A Thesis submitted to - Utrecht University Repository

Conspiracist Mosaics of Truths in Violence
The Intricate functionality of Conspiracist discourses in
Contemporary Bahrain
Brechtje Soepnel
Utrecht University
Date of Submission: 30 July 2012
A Thesis submitted to
the Board of Examiners
in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of
Master of Arts in Conflict Studies & Human Rights
Name of supervisor: Dr. Jolle Demmers
Date of submission: 30 July 2012
Program trajectory: Research and Thesis Writing only (30 ECTS)
ECTS credits: 30 ECTS
Word count:
Table of Contents:
Acknowledgements............................................................................................................................ iv
Introduction .......................................................................................................................................... 1
Bahrain’s reality and the conspiracist ............................................................................................ 3
Theoretical framework: of politics and portrayals ...................................................................... 4
Research methodology .................................................................................................................... 8
Significance and aims of research ......................................................................................... 8
Selection of materials .............................................................................................................. 9
Limitations and restrictions ................................................................................................. 10
Chapter outline ............................................................................................................................... 11
Chapter I
Who is Killing Whom? – The ‘Other’, the Enemy!......................................................................... 15
The ‘Naturalization Crime’ conspiracy theory........................................................................... 16
Misfortune and accusation ............................................................................................................ 17
The categorical portrayal of the ‘other’ ....................................................................................... 20
From ‘other’ to ‘enemy-other’ ....................................................................................................... 24
One for all and all for one.............................................................................................................. 26
Conclusion ....................................................................................................................................... 28
Chapter II
Who is Killing Whom? – The Victim’s Defense….......................................................................... 31
The ‘Bahraini Hezbollah’ conspiracy theory .............................................................................. 33
The fear and threat of the ‘Safavid’ ............................................................................................... 34
Dangerous imaginings, deadly reality ........................................................................................ 36
Offense in the name of defense..................................................................................................... 38
The ‘sectarianization’ of Bahrain’s conflict ................................................................................. 40
Conclusion: ...................................................................................................................................... 42
Chapter III
Who is Killing Whom? – The Question of Power.......................................................................... 46
The ‘Iranian hidden hand’ conspiracy theory ............................................................................ 47
The capacity to control imagery ................................................................................................... 52
The power of the status quo.......................................................................................................... 55
Conspiracist propaganda .............................................................................................................. 57
The double-edged sword .............................................................................................................. 60
Conclusion ....................................................................................................................................... 61
Conclusion .......................................................................................................................................... 66
Notions of conspiracism’s functionality...................................................................................... 67
Suggestions for further research ......................................................................................... 68
Bahrain and conspiracist mosaics of truth .................................................................................. 69
References ........................................................................................................................................... 73
Appendices ......................................................................................................................................... 80
I wish to express my gratitude to all those who helped and supported me throughout the process of
composing this thesis. There are many to whom I am indebted.
I would like to thank my supervisor Jolle Demmers for sharing her insights with me and for
inspiring me to continue analyzing and writing about the world and its conflicts in my own
I wish to thank all those at the Al Jazeera network, Al Jazeera English, and, above all, the
friendly staff at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies for their endless efforts to help me with my
research and for allowing me to obtain insight into the organization as well as professional
I am particularly grateful for the help offered me by Director General Sheikh Ahmed bin
Jassim Al Thani, Mounir Daymi, Dr Salah Eddin Elzein, Ezzeddine Abdelmoula, Dr. Jamal
Abdullah and Mariam Sharbash.
Additionally, I thank those who took the time to allow me to interview them. I greatly
appreciate their openness and the information they offered during our conversations, which
has proven to be invaluable to this thesis.
Thanks to my friends for their endless support and much needed distractions.
To my parents and sisters who make everything that seems difficult so much easier.
And to Michael, who was there for me every day and without who the idea of writing about
and analyzing the phenomenon of conspiracy theories in Bahrain would probably not have
occurred to me.
“Avoid the wretched talk of mortals, for talk is evil,
lightweight, and very easy to lift, but painful to
carry, and hard to put aside. No talk that many
people make perishes completely. Talk herself is a
kind of goddess”
(Hesiod of Boeotia (Greek poet
and farmer), in Stewart and
Strathern 2001: 53).
“Today we are preparing for the funeral and burial of the
man who was killed the day before yesterday. His burial
is two hours from now”1.
On Friday the 11th of February 2011, Bahrain’s leading Shi’a cleric Sheikh Qassim “discussed
the on-going popular unrest in Tunisia and Egypt and stated that the winds of change in the
Arab world were unstoppable” during one of his Friday sermons (BICI Report 2011: 67). And
indeed, an ever-more persistent wind of change was reaching the shores of the tiny island
nation of Bahrain. In January of 2011, messages calling for demonstrations to achieve
political and socio-economic reform in Bahrain started circulating within Bahrain’s
communities and on social media networks, such as Twitter and Facebook. Like Qassim’s
Friday sermon, these messages too alluded to winds of change in the form of the popular
uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in the context of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ as sources for
motivation and called for persistent but peaceful protest. These calls were heeded
throughout the week after Qassim’s Friday sermon, and finally culminated in a major protest
on the 14th of February. It is estimated that some 6,000 people protested on that day. Most of
the protesters, like the majority of Bahrainis, were Shi’a. Throughout the following days, the
scale of demonstrations increased and protesters installed themselves at the Pearl
Roundabout, ready to stay until reforms were made by the Al khalifa royal family and its
government, and freedom was theirs.
Yet Bahrain’s winds of change, while so adamantly referenced by the protesters and their
religious and community leaders have, in contrast to the revolutions in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt
and other Arab nations, held little real capacity for change. Instead, within days of the
beginning of the protests, protester installed for the night at Pearl Roundabout found
themselves surrounded, evicted and beaten by government security forces at 3:00 am in the
morning of the 17th of February. This was only the beginning of what would culminate into
the Bahraini regime’s persistent and continuous use of force against civilians and the
ultimate attempt to silence popular contention and to restore ‘order’ by seeking support from
the GCC Jazeera Shield Force (also known as the Peninsula Shield Force), which, on the
evening of the 14th of March, crossed from Saudi Arabia into Bahrain (‘Bahrain: Shouting in
the Dark’ 2011; BICI Report 2011: 134,135; Al Arabiya News 14-03-2011). As asserted in the
Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) Report, from the beginning “the GoB
[government of Bahrain] resorted to a heavy deployment of its public security forces to
disperse protesters” (BICI Report 2011: 165).
With such demonstration of military capacity against the people and the imposition of a
National Security Law, Bahrain’s protesters were forcefully silenced, at least for a while.
