The protests in Bahrain will outlast the Grand Prix

No, this certainly isn’t live.

Earlier today, as I flipped through the channels on my TV in my hotel room in Amman, I came across Bahrain TV. The show was on antique sports cars. Old Chevys, Pontiacs and Fords were cruising down the streets of Bahrain under cloudless skies. Amidst the violence taking place in the streets at that moment, it could not have been a sadder contrast to the events of the past few days. My Twitter feed painted a more accurate picture of the reality in the tiny island nation: thousands of people taking to the streets in protest, one man killed, and police throwing teas gas and firing bird shot into crowds. 

The protests have swelled in magnitude over the past few days, a result of the staggeringly insensitive and ignorant decision on behalf of Formula One (and the government of Bahrain) to plough ahead with the Bahrain Grand Prix. F1’s boss Mr. Ecclestone repeatedly said that sports has no place in politics. He is wrong, and the events of the past few days have conclusively shown this. As Robert Fisk rightly points out, “The days have gone when sportsmen and sportswomen can dissociate themselves from the moral values in which we claim to believe in the 21st century.” Those values – which unquestioningly deserve to be universal ones – are at a minimum a respect for human dignity, the respect for life, the obligation to prevent suffering and the renunciation of all forms of violence. All of these are being compromised as the race goes on.

I don’t hate Formula 1 racing. I haven’t really thought about it much in the past several years, but I used to be an avid enthusiast of the sport when I was younger. In fact, back in 1990, I was a security guard at the finish line during the Montreal Grand Prix. When Ayrton Senna zoomed to victory, the crowd went mad and started to pour onto the tracks. I was so excited it took me a moment to remember I had to prevent the crowds from doing that.

It looks like the race will take place as planned April 22. Despite this, the global outrage at F1’s choice will likely last well beyond the end of the race. As Kevin Eason of the Times tweeted, “Whatever happens in  this weekend, F1 has underlined its unenviable image as amoral and greedy.” Maybe that will mean something in the future. I hope.

The race is a temporary focal point that is bringing global attention to a government that has systematically shrugged off its commitment to reform, despite assurances to the contrary after an independent commission reached its conclusions last fall (the full report is here). The death of protester Salah Habib Abbas last night is being treated as a homicide and is under investigation, but if it’s shown that he died at the hands of police, it will be another painful reminder that the crackdown against protesters will continue, regardless of the national and international criticisms levelled at the government.

The crowds taking to the streets will not dissipate, even after the F1 drivers and tourists leave Bahrain. The situation with the jailed hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja will reach a boiling point soon. He’s refused water and intravenous fluids, and after 73 days, he will either die soon or be released. With the appeal of his life sentence set for the day after the race, it seems unlikely that freedom will be granted so easily to a man who has suffered so much. But knowing him the way I do, he won’t back down: it will be either freedom or death. Either way, the people on the streets protesting will only come out in greater numbers and will only speak out more loudly with each passing day. 

The crowds are growing both physically and virtually. Earlier this morning I took a closer look at the people who have followed me on Twitter in the past month. Almost all are likely from Bahrain, their usernames a candid reflection of their aspirations: FreeAlKhawaja, Feb14, Bahraini protest, freedom4bahrain, oppressed_bh; the list goes on. They are most likely the same people who have taken to the streets and are finally saying “enough” and looking to spaces like Twitter for solidarity and the hope that someone is listening to them; they want to know that other people care. I wrote a short message to Nabeel Rajab, a tireless human rights leader in Bahrain. In it, I expressed my solidarity, and did not expect him to reply – he’s got more pressing issues to deal with. He wrote back, “Thanks brother and hope to meet some time soon.” I hope so too.

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