Bahrain’s uprising was fundamentally unjust or that many of its revolutionaries were not heroic in their struggles; quite the opposite. The Bahraini people were an inspiration to the people of the Arab world and beyond in their fight for democracy.
The foreign intervention and subsequent legal suppression by the government was an unjust denial of their fundamental rights and is worthy of full throated condemnation from the international community. What is troubling is the extent of the desire to violently extinguish the most underprivileged people in Bahraini society which was revealed during the revolution.
Migrant workers in Bahrain have not been alone in being targeted for violence during the Arab spring. Well documented attacks against black Libyans following the fall of the Gaddafi regime have also been reported and seem indicative of a powerful current of suppressed rage towards minority communities. Discriminatory legal structures such as the kafala system and the multi-tiered visa process which gives different levels of rights to individuals based on nationality are the foundation of xenophobic attitudes of racial superiority in these countries.
When the entire social structure is formulated to ostracize and demean those of “lesser” races, it is little wonder that individual citizens will also hold violently racist views towards those to whom they have been taught they are intrinsically above.
The Bahrain Commission Report’s recommendation to alleviate the xenophobic attitudes which violently surfaced during the revolution is simply “to introduce more education to promote tolerance and respect for the rule of law”. Scarcely three lines in the report are given to addressing the social dysfunctions which resulted in so much bloodshed.
While education in and of itself is undoubtedly important, it is not enough to uproot the fundamental sickness at the heart of the problem. The seething hatred which led an angry mob to cut out the tongue of a Muslim muezzin for the crime of being a South Asian migrant is at heart derived from the institutionalized racial hierarchy which continues to be enforced in Bahraini society.
Until the government of Bahrain takes serious steps to dismantle the de facto caste hierarchy of the kafala system and begins making even minimum investments to improve the social conditions of its foreign workers the attitude of racial superiority and hatred which characterized the pogroms of the revolution will continue to fester.
Structural violence built into the legal and social structure of society inevitably begets the type of physical violence which occurred against migrants in Bahrain during the revolution. If there is to be a legitimate and holistic healing process in Bahrain it must stop effectively treating 40% of its residents as human chattel and start taking seriously the issue of the basic human rights of its migrant worker class.