When the State of National Security was lifted in the summer of 2011, protests re-erupted
and with them Bahrain’s conflict re-emerged. With demonstrations and what is framed as
Author’s interview with Nabeel Rajab, director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, on 23-04-12.
defensive violence continuing on a daily basis and political opposition figures fleeing the
country, resolution of the conflict seems further away now than ever. Indeed, both Bahrain’s
political and social scenes have become ever more polarized with none of the parties
involved willing to make concessions; Bahrain is in a stalemate which isn’t quite painful
enough for the parties to truly negotiatei. As May Ying Welsh, producer of the AL Jazeera
documentary ‘Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark’ asserted during our interview, “the Al
Khalifa’s will not concede power without a fight [and their reforms] are just a little bit of
‘window dressing’. I think that they are incorrigible”2. At the same time, as asserted by Al
Wefaq National Islamic Society (Wefaq), the country’s main opposition party, “the people of
Bahrain announce that they will continue to use street action everywhere as long as [they] do
not have [their] rights and one authority monopolizes administration of the country” (Gulf
Times Newspaper 24-03-12). While in the initial phases of the protest movement calls for
reform were the norm, now people are also demanding the removal of the entire Al Khalifa
family from government. In our interview Matthew Cassel (journalist and photographer)
indicated the increasing volatility and violence of the situation by stating that “protesters
have [since around November last year] resorted to using Molotov Cocktails more often over
the past few months; they are usually used against government or police buildings”3. In this
context of violence, polarization and stagnation, as suggested by Ying Welsh during our
interview, perhaps the only solution for Bahrain is a “50/50 deal” whereby power is split
evenly between the opposition and the Al Khalifa government, the real viability of which,
considering the authoritarian demeanor of the government and the persistent contention of
the people, remains questionable4 ii.
In the volatile, insecure, polarized and violence-infused setting that is now contemporary
Bahrain, copious amounts of narratives about the social reality have surfaced. These
narratives function in an age-old, every-continuing contest over the representation of reality,
a reality found in the discursive portrayal of ‘truths’ -- the truth about the role played by the
various parties to the conflict, about the meaning and nature of events, of symbols and
statements. Essentially, this discursive contest is about the truth of the very nature of the
conflict. In this contest comprised of an ocean of stories about the reality and truth of the
situation in contemporary Bahrain it is the specifically conspiracist nature of some of these
narratives which will be the focus of the analysis presented here. In essence, such
conspiracist narratives convey a discourse centered on a representation of reality by a
conspiracist in terms of a perceived or perceivable conspiracy (genuinely believed in or not)
being plotted against the conspiracist (or others) in secret, with secret aims, by a conspirator.
In this form, conspiracist discourses encompass “the labels and descriptions given to actors,
motives, events, ideologies and places in political conflict”, whereby they construct a certain
portrayal of reality (Demmers and van den Brink n.d.). In their portrayal of reality they
function as unique, telling and, despite their always un-provable and sometimes outrageous
nature, undoubtedly salient manifestations in the contest over names and images –- the
contest over reality. In the context of this contest as it is played out on Bahrain’s discursive
Author’s interview with May Ying Welsh, producer of the Al Jazeera documentary ‘Bahrain:
Shouting in the Dark’, on 22-03-12.
3 Author’s interview with Matthew Cassel, journalist and photographer working in Doha, on 01-04-12.
4 Author’s interview with Ying Welsh, on 22-03-12.
stage in this time of social unrest and violence, the phenomenon of these conspiracist
discourses begs the following question: what specific functions do the various forms of conspiracy
theories and conspiracism serve in the context of the on-going violence and unrest in contemporary
The premise underlying this research question is that discourses like conspiracy theories are
indeed functional human constructions. Particularly in times of violence, history has proven
that words in context can serve as a weapon of war. In their capacity to convey reality
through the attribution of names, labels and images, discourses ultimately dictate and
actually construct a boundary between that which is good and that which is evil. They
proffer a distinction between ultimate right and wrong which applies not only to the present
but also to the future as the present becomes history and memory dictates lessons learnt.
This thesis explores the functions served by conspiracy theories and conspiracism (in the
particular case of Bahrain) which allow such discourses the ultimate function of constructing
history in such dichotomized terms.
Throughout this exploration and analysis I have chosen to take and integrative approach
whereby specific elements of the theoretical framework constructed for this analysis are
combined with selected case study material so as to actively intertwine my theoretical
framework and case study evidence. In accordance with this approach, this introduction
serves to explain the basic concepts and premises underpinning my integrated analysis. I
thus ask the reader to remain patient while I construct the theoretical and conceptual
foundation within which the answer to my research question will be framed. Keeping this in
mind, before further outlining the theoretical framework upon which my analysis of
conspiracy theories and their functions in relation to the case-study of Bahrain is based, I will
first focus on a brief conceptualization of the key notions of conspiracy theories and
Bahrain’s reality and the conspiracist:
The notion of ‘conspiracy theory’, particularly in relation to the Arab World, is a thoroughly
understudied one. The academic materials on conspiracy theories that have been produced
pertain mostly to European or American case-studies. According to Cass R. Sunstein and
Adrian Vermeule these works, of which most are fairly short journal articles and seminal
essays, can be classified into two main categories, the first being those that analyze
conspiracy theories from an epistemological viewpoint, asking “what counts as a ‘conspiracy
theory’” (including works by Brian L. Keeley (1999), Floyd Rudmin (2003) and Svetlana
Boym (1999)) and the second pertaining to those few studies that reflect on the causes of
conspiracy thinking from a Freudian psychology and sociology perspective (such as the key
work by Richard Hofstadter (1964), works by Marina Abalakina-Paap et al (1999) and
Sunstein and Vermeule (2008)) (Sunstein and Vermeule 2008: 2). Of the few works on
conspiracy theories a small selection refers to the link between social conflict (and violence)
and conspiracism. An even smaller portion deals specifically with conspiracy theories in the
Middle East, despite the fact that, as argued by Daniel Pipes, “whoever hopes to understand
the Middle East must recognize the distorting lens of conspiracy theories, understand them,
make allowance for them, and perhaps even plan around them“ (1996: 1)iii.
Rather telling of the lack of academic knowledge and literature on conspiracy theories is the
absence of a concise definition. As asserted by Matthew Gray, a simple definition of the term
‘conspiracy theory’ defines this phenomenon “as a narrative that relates everything to a
single subterranean Plot, promising a comfortingly totalizing allegory that leaves nothing to
chance”. Essentially, as asserted by Gray, “the Plot can be real or imagined and in the more
common situation where it is not real, the paranoia expressed in a conspiracy theory is
important and need not be merely an irrational, delusional rant, since it can draw from, and
signify, genuine and even reasonable political, economic or social concerns” (2010(a): 29). As
such, a conspiracy theory is a narrative about a conspiracy (real or imagined) which can
reflect genuine grievances and social dynamics grounded in the portrayal of a (real or
imagined) threat -- usually a grave if not existential one – and centered on fear of this threat
(Hofstadter 1964, Pipes 1996, and Gray 2010(b)). The practice of such narration should be
seen in relation to the term conspiracism, which is not merely encompassing of “the trend of
developing conspiracy theories but also the use of ‘conspiracy rhetoric’ more generally”
(Gray 2010(b): 6). Another definition of the concept is offered by Pipes, who defines a
conspiracy theory as the non-existent version of the conspiracy where a conspiracy implies
the involvement of “two or more conspirators jointly and secretly aiming to achieve a
prohibited goal” (1996: 6). With this rather vague definition Pipes suggests that the
conspiracy is ‘the real thing’ where the conspiracy theory is simply a theory – a story -- about
the possible existence of this ‘real thing’.
