Maryam al Khawaja's Perilous Journey Home

An interview with the exiled Bahraini activist, who recently visited the restive island nation for the first time in two years.

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Smoke rises as forces from Gulf Cooperation Council countries move in to Pearl Square to evacuate anti-government protesters in the Bahraini capital of Manama on March 16, 2011. (Hamad al Mohammed/Reuters)

The protest movements that have swept the Arab world since December of 2010 have posed a series of big-picture dilemmas for the U.S. and the West, chief among them the conflict between strategic self-interest, and the abstract principles that can give shape and meaning to self-interest while sometimes running totally counter to it. In no place has the strategy-versus-principle trade-off been so stark or transparent as in Bahrain, where a still-ongoing anti-regime uprising began in February of 2011.

The protest movement, which has called for both "national self-determination" and regime change at various points, threatens a government that the U.S. believes to be indispensable to its regional interests. Relations between the Sunni monarchy and the island nation's Shiite majority have always been tense in Bahrain -- but it's also home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. Even as tanks rolled through the streets of Manama, the U.S. carefully refrained from doing anything to jeopardize its relationship with the ruling Khalifa family -- and with it, perhaps, American naval superiority in the Persian Gulf. 

The Bahrain uprising was even more worrying for the island's fellow Gulf monarchies, a traditionally Western-aligned and oil-rich rock of stability in an unpredictable Middle East. Some believed the uprising threatened to upend the Persian Gulf's fragile sectarian balance, turning a stable, pro-West Sunni state into a more radical, Iran-allied Shiite one, a position most famously and controversially articulated in a New York Times column by Council on Foreign Relations contributor Ed Husain. And while it was one thing for Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to watch nationalist tyrants like Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gaddafi fall from power, losing one of "their own" was a step too far. On March 14th, 2011, a coalition of soldiers from Gulf militaries entered Bahrain, quelling the bulk of the trouble. The Khalifa family, in a show of confidence, reinstated the island's annual Formula One race in April of 2012, after being cancelled the year before.

The Egyptian, Libyan and Syrian protest movements have earned both rhetorical and material encouragement from the outside world. In contrast, the aspirations of the Bahraini people are still conditioned on the hard realities of regional power politics.

But the uprising never went away. And it certainly never ended for Maryam al Khawaja, the 25-year old acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (she became de facto head of the organization when Nabeel Rajab, the permanent president, was arrested in April of 2012). She is the daughter of Dr. Abdulhadi al Khawaja and sister of Zainab al Khawaja, who each played an important role in catalyzing the protest movement. Maryam's dual Bahrain-Danish citizenship allowed her to leave the country and continue her family's work, enabling her to likely remain the most prominent Bahraini human rights activist living outside the country. 

Three weeks ago, al Khawaja returned to Bahrain at great personal risk. On February 8th, I spoke with her via Skype, from her home base in Copenhagen, about what she saw in her home country -- about whether recent attempts at dialogue between the Palace and the protest movement are working, and whether she believes the island is on the brink of even greater violence and instability. And we talked about why she would want to return to Bahrain, where a long prison sentence -- or worse -- could have been waiting for her. (note: the interview has been edited for length and clarity).

Why did you go back, knowing everything that could happen to you as soon as you stepped off the plane?

When I made the decision to go back I knew that there was a possibility I would be denied entry. I also knew there was a possibility I would be arrested at the airport. And there was chance that I would just be taken for interrogation. But I knew that because it would be such good PR for the Bahraini government to let me go in and out without any problems--I knew that was a possibility as well.

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What made the risk worthwhile?

I think it was several things. I needed to coordinate our work on the ground, especially given that my two colleagues were in prison at the time I made the decision to go. But also because I wanted to see my family, which I had not been able to do during the two years that I was abroad, as well as my father and uncle, who are in prison.

Are your father and uncle being held under humane or legal conditions, from what you could see?

Right now specifically they've just started a hunger strike. My father's been on hunger strike since Saturday. It was a bit strange seeing them because both my father and uncle have been subjected to torture since their arrest, and both of their arrests were very violent. I didn't really know what to expect. But despite seeing some physical changes in them -- for example with my father you can see the mark on his face where his jaw was broken -- their spirits were actually the same as the people I'd left behind two years ago. And it was very uplifting to see that they may have had their bodies broken, but the government has not been able to break their spirits.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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