Human rights groups across the Arab world are rallying to the defense of Ali Abdulemam, an influential online journalist who has been imprisoned by the government of his native Bahrain, a tiny oil-rich nation on the Arabian peninsula. His arrest for spreading "false information" is widely seen as retaliation for his criticism of the government and part of a broader move in Bahrain to crack down on dissent. Middle Eastern journalists and advocacy groups, the informal leaders of the Arab liberal grassroots movement that has struggled to make itself heard in a region known for autocratic rulers and religious conservatism, now face the latest in a series of tests of their influence.
The conflict is escalating quickly, with the government responding to the pressure from activist groups by clamping down even harder. The Bahrain Human Rights Society reports that the government has seized the group and replaced its chief with a friendly "administrator." Arab human rights groups will probably not win this one on their own; they are simply unable to force the government, which is too authoritarian for civil society organizations to persuade or pressure, to release Abdulemam. As liberal Arab groups reach out to ideological counterparts in the West, such as Human Rights Watch, the U.S. faces an opportunity to make good on President Barack Obama's otherwise mixed Muslim outreach efforts.
As Middle Eastern journalists and advocacy groups (such as the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information) protest Bahrain's behavior and call for Abdulemam's release, the U.S.-based American Islamic Congress is working to get the U.S. involved. Civil Rights Outreach Director Nasser Weddady says the group, which has offices in Washington and Boston as well as Cairo and Basra, is working with U.S. State Department officials in the hopes that they will "issue clear statements demanding Bahrain frees Ali Abdulemam" and will "actively pressure Bahraini authorities" on civil liberties issues. "We are also talking to several Congressional leaders and asking them to issue statements in support of the US stated policy of supporting reformers and demand that Bahrain release Ali as a token of their friendship with the United States."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is unlikely to call for Abdulemam's release anytime soon for a number of reasons: because it would enrage the Bahraini government, which allows the U.S. to dock its strategically crucial Fifth Fleet in Bahrain's ports; because it would antagonize a number of important regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who are facing their own left-wing dissent, at a time when the U.S. needs their help in isolating Iran and encouraging Israel-Palestine peace; and because it risks undermining liberal Arab groups by making them overly reliant on U.S. help and marring them as American pawns.
However, a small nudge to Bahrain from a mid-level U.S. official, even after weeks or more of letting Middle East groups build pressure, could strengthen the liberal Arab movement while minimizing backlash. Clinton's State Department followed this model in Mauritania, where journalist Hanevy Ould Dahah was imprisoned for nine months, then released the day after the U.S. embassy issued a two-paragraph statement asking Mauritania to "respect due process." In the meantime, the best thing the U.S. can do is quietly direct international attention to the work of liberal Arab journalists and human rights advocates. Recognition legitimizes their work and their role in Middle Eastern society. Cooperation between those groups and their American counterparts strengthens the cultural bond between Western and Middle Eastern people.
At some point, growing activist groups and the civil society they represent could become strong enough to pressure regional governments on their own. But these governments are not accustomed to bending for such internal movements, and it will take time for the state and civil society to develop a give-and-take relationship. In the meantime, careful and public U.S. pressure can help establish a precedent of dialogue and cooperation between government leaders and rights groups. The case of Abdulemam is a perfect example and golden opportunity. If the U.S. helps to secure his release but allows the Arab liberal groups to lead the charge, they will have empowered and legitimized those groups and their ability to influence the state.
Once strengthened, we cannot know exactly how civil rights organizations will behave. Just as with their American counterparts, such as the ACLU or NRA, we will not always be happy with their policy choices. But the existence of a strong and independent civil society is ultimately always a net gain for the U.S. It increases peaceful participation in politics, making the government more responsive to popular will and less likely to abuse its power. It provides a constructive outlet for anti-government sentiment, reducing the appeal of violence or extremism. It promotes from within the Middle East we want but have been unable to force into being.
As many pundits in the U.S. debate the prevalence of "moderate Muslims"--a somewhat misleading phrase that assumes peacefulness and rationality are less common among Muslims than adherents of other religions--the campaign for Abdulemam is an important reminder that the Arab world boasts a liberal grassroots movement with the same goals and methods of its Western counterpart. Watching American pundits argue about the Cordoba Center or Terry Jones' Koran-burning, one gets the impression that Muslims are divided between tolerable "moderates" and anti-American extremists, potential terrorists and terrorists, and that anything so much as an isolated book-burning will surely push them across the thin line dividing the two groups. Meanwhile, in actual Muslim nations across North Africa and the Middle East, a generation of liberal Islamic activists are peacefully fighting and sacrificing against difficult odds in pursuit of Western-style freedom and democracy.
The liberal Arab movement doesn't need us to explain Jeffersonian values to them, and they know as well we do the threat of violent extremism. But they do need help in their struggle against the region's authoritarian regimes, which--despite popular U.S. perceptions of the region--are primarily concerned with maintaining their own power, not with theology. Many of those governments, especially Arabian peninsula states such as Bahrain, rely heavily on the U.S. for security. A nudge from the State Department can push these states to tolerate or even accommodate their growing internal liberal movements. In addition to being a simple matter of human rights, the organic growth of democratic values in the Arab world can do as much for U.S. national security as any number of drone strikes or Muslim-American inclusion efforts.
Image: One of many supporter-generated images, calling for Ali Abdulemam's release, that are circulating on social networks. From Facebook.com.