Yet to assert that a conspiracy theory is simply the narrative describing the (real or fictional)
conspiracy is too simplistic. The relationship between the conspiracy and the conspiracy
theory is, in fact, more complex. A conspiracy theory can exist when a conspiracy exists and
when it does not. As such, what exists, what is believed to exist and the story about what
exists are, when it comes to conspiracy theories, separate and not necessarily dependent or
connected variables. In other words, a conspiracy theory can be an independent variable; a
construction created to narrate that which is believed be been in need of narration, regardless
of its actual ‘truth’. As stated by Gray, conspiracy theories can “appear to be sheer fantasy
[or they can be] based on snippets of evidence extrapolated into conclusions drawn from
false logic” (2010 (b): 1). As will become apparent throughout, the conspiracy theories
discussed in this thesis are of the latter form whereby ‘facts’ (e.g. events, figures, images) are
used as evidence around which a conspiracist mosaic of ‘truth’ about reality is constructed.
In their active construction of this mosaic of ‘truth’ conspiracy theories are both the reflector
and the architect of social ‘truths’ and, thereby, reality. In other words, in violent contexts
such as Bahrain, these mosaics do not merely reflect reality in their portrayal of ‘truth’ but
also construct social reality. Essentially, as stated by Boym, a “conspiracy theory can become
a cause of violence, not merely its effect” (1999: 97).
Theoretical framework: of politics and portrayals:
In line with Boym’s assertions and as hinted at above, the analysis of conspiracy theories
presented here is based on the premise that conspiracy theories, like other discursive
practices in the context of violence, both passively illustrate as well as actively create what is
indeed to become known as reality. This notion forms the basis of critical discourse analysis
(CDA) as explicated by, for example, Vivienne Jabri (1996), Ingo W. Schröder and Bettina
Schmidt (2001), Jolle Demmers (2012), Bobby Sayyid and Lilian Zac (1998), David Apter
(1997), Paul Brass (1996) Teun van Dijk (1997, 2008(a), 2008(b)) and Norman Fairclough
(1992, 2001, 2010). In essence, and as stated by Sayyid and Zac, “discourse theorists maintain
that descriptions of the world are the means by which we socially construct reality” (1998:
255). In line with this notion, conspiracy theories as discourses can be seen to simultaneously
play a role in describing and determining the past, present and future reality through
assertions of ‘truths’. As asserted by Jabri, discourses, like conspiracy theories, “do not
merely reflect or mirror objects, events and categories pre-existing in the social and natural
world. Rather, they actively construct a version of those things. They do not just describe
things, they do things. And being active, they have social and political implications” (1996:
94, 95). The same key notion is referenced by Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern in
their discussion of rumors, gossip and witchcraft as discourses in their assertion that “rumor
is performative and prelocutionary: it is speech that produces action” (2004: 182). Seen in this
light, conspiracy theories as discursive creations similar to rumors become powerful tools for
the representation of (a) reality in society as well as for the construction of social reality; they
are a multi-functional weapon of war. Yet it needs to be recognized that discourses like
rumors and conspiracy theories (and the action they produce) do not occur naturally; they
are socially and actively constructed (Fairclough 2010: 4). As social activity, discourse and
society interact and are of mutual importance to the sustenance and nature of one another. In
this sense, discourses like conspiracy theories cannot be analyzed as independent entities;
discourse can only be understood “by analy[zing] sets of [social] relations”. As asserted by
(among others) Fairclough, these relations are dialectical; they are “relations between objects
which are different but not […] discrete, not fully separate in the sense that one excludes the
other” (Fairclough 2010: 3, 4). Essentially, dialectical relations thus compose social activity,
including discourse, whereby, for example, “communities construct their limits; their
relationship to that which they are not or what threatens them; and the narratives which
produce the founding past of a community, its identity, and its projections of the future”
(Sayyid and Zac 1998: 216). In line with these assertions, my approach within the field of
critical discourse analysis can be related to what Fairclough has referred to as the
“transformational model of social activity […] ‘in which the paradigm is that of the sculptor
at work, fashioning a product out of the material and with the tools available’. Social activity
is a form of production or work which both depends upon and transforms the material and
tools available”; in being a form of social activity discourses actively transform, (re-)construct
and thereby do things (2010: 9, Jabri 1996). As such, the study of CDA centers on analysis of
“the dialectical formation and contestation of ‘collective narratives’ […]” (Demmers 2011: 3).
As hinted at above, while they are active and hold a certain transformative power within
society, discourses like conspiracy theories do not have agency in and of themselves. Rather,
as social activity they are produced as social truths based in social meaning by people with
the capacity and (political) will to do so. And it is these truths as produced by people and
manifest in discourses which, in their social meaningfulness and political functionality can
come to serve as a frame of reference, a reality to live and interpret life by for other people, a
reality that holds the potential to transform. Sayyid and Zac assert the same, stating that
“discourse theorists do not claim that things are created simply by uttering words; language
does not create entities. But discourse theorists do maintain that reality is only accessible
through descriptions made in language; and descriptions have to be located in some
signifying process” (1998: 254). Similarly, Jabri states that “discourses are social relations
represented in texts where the language contained within these texts is [specifically] used to
construct meaning and representation” (1996: 94). In other words, discourses like conspiracy
theories construct a frame by which meaning is super-imposed upon a social setting as
representations of reality are communicated and become embedded in society. They
construct a scheme by which events and experiences are understood and interpreted within
society, both in the present and in the future, as they determine right from wrong through
labels, names and descriptions applied to (components of) reality. Such capacity to construct
meaning entails great power, as will be highlighted throughout this thesis and its discussion
of discursive functionality. In line with this, conspiracy theories, as discourses, are in essence
politically functional tools as their capacity to construct a reality based on meaning
construction can be employed to serve a particular socio-political purpose. In fact, in
concurrence with this line of thought, conspiracy theories (like other discourses) can be seen
as a form of politics – a social phenomenon constructed by agents with the power to do so
and aimed at serving a function. In fact, Bhatia refers to discourse in terms of the “politics of
naming”, whereby “names are made, assigned and disputed” in a contested process of
constructing reality (Bhatia 2005:6, 7). A similar notion is encompassed in the concept of
‘politics of portrayal’; a theoretical frame serving to afford insight into not only the ways in
which images and realities are constructed but also into the social functions of such portrayal
(Demmers and van den Brink n.d.). In other words, events, actors, motives, ideologies and
places are given names and labels for a certain reason, as a means to achieve a certain end, or
as a means to a means within a social process involving violence through discourses like the
conspiracy theories in Bahrain.
Simultaneously, discourses themselves are frames of interpretation; while they serve the
function of constructing meaning within society, social meaning enables their construction.
As stated by Erin Steuter and Deborah Wills, the “individuality of interpretation[s of reality]
must be balanced with the recognition that there are dominant tropes which are broadly
shared across a given community […;] long-standing, communal associations of the snake as
something evil, deceptive and deadly will inevitably dominate any reading of the metaphor”
(2009: 11). As such, discursive interpretations of the reality in contemporary Bahrain are
“historically situated practice”; they construct meaning while, at the same time, they depend
on existing frames or structures of meaning for their very construction. While limiting the
playing field of the discourse constructor, this dialectics is precisely what affords discourses
their dangerous power, particularly in times of violence and unrest; they are more than
simply instrumental and functional tools as their inherent dependence on social meaning
entraps them in society and, in a sense, society in them (Schröder and Schmidt 2001: 3). As
Paul A. Silverstein asserts regarding conspiracy theories in the context of the Algerian civil
war, “conspiracy narratives in Algeria should not be viewed as merely functional responses
to the instability of the Algerian civil war, but rather as constituting a potent ingredient of
the conflict itself” (2000: 10). I argue that much the same can be said about conspiracy
theories in Bahrain. Hence, while my analysis of conspiracy theories in Bahrain centers on
the notion of the functionality of discourses, at no point do I wish to assert that conspiracy
theories are merely functional. Evidently, conspiracy theories do not operate in a vacuum of
functionality (Gray 2010(b): 1). Rather, “discourses […] are most powerful when they are
both socially meaningful and politically functional” (Demmers 2012: 14). In fact, I argue that
without the functional power to portray and construct reality (and the inherent political
benefits of this portrayal), and their simultaneous dependence on -- and thereby embedment
of -- already solidified social meaning, discourses like conspiracy theories would and could
not be constructed at all.
