The horrible manner in which Ahmed Farhan, a 29-year-old Bahraini youth, met his death, as seen in a spine-chilling video clip on Youtube, tells of why there should be an immediate stop to the use of brutal firepower against peaceful protesters in the Middle East.
Farhan was shot in the head from a helicopter, the bullet splitting his skull and dividing his brain into segments like an orange. A doctor at the scene had to hold together the four parts of Farhan's head in his hands so as to put him to rest and give his corpse a semblance of normality. Watching the video clip could give viewers nightmares for days. Such brutal action by the state is inhuman and sheer arrogance of power.
The various characteristics of unrest across the Middle East show the difference of manner with which the regimes are responding to protests. Unlike Egypt, the governments of Yemen, Bahrain and Libya have employed brutal firepower to silence the peaceful protesters. The more authoritarian and stronger a regime, the more aggressive and brutal its treatment of protesters.
So we have to ask why, after implementing a no-fly zone in Libya, have Western powers not done the same in Yemen and Bahrain, which are also engaged in brutal violence against their citizens; why this discrimination?
Furthermore, Turkey, the foremost democracy in the Muslim world and a Nato ally, was not invited to the Paris talks on Libya. To enforce a no-fly zone in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, a southward-partnered coalition comprising countries such as Turkey, Egypt, South Africa, Brazil, and India would have been a more credible international operation.
All the protests in the Middle East have the same objectives, being based on a desire for freedom, democracy, human and food security and gender equality - the very values the West supports. So why this discrimination in the West's response? Is it still all about oil and their fear of the "bogeymen", the Islamist Jihadists? Mu'ammar Gadhafi has often changed the nature of his relationship with the West in the last four decades, hence it seems easier to punish him like a naughty child, pampered sometimes with carrots and shown the stick at other times. Gadhafi is not a big liability for the West in the way that the other oil monarchies are, for access to Libyan oil will continue under any Libyan regime.
Since their emergence as post-colonial powers, all the Middle Eastern regimes have destroyed or curbed the rise of opposition, either in the name of Islam or Arab culture. But if Islam is against democracy, then why is it still welcomed and functioning in Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan? And why do most modern Muslim political philosophers see a commensurability between the Quranic advice that Muslims conduct their affairs through mutual consultation (Quran: 42:38), and legislature? If Islam and democracy are incompatible, as claimed by the monarchies and dictatorships, then why are they hiding behind the fig leaf of invented religious and cultural excuses that serve the interests of political elites and their cronies at the cost of their own citizenry? And by the way, the early caliphs of Islamic polity were no monarchs.
At the present juncture, it seems that the oil monarchies of the Gulf will not go down easily, and nor are they ready for genuine political change. They refuse to become constitutional monarchies, instead employing religio-political rhetoric emphasising that they are still searching for an Islamic model based on their culture. This is turning a blind eye to/ignoring centuries of Islamic political philosophy in which Muslim political thinkers have vigorously argued for shura - a consultative model for Islamic political functioning. Nor are they ready to opt for public referenda to determine what type of political set-up their populaces want. It seems strange that in this day and age when several regimes have been toppled or succumbed to people power, the oil monarchies are not ready for a civilian political option - that they can go scot-free with no international repercussions.
Furthermore, when two of my previous articles for The Nation cited the above-mentioned countries as examples of Muslim democracies, I received nearly identical responses from several Western readers. They hold that these Muslim democracies are "not democratic enough" from the point of view of Western liberal political philosophy. It must be reiterated here that "democracy" is a contested term. Thailand's democracy has been described as that of a rice-eating people. There are other similar non-Western definitions of democracy, just as there are of secularism. Hence, Muslims are also free to come up with their version of democracy - as long as it adheres to the objectives of open political participation, freedom and accountability.
The emerging Shi'a-Sunni conflict in Bahrain is going to have serious implications for intra-Muslim relations across the Middle East and the world. The rise of Iran after its Islamic revolution of 1979, followed by the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the emergence of Iraq as the first Arab Shi'a state after the American invasion has definitely divided the Middle East into Sunni and Shi'a zones. This development has immense implications for Arab Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Lebanon with their Shi'a minorities. It has divided the Middle East into Sunni and Shi'a zones. The Sunni zone comprises Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states, while the Shi'a zone includes Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This division and the emergence of Shi'a protest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is not only unsettling for the Middle East but will also have repercussions for other Muslim communities in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa and also Southeast Asia. The onset of Sunni-Shi'a tension with potential for conflict and violence as seen before will only complicate the situation, because there is a historical absence of intra-Muslim dialogue amidst mutual Sunni-Shi'a religious distrust.
Amidst all the ongoing bloodshed in the Middle East, the post-Islamist face of the protest which emerged in Tunisia and Egypt led by unemployed youth and the dissatisfied middle-class is being obscured and brutally suppressed by regimes who want to last forever and are not open to the democratic alternative. But the face of the Middle East is changing; it is no longer the "old" Middle East.
It is time to discard the false assumption of Islamic exception to democracy, for the democratic option has never been made available to the Middle Eastern populace, either during the colonial or the post-colonial era. And it seems strange that while in the past it was Islamists who were the targets of state oppression, now it is post-Islamists who are becoming the victims of similar brutal repression. This offers convenient fodder for jihadist propagandists to make their case once again.
Is the cycle repeating itself? Is this the end of the democracy season in the Middle East? Is there a way to end the decades' old post-colonial political morass in the Middle East, or is it always about oil and other interests? Have Ahmed Farhan and thousands of others to die in vain?
Dr Imtiyaz Yusuf is Professor of Islamics and Religion at Assumption University's Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion.