Two political activists from Bahrain described their fight for social justice and called on students to help bring democracy to the Middle East at the Marvin Center Amphitheater Thursday night.
The activists were hosted by Students Defending Democracy, a student organization striving to educate Americans about the threat of terrorism and promote democratic ideals. One of the speakers, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, is president of a grassroots human-rights organization in Bahrain and a fugitive from the Bahraini government. The other speaker was Dr. Salah Al-Bander, secretary-general of the Gulf Centre for Democratic Development, who lives in political exile from Bahrain.
Bahrain is an Arab island kingdom off the coast of Saudi Arabia.
Both speakers touched on the issue of terrorism, but talked mostly about the phenomenon in the context of American failures in the Middle East. Alkhawaja and Al-Bander said U.S. ties to the ruling families of many Arab states and its failure to support democratic reforms as the main motivating factors behind terrorist attacks. They added that these factors have caused widespread animosity towards America throughout the region.
“It’s not because (the terrorists) hate the United States,” Al-Bander said. “They feel that America kept silent at times when they were fighting for their rights and instead supported the oppressive regimes who were denying rights.”
Al-Bander said many Arab people turn to terrorism after being discouraged from expressing the problems they are having in a less violent way.
Alkhawaja said he is confident true reform will be achieved in his lifetime, but more American support is needed.
“The United States is losing the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East by supporting dictators that act contrary to the people’s needs.” he said.
Living in and out of prison for the past two decades, Alkhawaja is no stranger to the consequences of fighting the government. Bahraini authorities incarcerated him Feb. 2 when they discovered he was planning a trip to D.C. to deliver a lecture on political reform in Bahrain at the American Enterprise Institute.
Alkhawaja said he was freed only after widespread public protests following the arrest. The Bahraini government’s charges of political crimes include insulting the king, inciting hatred against the regime and an intention to change the governing system of the country. Upon return to Bahrain, Alkhawaja faces up to 16 years in prison.
“I know the trial will be unfair, and I could go to jail for a long time, but we will keep fighting because it is the only way to bring about change and promote human rights and democracy not only in Bahrain, but all over the world,” Alkhawaja said.
In 1989, Alkhawaja founded the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and now serves as its president. Although government officials have closed the center many times, it still works to promote democratic reform in Bahrain. The government has also blocked the center’s Web site.
Al-Bander, an African-Arabian, worked underground for 16 years researching human rights violations in Bahrain before being deported by the Bahraini government. He said Middle Eastern issues are not fully understood in America.
“Things going on in the Middle East are more complex than those in Washington perceive them to be,” he said.
Al-Bander said that democracy is a worthy goal, but not a cure-all for problems in the Middle East.
“We are in a catch-22,” Al-Bander said. “We try to achieve things like a one-person, one-vote system, and then you look at what happened in Palestine.”
In Palestine’s recent democratic election, Hamas, which is recognized by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, was the majority party.
Laura Graham, co-chair of Students Defending Democracy, said she was humbled by the speakers’ presence, especially Alkhawaja, who faces jail time upon return to Bahrain. “We just organize events to promote democracy; this man is sacrificing his life for it,” she said.
Sophomore Jennie Leftwich hoped the two activists’ stories would help students understand the Middle East.
“So many Americans are only somewhat aware of what’s going on,” she said. “Unfortunately, they don’t take the time to learn about the issue and understand it. They just listen to what they hear on the news.”