What lies at the heart of the analysis of “text in [social and political] context” as described
above is the delicate interplay between the agent and the structures of the society in which
the agent finds itself (van Dijk 1993: 35). Rather than dichotomizing agency and structure as
two ontologically separate and incompatible standpoints, within CDA they are interpreted
as mutually constitutive in what is known as structuration theory. Hereby, neither agency
nor social structures are ontologically prior to one another. Rather, “structuration theory is
concerned with ‘conditions governing continuity or transformation of structures, and
therefore the reproduction of systems’, which in turn are ‘reproduced relations between
actors and collectivities organized as regular social practices’” (Jabri 1996: 3, 4). As such, the
dialectics of conspiracy theories as discourse is centered on both the structures that they
construct and construct them, and the agency of those constructing and employing such
discourses as both functional and meaningful components in the contest over the
representation of reality.
Essentially and as hinted at above, this framework for the analysis of conspiracy theories in
Bahrain is grounded in the concept of frames and frame analysis. As stated by Cramer,
“frames are boundaries around what is observed; they help in identifying patterns among
the data” (2006: 49). They are “schemata of interpretation which render [segments of reality]
meaningful and thereby function as a guide to help organize experience and guide action”
(Benford and Snow 2000: 614). As such, “framing is the construction of social reality”
(Scheufele 1999: 104). According to Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow (2000), frames are
developed around core framing tasks (including diagnostic, prognostic and motivational
framing) as well as “three sets of overlapping processes that can be conceptualized as
discursive, strategic, and contested”. Bahrain’s various conspiracy theories, as discursive
practices and thereby frames, are developed and maintained according to these processes;
the discursive portrayal of reality, the deliberate, purposeful and functional aspect of this
portrayal of reality, and the contest over the portrayal of reality all intertwine within
conspiracist discourses as found in Bahrainiv. Of particular interest to the discussion of
conspiracist discourses as frames is the notion of frame articulation. Within the discursive
process of generating frames, “frame articulation involves the connection and alignment of
events and experiences so that they hang together in a relatively unified and compelling
fashion. Slices of observed, experienced, and/or recorded ‘reality’ are assembled, collated,
and packaged” (Benford and Snow 2000: 623). In other words, bits of evidence or ‘truth’ are
selected form the rubble of experiences (both recent and historical) upon which discourses
are constructed to provide a ‘new’ frame for reality. Conspiracy theories as manifest in
Bahrain are born out of this process of frame articulation as, in their very essence as outlined
earlier, they are based on fragments of facts or social ‘truths’ presented as evidence and
pieced together in a strategic and functional manner so as to actually hold meaning within
society in a process of meaning construction. The notion of frame articulation is indicative of
the core relativity of truth within the discursive process of framing, grounding this study in
social constructivism. As stated by Sayyid and Zac, “if meaning is a construction and there is
no pre-existing signified (objective reality) before signification, then there are no pre-given
identities – objects as such – before meaning. All of them are constructions”; all significations
are constructed (1998:.258). As slices of reality are extrapolated and re-appropriated, strategic
interpretation and manipulation make for subjective reflection and construction of the real
‘reality’, of meaning and significance.
Research methodology:
The theoretical framework centered on CDA as outlined above affords this thesis a
theoretical foundation which provides a “different way of thinking about the world, and
thus addresses the concerns of politics from a different perspective” (Sayyid and Zac 1998:
250). In offering such a different perspective, CDA prescribes that the discourse analyst
“aims to give and explicit and systematic description of discourses within their specific
historical and power context” through determining the “limits of discursive formations,
tracing and unweaving the logics that structure a discourse” (Demmers 2011: 3; Sayyid and
Zac 1998: 260). In accordance with these over-arching aims of CDA, my analysis of the
discursive construction of conspiracy theories in contemporary Bahrain purposes to describe
and analyze the logics underlying the discursive formation of conspiracy theories, as
manifest in the specific context of contemporary Bahrain, both systematically through a
selection and subsequent analysis of research materials and case-study evidence, and
explicitly through the connection of this evidence to specific theoretical concepts through
structural theory application and interpretation, as will be evidence throughout the
following chapters.
Significance and aims of research:
Besides the aims inherent in this thesis as defined by its foundation in CDA, with this
research and analysis I hope to contribute to the field of conflict studies through a multidisciplinary and unique approach to CDA and frame analysis. While both these fields of
analysis have an extensive literature basis and are well documented, their application to
specific case studies is somewhat lacking. As such, in applying theories of discourse analysis
and frame analysis as formulated under concepts such as politics of portrayal, I hope to both
build upon and test the existing theoretical framework. In essence, my aim is to contribute to
theory building and theory testing (through so-called generative research) as well as to
indicate the applicability of some of the field’s concepts and the inter-relatedness between
these concepts. Additionally, I aim to examine the relationship between conspiracy theories
as discourses and their function within society in the context of violence. As such, my
research also has an explanatory function whereby I hope to contribute to the knowledge
about conspiracy theories and particularly their relationship to society and social structures
in times of violence from an academic perspective. Relatedly, I aim to herewith contribute to
the slowly increasing amount of academic materials concerning Bahrain in the context of
what has become known as the Arab Spring. I am of the opinion that the global lack of news
coverage and general lack of knowledge about the situation in Bahrain should certainly not
be translated or allowed to sneak into the academic world and hope to hereby indicate the
complexity and intricacy of the situation in contemporary Bahrain as one worthy of
intellectual and expert attention.
Selection of materials:
Keeping these aims of my research in mind, in answering the core research question as
positioned within the theoretical framework of CDA and, more specifically, frame analysis
as conceptualized through the notions of politics of naming and politics of portrayal in
relation to the case study of contemporary Bahrain, this thesis provides an integrated
approach whereby my theoretical framework as outlined above and the conspiracist samples
in the context specific case study of Bahrain are analytically intertwined through research
based on a combination of literature research, in-depth interviews and the discursive
analysis of case study materials (see Appendix A). I have systematically selected my
literature sources according to standards of diversity and based on a multi-disciplinary
approach to my topic. Accordingly, the concepts and theories presented and used in this
thesis are derived from key sources in the field of CDA as well as several references
concerning frame analysis. Additionally, I widened my literature scope by incorporating
literature on rumors, gossip, witchcraft and notions of hearsay. Naturally, I also grounded
my analysis in conceptualizations and analyses of conspiracy theories, focusing on literature
dealing with the notion of conspiracy theories in general, and sources offering a specific
analysis of the phenomenon in relation to the Middle East, Algeria, or Saddam Hussein’s
Iraq. This affords my analysis not only a multi-disciplinary dimension but also an inherently
comparative one.
Since my thesis is really a study in frame analysis, my interviews mostly served the purpose
of affording me insight into the situation in Bahrain as perceived by eye-witnesses (locals
and journalists) as well as experts on the Middle East, the Gulf region specifically and
developments in the Arab Spring context (such as the use of new media in Bahrain). These
semi-structured interviews, conducted under informed consent, provided a picture of the
context in which I could place Bahrain’s conspiracist discourses.
Lastly, this thesis is based on a selection of case materials, ranging from ‘proof’ of the
existence of a conspiracy theory and conspiracism to my choice of which conspiracy theory
to incorporate in the first place. My analysis of conspiracy theories in contemporary Bahrain
is centered on three conspiracist discourses selected for their prominence and, essentially,
their hegemony within the context of Bahrain’s current social and political situation. I
attempted to determine this discursive hegemony in as systematic a manner as possible by
assessing the conspiracy theory’s “ability to fix meaning, at least relatively, within a specific
context” (Sayyid and Zac 1998: 262). To do this, I read through news pieces from a wide
variety of sources (both national and international) concerning contemporary Bahrain,
picking out blatant conspiracist accusations as well as more obscured conspiracist rhetoric so
as to compile a list of conspiracy theories and sub-conspiracy theories (in which a specific
element or event came to be interpreted along the lines of an over-arching conspiracy
theory). Additionally, I focused my research on public speeches, official documents (such as
laws and regulations), historical cases of conspiracism in Bahrain, and numerous reports on
both specifically documented conspiracy theories in Bahrain and the unrest and violence in
the context of its protests. Furthermore, I compiled visual evidence of the existence and
hegemony of the three conspiracy theories I have chosen to incorporate. My images (Figures)
come from a variety of sources such as news articles (again from international and local
agencies), blogs, Facebook posts and other social media sites, and government as well as
non-governmental organization sites. Naturally, I am aware that this process of determining
hegemony and thereby selecting which conspiracy theories to base my analysis on is, like
almost any component of social research, not entirely objective and at no point do I wish to
assert that this thesis provides an exhaustive compilation of all the conspiracy theories
circulating in Bahrain.
Limitations and restrictions:
As with any research, there are several limitations to this analysis. Firstly, due to safety
concerns as well as time constraints I did not have the opportunity to visit Bahrain while
writing this thesis. I certainly do aim to go there as soon as the situation improves and
stabilizes. Additionally, I do not speak Arabic. This limited me in the sense that I was forced
to rely on other people’s translations of relevant materials at the ever-persistent risk of losing
some of the discursive nuances. Unfortunately I was also constrained to using only English
literature during my literature research. As such, my access, both literally and figuratively
was somewhat restricted. While, as asserted above, my interviews did provide me with what
I feel is a solid composition of the current situation in Bahrain, my own eye-witness accounts
and first-hand interpretation of Bahrain’s discursive battlefield are lacking.
Moreover, while the theoretical framework constructed for this analysis serves its purpose
well, CDA and frame analysis are both lacking in their capacity to assert causality. While
there is certainly a link between the discourses created in times of unrest and violence and
the construction of the reality of this violence, it is impossible to prove a causal relationship
between these two elements. As such, I wish to make it clear that while I recognize the
functionality of discourses like conspiracy theories, I at no point assert that discourses cause
violence or specific violent events. While they can serve to make violence and the motivation
for action acceptable in general, further in-depth research is needed within the fields of
discourse and frame analysis regarding the direct causal relationship between discursive
constructions and actual violent events within conflict.
Additionally, I realize that, while writing a thesis grounded in social constructivism, I, the
researcher, cannot escape such constructivism; I too construct a version of reality. As
highlighted by Jabri, “just as inter-personal and inter-societal behavior must be located
within the ideological and cultural setting of societies, so too the linguistic constructs within
research derive from and construct the setting which they seek to understand” (1996: 9). In
aiming to analyze the phenomenon of conspiracy theories as manifest in Bahrain, I not only
selected specific sources, case-study materials and interpretive frames but I also selected
certain discourses and labeled them as conspiracy theories. I am well aware that such a label
is a mode of categorization and classification, an assertion of ‘truth’, a construction of reality.
Additionally, as I construct a version of reality through my analysis, it cannot be denied that
I do so based on my own world and its frames and modes of making-sense. Evidently, in line
with so-called ‘interpretivism’, the researcher and the social world impact each other (Snape
and Spencer 2003: 17). As Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois state, “our minds
and cultural inventiveness, more than or hominid bodies, are our ecological niche. We are
social creatures. Cultures, social structures, ideas and ideologies shape all dimensions of
violence” and not just the dimensions of violence in the sense of its expression or repression
but also the interpretations, analyses and understanding of such socially constructed
violence and all its component parts (2004: 3).
Chapter outline:
In order to address the previously posed research question the succeeding chapters
encompass three crucial and inter-related argumentations based on the discursive functions
of ‘othering’, legitimization, and power maintenance and (re-)assertion as they are
encapsulated in Bahrain’s conspiracy theories. Each chapter will present a different
conspiracy theory in relation to the discussion and analysis of one of these three functions of
conspiracist portrayal. Crucially, the conspiracy theories are, in fact, interchangeable as they
all (and simultaneously) fulfill the same three functions in their role in the politics of
portrayal as each conspiracy theory constructs and portrays the same three social
dichotomies (as will be evidenced throughout the following chapters): a dichotomy between
Bahrain’s protesters and opposition, and its government; another between foreigners and
strangers and Bahraini ‘natives’; and a third between Shiite and Sunni Muslim sects.
In the first chapter I argue that, in response to and in the context of what has been perceived
and presented by Bahrain’s political opposition and protesters as socio-economic long-term
grievances, a conspiracy theory based on accusations of demographic engineering on the
part of the regime is used to convey accusations blame and responsibility through the
structuring of reality along the lines of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Boundaries are constructed and
support is gained for ‘the cause’ and the ‘us’ as the ‘other’ becomes the enemy. As is the case
with rumor, gossip and witchcraft accusations, such enemy construction based on the
framing of reality is not only instrumental now and possibly in the future but also socially
meaningful, making ‘othering’ through conspiracy narratives a crucially functional process
in the contest over the ‘truth’ about ‘reality’.
The following chapter, Chapter II, entails the analysis of the claim that conspiracy theories in
Bahrain, in direct relation to their function of ‘othering’ and gaining support, serve as
legitimization for action based on enemy construction once such action has been made
imaginable. Blame and responsibility are framed in terms of who is the victim and who is the
perpetrator and, thereby, in terms of, respectively, defensive and offensive action. A cyclical
process is initiated whereby action is constantly justified and boundaries are reified; society
becomes polarized, further legitimizing action against the ‘enemy-other’ and the conflict as
well as society become ‘sectarianized’. The analysis of this function of legitimization is
framed by the government’s conspiracy theory alleging Hezbollah’s hidden hand in
Bahrain’s protest.
The final chapter is comprised of the argumentation that, like any discursive construction,
conspiracy theories in Bahrain are closely related to processes of power maintenance and
(re)assertion in a Foucauldian conceptualization of power. The conspiracy theory presented
here is perhaps the most well-known in reference to contemporary Bahrain: it accuses Iran of
plotting against Bahrain’s regime and interfering in Bahrain’s internal affairs. As employed
by those with the practical capacity to do so, this conspiracy theory can be seen to serve the
function of maintaining power relations by sustaining the status quo, as well as serving a
similar function as state propaganda in its vernacular knowledge construction. While the use
of conspiracy theories in this sense illustrates a nuanced understanding of the relation
between truth and power, the (re-)assertion of power through conspiracy narratives is a
double-edged sword since the ‘enemy-other’ is inherently portrayed as the all-powerful
agent; like with any discursive construction, conspiracy theories are ultimately and
inherently limited in their functionality.
While official invitations for a renewed national dialogue (after its initial failure) were signaled
during the week of the 21st of March 2012 and while King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa has
asserted that Bahrain has made “significant progress in reforming its security sector, judiciary, social
policy and media”, restrictions on those human rights groups aiming to monitor these reforms
continue and the UN investigator for torture has been asked to postpone a visit until July (Gulf Times
Newspaper, Reuters, Manama, 21-03-12). With little to no evidence of reform and concession actually
coming out of Bahrain, it remains to be seen whether these proposed dialogues will even take place. In
our interview, Dr. Jamal Abdullah, expert on the Gulf region at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies,
asserted his opinion that if the dialogue would indeed take place, it would be no more than a
beginning to a long road of reconciliation. Likewise, Ying Welsh stated in a separate interview that she
does not think this proposed dialogue will lead to anything (Author’s interview with Jamal Abdullah,
expert on the Gulf region at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies in Doha, Qatar, on 21-03-12).
According to both Dr. Abdullah and Ying Welsh the situation in Bahrain will remain the same in the
sort to medium term. As asserted by Abdullah during our interview the situation has been
exacerbated to such an extent that the real problem is now “that the majority of the population is Shi’a
and the government is Sunni. This problem will [once made salient enough] always come back. Other
external factors take part in the problem, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. So in the medium-term the
conflict will continue […] it will take time to really clam down” (Translated from French by the author,
Author’s interview with Abdullah, on 21-03-12; Author’s interview with Ying Welsh, on 22-03-12).
With the extremity and amount of violence in Bahrain increasing and decreasing in a wave-like
pattern over the past year, one can indeed only wonder at the ability of the protesters to sustain what
has so far been a (relatively) peaceful movement in the face of ever-increasing state-imposed
repression and authoritarian misconduct, as well as both political and social polarization.
Pipes’ work, entitled The Hidden Hand: Middle East fears of conspiracy, has been referenced as the main
English book on conspiracy theories in the Middle East. However, while offering some key insights,
Pipes, like earlier students of conspiracy theories such as Hofstadter, implicitly submits to a
pathological explanation for the phenomenon of conspiracism, rather than seeing it as a socio-political
construction (Gray 2010(b): 5). Additionally, Paul A. Silverstein’s articles on conspiracy theories and
the Algerian civil war provide important perspectives on conspiracism in the Arab World, especially
since Silverstein’s articles link both studies on conspiracism in the Middle East and violence. While
Silverstein’s articles draw on the same arguments and main points, the first, entitled “Regimes of
(un)truth: conspiracy theory and the trans-nationalization of the Algerian Civil War” (2000), focuses
on conspiracy theories as a means to explain the complexities of war and their function as both
marginalized critique and a “prop for existing structures of political and economic inequality”, where
the second article, “An excess of truth: violence, conspiracy theorizing and the Algerian Civil War”
(2002), highlights the notion that “what is at issue in the end is the role of social practices like
conspiracy theorizing in dialectical structures of hegemonic processes”(Silverstein 2000: 6; Ibid 2002:
643). A third key source regarding conspiracy theories in the Middle East is Matthew Gray’s book
Conspiracy Theories in the Arab World: sources and politics. Gray offers a comprehensive dissertation of
the political environment of the Middle East as it gives rise to conspiracism by both citizens and the
state. Gray, unlike Hofstadter and Pipes “discounts the pathological explanation for conspiracism – a
view that is often driven by Orientalist simplification of the region’s political culture – and instead
investigates the political structures and dynamics that have created and shaped the phenomenon of
conspiracism in the contemporary Arab Middle East” (Gray 2010 (b): 12).
According to Benford and Snow, discursive processes refer to “the talk and conversations – the
speech acts – and written communications of movement members that occur primarily in the context
of, or in relation to, movement activities”. Strategic processes entail the “deliberative, utilitarian, and
goal directed” processes as frames “are developed and deployed to achieve a specific purpose”.
Lastly, frame development and maintenance is a contested process; “all actors within the collective
action arena who engage in reality construction work are embroiled in the politics of signification”
Chapter I
Who is Killing Whom? – The ‘Other’, the Enemy!
‘Othering’, vilification and garnering support
During our interview Ying Welsh asserted that “in Bahrain there is no law”; the Khalifa’s feel
like Bahrain is theirs to do with what they want. In line with the Bahraini regime’s
authoritarianism, Ying Welsh asserted that the government is “totally” and “absolutely”
aiming to alter the sectarian balance of the Island. According to her, “some Sunnis who are
honest will admit that the government is trying to change the demographics of the state, they
hope the government is changing the demographics”5. This brief but adamant assertion of a
governmental plot against Bahrain’s Shiite majority at the very end of our interview was my
cue to investigate further into the deep and murky waters of this conspiracy theory. In doing
so, evidence of this conspiracy theory, in contrast to evidence about the conspiracy itself, was
plentiful and I came across the
Figure i: protesters’ sign in Manama
photograph to the left taken at a
protest around the Passports
and Immigration building in
downtown Manama on the 9th
of March, 2011 (Figure i). The
sign held by a protester on the
left hand side of the
photograph reads “Bahraini
people reject political
naturalization ‘crime’”. This
inscription, while only one of
thousands conveying the same
or a similar message, has managed to, in no more than six words, draw upon a wildly
intrinsic web of dynamics at play in contemporary Bahrain.
The slogan painted on the sign can, without too much effort, be related back to underlying
grievances stipulated by protesters and the opposition in Bahrain, stemming from and
related to thus far unresolved political authoritarianism and repression, and socio-economic
discrepancies. Yet seeing this sign as merely reflective of these underlying grievance themes
does not do its intricacy, density of meaning, or function as a portrayal of reality justice. For
rather than just reflecting grievances, it has framed them in a totalizing and allencompassing rhetoric – the rhetoric of the Bahraini protesters’ and opposition’s
conspiracism. And with this framing come constructions of reality, the functionality of which
lies (at least in part) in the process of ‘othering’ through culpa-attribution and vilification,
simultaneously allowing for the garnering support. As such, I argue in this chapter that this
conspiracy theory serves as a mode of categorization whereby the ‘other’ and the ‘self’ are,
rather simplistically, defined in order to explain the complex, dynamic and dire social and
Author’s interview with Ying Welsh, on 22-03-12.
political situation. It is this conspiracist mode of categorization which leads to a root
discourse of exclusion and inclusion, a discourse seen to serve two key functions. Firstly, it
demarcates ‘us’ from ‘them’ in a discourse of ‘othering’ and protective exclusionism against
the accused enemy, encompassing a process of vilification. Secondly, it creates support for
‘the cause’ as conformity and unity within the ‘us’ are solidified. Ultimately, in serving these
functions, this conspiracist discourse culminates into a process of purposeful categorization
as a means to convey the ‘truth’ about reality, a reality in which violence, unrest and
uncertainty format the everyday scenery and for the unfortunateness of which someone is
held accountable in the form of accusations. As the truth about reality is conveyed in terms
of blame and accusations, a conspiracy theory such as the one at hand here actually
constructs a version of this reality, ultimately serving a transformative purpose within its
social and political context (see Van Dijk 2008(a and b) and Fairclough 2010).
