Bahrain may not be Syria, but that’s no reason for activists to turn a blind eye

David Wearing writes: A violent crackdown on a broad-based, pro-democracy movement is, with the best will in the world, never going to be the easiest thing to defend. Nor is the staging of a major international sporting event in the country in question, when the regime is obviously going to try to use that event to help launder its reputation in the eyes of the world. Still, it remains inevitable that, when power and profit are at stake, the indefensible will be loudly defended. So it proved with last month’s Bahrain Grand Prix.

One recurring theme in the efforts to deflect criticism of the race was the line that there are worse places than Bahrain. Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, the regime’s foreign minister, tweeted: “If any here to cover ugly bloody confrontations, go to syria. Here we have a grand Prix to enjoy”. Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone advised journalists to “Go to Syria and write about those things because it’s more important than here”.

Even David Cameron, while dodging the question of whether the race should proceed and making the standard noises about the importance of Britain’s ally undertaking political reforms, echoed the line when he said: “I think we should be clear: Bahrain is not Syria.”

The retort from Ecclestone and the Bahraini foreign minister, that worse things are happening elsewhere, also happens to be a favourite of the Israeli state and its defenders. A week before the Bahrain Grand Prix, activists arriving in Israel to protest about its treatment of the occupied Palestinians were presented with a letter from the prime minister’s office, noting that they had not chosen to protest against the Syrian or Iranian regimes, or against Hamas’s rule in Gaza, but instead had chosen “the Middle East’s sole democracy, where women are equal, the press criticizes the government, human rights organizations can operate freely, religious freedom is protected for all and minorities do not live in fear”.

Activists and journalists who draw attention to Israeli human rights abuses are by now well accustomed to hearing this argument being made, sometimes with the accompanying insinuation that Israel is being “singled out” for more sinister reasons. It is interesting to see this rhetorical device being employed in both these situations, and of course, fairly obvious problems apply in each case. [Continue reading…]

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