It seems apocalyptic. Images of deserted streets littered with random objects, engulfed in fire, or crowds of thousands of people with their faces covered in a keffiyeh, yelling and chanting slogans in Arabic. It feels eerie watching videos of the Arab Spring — the revolution in 14 Middle Eastern countries calling for government reform. It feels as though, at any moment, you would hear the director yell “cut” and watch a crew of set workers douse the flames.
For these 14 countries, this apocalyptic-esque setting is reality. The small gulf state of Bahrain is one them.
The Shi’a of Bahrain — along with other marginalized minorities — have taken to the streets calling for a more representative government. The protesters are met with tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition and sometimes batons to the back of their heads.
The anti-government protests in Bahrain — and the rest of the Middle East — are missing a unifying face. A Che Guevara-like figure that unifies their respective countries and their protesters.
“The risks of revolution — instability, civil strife, military rule, radical Islamism, partition — remain. The protests have been essentially leaderless — thrilling and effective, but diffuse in their direction.” –Wendell Steavenson
In 2011, Zakariya Rashid Hassan al-Ashiri — a Bahraini journalist covering the uprising — was tortured and murdered by Bahraini police, nine days after being arrested and charged with “disseminating false news” and “inciting hatred.” Mr. Al-Ashiri’s perspective on his nation’s politics cost him his life. Three days after al-Ashiri was murdered, another Bahraini journalist — Karim Fakhrawi — died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody.
So it isn’t a surprise that leaders of the Arab Spring are reluctant to take centre stage. They don’t want to face the same fate.
But all that is about to change. Meet Nabeel Rajab, the President of Bahrain’s Centre for Human Rights, and the House of Khalifa’s — Bahrain’s ruling family — biggest nightmare.
Rajab has been at the heart of Bahrain’s revolution since the 1990s, when the gulf state first revolted against its monarchy. Since then, he has seen his role grow from a small-time revolutionary fighting for migrant workers’ rights to the face of the Bahrain’s uprising.
“I think the situation has to change [on the] ground. We have to achieve democracy. We have to achieve justice, that we are fighting for many years, and that [requires] people to be on the ground and those people on the ground… maybe they’ll face difficult circumstances.” –Nabeel Rajab
But Rajab’s role in Bahrain’s uprising has come with a costly price; a price most wouldn’t be willing to pay.
He served two years of his three-year prison sentence between 2011 and 2013, and has been subject to violent harassment by government officials. Whether it’s slanderous articles in pro- government newspapers or torture at the hands of police, Rajab has witnessed it all.
On July 15th, 2005, Rajab was beaten by armed forces while attending a peaceful demonstration, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Subsequently, he was hospitalized for two weeks with a spinal injury and a fractured arm. During his time in prison, Rajab was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card. In an interview with Vice Magazine, he commented on a proposal indirectly presented to him by the British embassy:
“Even the British Embassy in Bahrain asked my lawyers, if I can guarantee them I can keep quiet, they will work to my release.” – Nabeel Rajab
It wouldn’t be unfair for a person in Rajab’s position to have accepted the offer. The idea of masked men storming his home in the early hours of the morning and ushering him to a detention centre is a real possibility. He couldn’t be called a coward for fleeing Bahrain and keeping his family’s well-being in mind. But that is what separates Rajab from most men and women. He isn’t only concerned with his family’s well-being. He is concerned with the well- being of an entire nation:
“I don’t bargain in the values and principles I am fighting for.” –Nabeel Rajab
Even with his thick accent and, at times incomprehensible English, one thing is clear: Rajab isn’t frightened by Bahraini authorities’ harsh intimidation techniques.
Rajab’s unwavering belief in something greater than himself is what drives his passion for human rights advocacy.
It’s the same belief that gave him strength while serving two years in prison. It’s the same belief that reassures him that staying in Bahrain amidst political chaos is the best thing for his countrymen and women.
The persistent drive Rajab exhibits is the same drive and passion you’ll find in all the great social activists of the past century, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Gandhi.
Realizing that your visions can benefit people otherwise beyond your reach is a powerful motivator. It’s harder to quit when people are depending on you. In Rajab’s case, an entire nation’s marginalized and oppressed people turn to him at their weakest, knowing that he will remain in Bahrain to fight for them.
The question now becomes: Are the things you believe in impacting people other than you and your immediate circle? Are you doing what it takes to make them a reality?
Next time you feel like giving up, look beyond yourself and see how your actions can positively impact those around you. It might just be the push you need to keep going.
Image Credit: Amnesty International