The ‘Naturalization Crime’ conspiracy theory:
According to Hussein Ibish, in contemporary Bahrain “almost all opposition groups,
including the non-sectarian Al Wa’ad party, accuse the government of a concerted policy of
nationalizing Sunni foreigners in order to tilt the sectarian balance against the Shiite
majority”. The government is thus being (and has been in the past) accused of demographic
engineering, an accusation whose scant basis of evidence was recently boosted when in
“early July [of 2011] an extremely murky but highly revealing controversy erupted over an
alleged government report that supposedly claimed that 51 percent of Bahrain’s population
is Sunni Muslim, a figure not believed by any credible observer. The opposition claimed that
the report was further evidence of the government’s sectarian agenda and demographic
machinations”. Interestingly, the government has labeled the opposition’s claim as a
conspiracy, stating that no such report has ever been produced and that the Bahraini
government does not have figures on its sectarian demography “as it does not classify
citizens in such a manner” (2011: 8). As such, the cyclical nature of conspiracism and
conspiracy theories is illustrated: the government is accused of conspiring against the Shiite
majority and the Shiite majority, in asserting its conspiracy theory, is accused by the
government of conspiring against the government. We see here a double concretization of
Boym’s definition of a conspiracy theory as she states that a “conspiracy theory is a
conspiracy against a conspiracy; it does not oppose the conspiratorial world view as such but
doubly affirms it” (1999: 97). The opposition’s and protesters’ claim that the government is
manipulating the demographics of its state is, in being a conspiracy against a conspiracy,
based in the very fact that the government indeed does not provide clear and accurate
figures on Bahrain’s sectarian demography. While it is known that about 70% of the
country’s population is Muslim, the last census measuring the percentage of Sunni and Shi’a
Muslims was held in 1941. “Current unofficial estimates vary between 60-70% Shi’a and 3040% Sunni, […] these figures, and demographic data in Bahrain in general, are a contentious
issue” (BICI Report 2011: 13). Thus, that which is used as the accused conspirator’s defense
is, in this conspiracy network, also used as evidence of a conspiracy by the conspiracy
theorist. It is this very ambiguity and lack of actual factual information and true evidence
which contribute to making this conspiracy theory sustainable. As asserted by Stewart and
Strathern, ambiguity and confusion can easily displace reality, taking hold of people’s
imagination and creating imaginings which, rooted in such ambiguity, can neither be proven
nor disproven (2004: 52, 53). In this light, all elements of reality – ranging from events to
actions – can be seen to evidence a conspiracy and the conspiracy theory becomes an allencompassing narrative explaining all complexities. According to Silverstein “conspiracy
paradigms tend to reproduce themselves in ever-expanding, grand unified theories” (2000:
7). These grand theories provide the “sure knowledge (and experience) that everything is
interconnected and merging – a seduction, a dreaming, a moving toward and within…”
(Stewart 1999: 13). As such, the opposition’s and protesters’ conspiracy theory about a
“naturalization ‘crime” unifies contemporary grievances, history and memory, and the little
shreds of ‘fact’ floating around Bahraini society which may be inlaid in the conspiracists’
puzzle as evidence.
Misfortune and accusation:
As highlighted in the previous chapter, conspiracy theories are built upon fear and perceived
threats (usually existential) for which a plotter carries blame and responsibility in the form of
an accusation. Such fear tends to find ground in what Stewart and Strathern have named
social “misfortune”, understood by them to take the form a catalyzing event like death or
murder (2004: 8). I here interpret the term ‘misfortune’ in its broader sense, whereby it
includes the long-term misfortunes of the unfortunate. In this sense, misfortune is seen to
entail long-term grievances such as, in the case of Bahrain, those related to the people’s
perceived misfortune of having a dictatorial regime instead of a representative, democratic
governmentv. Bahrain’s political system is, in both theory and practice, almost entirely
subject to the rule of the Al Khalifa’s and holds minimal representational value. As asserted
by top Shiite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, “we [the protesters and people of Bahrain] have no
democracy and nothing is left for freedom of expression, protection of religious places, [or]
protection of security for citizens [. We have] no public freedoms [and are subjected to]
continuation of corrupt practices, and continuation of violations” (translated from Arabic,
Gengler 24-12-11). In response to this lack of political and social freedom and representation
protesters made signs reading, for example, “go away Al Khalifa” (AP Images 16-02-11). In
an attempt to diminish the increasing political polarization in Bahrain and as a gesture
hoped by the state to be perceived as a sign of willingness to accommodate certain demands,
the King arranged for a National Dialogue Committee to be set up in June of 2011 to hold a
National Dialogue on the 1st of July of the same year (National Dialogue: our Bahrain, our
unity Website 2012). However, even before the beginning of the Dialogue, Bahrain’s
“majority Shi’ites [were] skeptical the ruling Sunni monarchy [would be] willing to offer the
sort of concessions that could heal wounds caused by [the] crackdown on pro-democracy
protests” and address long-term socio-political issues. And indeed, with only 35 out of the
300 seats given to the opposition and with the country’s main opposition party Al Wefaq
pulling out of the dialogue a mere two weeks after its initiation, the National Dialogue can
hardly be called a success and “there [currently] appears to be no effective mechanism for
dialogue between the government and the opposition and hence no clear way of moving
beyond confrontation and towards accommodation” (Stevenson and Solomon 01-07-11; Ibish
2011: 6). In the context of Bahrain’s “bleak and polarized political scene” the direction of the
protests and situation in Bahrain remain uncertain and volatile with the people’s demands
for reform unmet (Kinninmont 24-11-11). According to the conspiracy theory as outlined
above, the government’s secret and concerted plot to tilt the sectarian scales in favor of the
minority Sunni population is a way for the government to maintain this state of
authoritarianism and actually prevent democratization. In changing the demographic
composition of Bahrain, it is claimed, the government aims to prevent opposition groups
from succeeding in parliamentary elections (Bahrain Center for Human Rights). Hence, the
government will remain unrepresentative for its Shi’a constituents, further marginalizing
and disempowering them.
Apart from grievances stemming from thus far unresolved political authoritarianism and
repression, Bahrain’s recent (and past) protests have made clear the underlying socioeconomic grievances and perceived discrepancies amongst the people as well. While the
Bahraini economy has “experienced consistent growth over the past decade [(especially
thanks to its petroleum exports and banking industry)] […,] the increase in wealth has not
[…] been equally shared across society” (BICI Report 2011: 17, 18).vi “An independent
investigation” has asserted that the Al Khalifa family and other Bahraini elites own some 40
Billion dollars in public land, equating some 10% of Bahrain’s property. This stands in stark
contrast to the relative poverty and high levels of unemployment (especially amongst the
youth) in some areas of Bahrain where “many of Bahrain’s indigenous Arabs are crowded in
village ghettos” (‘Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark’ 2011; also see BICI Report 2011: 20).
Unemployment amongst specific groups of Bahraini society is another issue of grievance.
