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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Filtering by Tag: Bahrain

Exploring Criminal Justice and Colonialism in Bahrain

Nickie Phillips

Bahraini policewomen on the eve of the country's independence from Britain (1971; Photo: Bahrain Weekly)

In Bahrain, the criminal justice system we see today is a direct result of the colonial encounter -- a situation not acknowledged enough in current scholarship, and in desperate need of a critical voyage to the imperial archives.

Staci Strobl, Co-founder Crimcast

Eight years ago, when I was conducting an ethnography of Bahraini policewomen, I attempted to refer to secondary sources as to the criminal justice history of the small country, particularly regarding the development of policewomen.  Unfortunately, I found only sanitized, un-critical sources that picked up at a colonial moment as if nothing strange or disruptive had ever happened before that, for naturally a European-style criminal justice system, complete with bureaucratic forms to handle a "gender problem," was completely sensible in this distant land.

The field of comparative criminal justice remains under-developed relative to other criminal justice endeavors.  The last decade has seen a proliferation of encyclopedic volumes designed to fill in the descriptive gap, but detailed analytical pieces, particularly from non-western countries which are sufficiently historically contextualized, remain scant.  Bahrain is no exception.

To augment my ethnographic data, I made my way to the Historical Documents Center in Riffa', Bahrain and poured through colonial documents in order to uncover the policing past. 

Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifah, ruler of Bahrain from 1961-99

In the end, I was left with the historian's task (though I am not a trained historian) of interpreting some ambiguous and contradictory claims in primary sources by various important actors of the day from the

Al-Khalifah royal family to the political consultant from the 1920s-50s, Sir Charles Belgrave. Policewomen were a British legacy of gender liberalism at the time of de-colonization, I argued, but were palpable to local Bahrainis as a means of serving conservative populations who appreciate traditional sex segregation.

Along the way, I vowed to one day be the more general criminal justice historian I needed for my then-specific, ethnographic mission.  It has taken several years to get around to the task, but this year I will be spending enough time in England to follow up on the many interesting threads first encountered in the Bahrain historical center, having time to review the vernacular file of the India Office records of the British Library (Bahrain was administered under the India Office during the early 20th century).

Charles-Belgrave2

We take as natural that police should have uniforms, that punishment should involve concrete cages called prisons, that judges should sit at benches in standing courts.  But in non-European contexts this was often not the indigenous way of maintaining social order and punishing deviance.  Max Weber callously maligned the palm tree justice of the Arab world, but in fact, in the Arabian Gulf it was an effective method for maintaining the peace in the wake of fluid tribal alliances and shifting economic endeavors.  The qadi under the tree, eclipsed by Belgrave's push to "rationalize" Bahraini justice, had political and religious legitimacy that could never be replaced by the modern colonial machine-- a machine that remains contested today in the Arab spring.

The seeds of today's opposition in Bahrain stem from colonial days.  Patterns of police employment of Sunni individuals over Shi'a were cemented in the late colonial period as punishment for Shi'a involvement in the National Union Committee and earlier revolutionary attempts, buffeted by head of the British colonial police in Bahrain and later State Security (1966-97), Ian Henderson (linked to police torture of Shi'a activists).  The political cache of hiring outside consultants-- Belgrave and Henderson then and John Yates and John Timoney more recently-- stem from the early 20th century rival Gulf monarchies' boasts of powerful foreign friends.  Playing up an overblown Iranian threat is a at least hundred-year old trope that the West swallows over and over again.

Ian Henderson, British police consultant to Bahrain linked to torture (photo: The Telegraph)

The Al-Khalifah royal family and advisors like Belgrave made very concrete political decisions throughout the 20th century that unraveled the fabric of traditional means of maintaining order and achieving justice.  It was disruptive to social and political relations as they had been operating for centuries previous, not a natural or teleological development as many mainstream scholars have assumed.

My archival research at the British Library and at University of Exeter will hopefully help to uncover what existed before the colonial experience and how it was eclipsed.  I hope to better document from whence Bahrain criminal justice came-- at least in the way that it may have been understood and misunderstood by British political agents.

It is here, though, that one often uncovers indigenous voices that have been lost in the paperwork-- testimonies of elder tribespeople, oral laws written down at a certain colonial period of time, etc.  But can an understanding of the old ways, themselves fluid and changing over time, be recovered?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is certainly right to haunt us with the notion that all this historical

Bahrain court sketch from the trial of 21 opposition movement leaders in June of 2011 (www.twentyfoursevennews.com)movement leaders in June of 2011 (www.twentyfoursevennews.com)

back-tracking just leads us to the brick wall of a "tearing of time" in which the colonial encounter in all its "docketing" of the cultural and political threads ends up obscuring that which existed before it.  Or, in the word of Homi Bhabha, we cannot begin to make sense of an “imperial aporia” that described indigenous lacunae through a very thick and cloudy lens of colonial paternalism.

All of this seems like a very tall order for four months of research abroad, but perhaps all such endeavors start off exalted and then whittle themselves down to bite-size pieces.  In any case, it will be a bit of geek-joy to sit in the British library with old, colonial letters, and ponder a time gone by.

Series on archival research in criminal justice

This is the fifth in a 5-part series appearing throughout 2013 focusing on the often game-changing discoveries that come out of archival work in the realm of police, courts, and corrections.  The other four parts can be found here:

“The People Want the Reform of the Regime!”: Sectarianism and Protest Movements in the Arabian Gulf

Nickie Phillips

Toby-Matthiesen-Photo (2)

Crimcast spoke with Toby Matthiesen, Research Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge (England) and author of Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t(2013). His book presents a detailed account of the protest movements in the Gulf Arab monarchies of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia in the last few years, explaining how the movements formed, what they hoped to achieve, and why they have been unsuccessful in creating substantial reform or regime change. In particular, the book focuses on Gulf governments’ use of Shi’a and Sunni sectarian political tension to shore up the status quo and delegitimize the potential for change.  

You describe a “new sectarianism” that has emerged alongside the Arab spring movements. What do you mean by this?

This new sectarianism spread around the region since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the sectarianism unleashed to counter the Arab Spring, by regimes in the Gulf, in Syria, and elsewhere, has reached new levels and has become worse than ever. States now think strategically in sectarian terms, and social bonds in many mixed Middle Eastern societies have broken down almost completely.

"The people want the reform of the regime!" was a chant repeated in the Pearl Roundabout during the Bahrain Spring movement in February 2011.  You were on the ground during many of the demonstrations in Bahrain in early 2011. What impressed you most about the Bahrainis who took to the streets to demand human rights and democracy in their country?

That the movement was initially very peaceful, and that it seemed to try to be as inclusive as possible, crossing sectarian and generational boundaries. And that people dared to defy power and risk their lives just to show that they wanted to live under a different political system.

Of particular interest to Crimcast is the role of police and security forces in suppressing the movements. What did you witness of the government crackdown?

photo (2)

Particularly in Bahrain, the role of the security forces was key. Much of the security apparatus consists of foreign mercenaries, particularly South-East Asians or other Arabs, and as such are totally dependent on and loyal to their patrons in the country, the royal family. This make-up of the Bahraini security forces is a historical product of Bahrain's position within the British empire, and a pre-emptive strategy of making Bahrain secure against army coups (as outlined recently by Strobl and Louër in two very informative articles) .

What were some of the criminal charges and punishments meted out for opposition figures in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia? Are any of the opposition figures still imprisoned today?

The charges range from insulting the ruler, to spreading rumors on social media, inciting hatred, undermining national security, and conspiring with foreign powers, and they are all spelled out in very Orwellian terms. The discourse directed against dissenters and opposition groups in the Gulf has become increasingly totalitarian, with "others" being described as "filth", a "fifth column", or "malicious elements". Sadly, much of this language is addressed against the local Shia Muslims, and has become mixed up with derogatory religious hate-speech.

Across the Gulf, opposition figures have been put in jail, most notably in Bahrain, where a so-called "cell of 21" opposition leaders has been convicted, some of them to life sentences, for inspiring the uprising in 2011.

What has changed since the Arab spring movements began? Will they ultimately be successful or have they stalled?

The outcomes of the Arab spring are still unpredictable. But it is quite clear that the language of politics in the Middle East has changed, probably forever, and governments will eventually have to come to terms with this. At the moment it looks like the counter-revolution has gained the upper hand, in Egypt, Syria, and the Gulf, but the processes that have been set in motion are not going to be stopped from one day to the other, and street politics has already become the most powerful force in Arab politics.

What are you working on these days? Will we see more from you about Gulf social justice and political change?

I am working on a political history of the Shia in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a book that is based on my PhD dissertation. Thereafter, I want to work on the Gulf in the Cold War era, and the history of the leftist and Arab nationalist movements in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula.

Toby Matthiesen is a Research Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College, at the University of Cambridge. He has published in The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Middle East Journal, and Middle East Report, and has done extensive fieldwork in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. He previously worked as a Gulf Consultant for the International Crisis Group.