In all the coverage of the freedom protests in Bahrain, a certain word beginning with the letter 'A' has been strikingly absent.
I don't mean 'autocratic.' Nor 'authoritarian.' Both of those have been invoked, and rightly so.
I refer to the word 'apartheid.' The Afrikaner term for 'separateness,' apartheid prevailed in South Africa from 1948 until 1993, when that country was under white minority rule.
While apartheid as a system was snuffed out in South Africa, it has survived as a descriptor that is deployed, in the main, by the bitterest detractors of Israel, but is arguably more relevant in the case of another Middle Eastern country: Bahrain.
It's always worth recalling what the original model of apartheid involved. In South Africa, 90 percent of the population was composed of non-whites (blacks in the main, but also mixed race and Indian communities) who were disenfranchised and deprived of fundamental human and civil rights.
Through such measures as the Group Areas Act (1950), the Bantu Education Act (1953), the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953), the Suppression of Communism Act (1950), and the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949), the apartheid regime micromanaged the lives of its subjects on the basis of their skin color. Under apartheid, it was the law that determined where blacks could live, what they could study, which seats they could occupy on public transport, what they could say or write publicly, with whom they could share a bed or marry.
It was this reliance on law that made apartheid South Africa peculiar. Discrimination is a feature of most countries, but very few enshrine it within a legal framework.
In Bahrain, where 70 per cent of the population is Shi'a, and power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of the Sunni minority, the constitution speaks of equality -- formally, then, it's very different to apartheid South Africa. Yet when it comes to actual practice, the similarities are striking, as this report from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) makes painfully clear.
Residency rights, for example, are at least partly determined by ethnic origin. The report discusses "one of Bahrain's largest district, Riffa," which occupies "more than 40 percent of Bahrain land, in which a majority of the members of ruling family reside." Shi'a and some Persian origin Sunnis, the report continues, are prohibited from living there. A Reuters report last October highlighted a related problem: the 53,000 Shi'a who have been denied government housing because of their origin, some for as long as 20 years.
It's a similar story in the labor market. "Employment in government bureaus does not follow a clear and specific standard, but is governed by family and sectarian connections," the BCHR report says, pointing out that the Shi'a majority occupies, at most, 18 percent of the top jobs in government. When it comes to unemployment, 95 percent of those without jobs are Shi'a.
Do these facts about discrimination in Bahrain add up to apartheid? A sober analysis based on the understanding of apartheid as a system, rather than a pejorative term to be thrown at those you don't like, would conclude that the overlap is hardly precise. At the same time, there is no arguing against the claim that Bahrain is a society where inequality is ethnically rooted, and then buttressed by the denial of civic and political freedoms.
Bahrain is not the only Arab country where minorities rule over majorities: Syria is another, as was Iraq under Saddam Hussein. In none of these cases has the word "apartheid" ever been uttered. Those South Africans, such as Bishop Desmond Tutu, who have eagerly franchised the word in the case of Israel have been absolutely silent when it comes to Arab parallels. And believe me, it's not because they are worried about social scientific rigor.
This lack of a consistent, trained spotlight on countries like Bahrain, and the absence of a chorus of luminaries ready to denounce each of its repressive actions in colorful, emotive language, is one reason why the rest of the world has only now discovered that there has long been a thirst for freedom in the Middle East. If that heralds a final break with the platitudes and double standards that characterize the voguish, "anti-imperialist" discourse about the region, so much the better.