Bahrain’s labor force is comprised of
about 83% foreign-nationals and it has
been “noted that Bahraini citizens are
often at a disadvantage when
competing for jobs with foreign
workers, [which] serves as a source of
discontent among underprivileged
Bahraini citizens, many of whom
believe that expatriates take a
disproportionate share of the national
economy”. (BICI Report 2011: 19).
Amongst the various grievances
expressed during the recent protests in
Bahrain is the unequal distribution of
employment in the police forces and
security sector. The Al Jazeera
documentary ‘Bahrain: Shouting in the
Dark’ highlights the “importation of
Sunnis from Syria and Pakistan to staff
Figure ii – A fictional Bahraini stamp alluding to “the importation
the army and police”. Amongst
of Baluchi mercenaries [from] Pakistan to crack down on the Shia
protesters, the general consensus (at
majority's demand for democracy and reform” (National
Interest.org 02-09-11).
least according to this documentary)
seems to be that “there is no security
[for Bahrainis] when the police come from Pakistan” (a sentiment illustrated in figure ii)
(‘Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark’ 2011). As asserted by Christian Caryl, “Shiites are largely
excluded form government jobs so they have to study well and work hard to earn a good
living in the private sector” (14-02-12). Justin Gengler argues much the same, stating that
“Bahraini Shi’a have long sought an end to religious-based discrimination in public-sector
employment, particularly their wholesale exclusion from the police, the armed forces, and
the power ministries such as Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs” (Gengler 05-15-11). As
argued by Ibish, it is this very discrimination and inequality institutionalized in Bahraini
society which provides ground for the fear and concern that naturalized Sunni immigrants
are afforded benefits and privileges over ‘native’ Shiite Bahrainis. Hence, at least in the eyes
of the conspiracists, the naturalization of immigrants meets the political purpose of not only
politically but also economically dis-empowering the political opposition and further
marginalizing the sectarian majority for the benefit of Bahrain’s Sunni minority (2011: 8).
The conspiracy theory being discussed here, while of unproven validity, has, like the
grievances, fears and perceived threats it builds upon, proven to be a recurring discursive
theme throughout Bahrain’s more recent socio-political history. For example, in 2006 the
Gulf Center for Democratic Development presented its so-called ‘Bandargate Report’ which
alleges that, in the wake of the 2006 elections, the government was strategizing to limit the
powers of its political opposition by reducing the numerical gap between Bahrain’s Sunni
and Shia population. Specifically, the report states that this governmental strategy “aims to
curtail the role of opposition forces […] through moving and directing the Sunni street in a
pre-calculated way to face what is portrayed as a ‘Shi’a dominance’” (Bandargate Report
2006: 8). With the Bandargate Report providing historical ‘evidence’ of a conspiracy theory
against the people and in being grounded in contemporary grievances as outlined above,
this conspiracy theory is thus afforded social meaning through its supposed “empirical
credibility” as both memory and current experience evidence a plot. As stated by Benford
and Snow, it is this “empirical credibility” as entrenched in its “apparent fit between framings
and events in the world” that affords conspiracist frames of reality their resonance within
society (2000: 620, my emphasis).
Essentially, the fears and grievances related to this conspiracy theory as outlined above are
framed in terms of pre-calculated plots composed by one party (the government) against the
other party (the opposition and sections of Bahraini society). As such, where the government
is accused of working against so-called ‘Shi’a dominance’, conspiracists are fighting against
the engineering of Sunni dominance. A mutual fear of the other is expressed in this cyclical,
seemingly senseless social dichotomy and tension. It is crucial to note that, like in the
polarized mayhem that is now Bahrain’s political scene, in this conspiracy theory the
government is equated with its pro-regime or loyalist following of mostly Sunni decent.
Conversely, the opposition entails not just political opposition but Bahrain’s Shi’a majority as
well. In the dangerous simplification of Bahrain’s complex reality as found in the
conspiracist assertions of blame and responsibility as highlighted here, political stance and
religious affinity are too often seen to converge into one. What lies at the heart of such
convergence is a process of purposeful ‘othering’ by which the ‘us’ is clearly and almost
irrevocably demarcated from the ‘them’ as blame is asserted and misfortune attributed to
those portrayed to be responsible in conspiracist accusations.
The categorical portrayal of the ‘other’:
As blame for misfortune is asserted through accusations and an assertion of the ‘truth’ about
reality is made in terms of plots composed by ‘them’ against ‘us’, the ‘other’ clearly comes
into focus as an identifiable unit within society. This is what Benford and Snow would refer
to as diagnostic framing. Such framing encompasses an “attributional component” which
“focus[es] blame and responsibility” (2000: 615, 616; see also Chapter II of this thesis). As a
problem presents itself within society with multiple symptoms and unpleasant side-effects,
conspiracy theories offer a comprehensible diagnosis, blaming a culprit like a doctor would
blame a virus. In ultimately constructing a dangerously simplified version of complex social
dynamics and identities, this discursive process of ‘othering’ through a diagnostic frame, as
inherent in this conspiracy theory, is, I argue, dependent on the strictly constructivist process
of categorization as outlined by Cristopher Cramer (2006).
According to Cramer categorization, or “classification, is a compulsion of the curious. It is
necessary if we try to understand almost anything, without categorical distinctions and
groupings the things people try to understand are typically too diverse to resolve into any
clear patterns”. When it comes to such categorization Cramer states that “genetic and
geographic reality is a series of continuities, while classification systems impose artificial
discontinuities or boundaries”. In being artificial human constructions, “classification
systems are generally determined by some purpose – they are not ‘natural’ and they should
always be questioned”. Cramer’s view on categorization, while aimed mostly at the
imposition of debatable analytical borders concerning conflict studies, entails four essential
points applicable also to the actual discursive processes within a conflict such as the one in
Bahrain (2006: 57, 58). Firstly, Cramer clearly states that classification or categorization is
human action, not nature acting. As such, he discusses the topic of categorization from a
constructivist standpoint, entailing that (as outline previously) any category which is
constructed can also be altered or deconstructed. Hence, where Cramer states that analytical
classificatory boundaries should be questioned, so too should the boundaries imposed
during times of social unrest. However, as was asserted earlier, to argue that categorical
discursive constructions are not ‘natural’ does not mean that they are not meaningful. In fact,
as asserted by Jabri, “in stressing the constructive element of discourse and in
conceptualizing conflict as a constructed discourse of exclusion, what is emphasized here is
that accounts of events formulated by leaders and observers alike are built out of a variety of
pre-existing linguistic sources and shared worlds of meaning which are drawn upon in the
construction of reality” (1996: 137). Hence, the formulation of misfortune in conspiracist
terms in Bahrain is dependent upon sources of socially inherited meaning and language for
its artificial construction. As such, this conspiracy theory holds the power to be of
importance as a device for framing ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ not just now but also in the future. As
proven throughout Bahrain’s contemporary history, conspiracy theories, once constructed in
terms of exclusion and inclusion and based in social meaning, can be plucked from their
storage shelf, dusted off, and re-used when the need arises, such as in times of protest,
contention, unrest, conflict and violence. In this sense, conspiracy theories, and the
constructions of exclusion and categorization they entail, are like a diving rumor: a narrative
that “appears and then disappears and reappears over time. Its tendency to do this is a
product of its association with and basis on enduring cultural motifs”. It is thus available for
re-use and re-appropriation in charged, changed and new situations (Stewart and Strathern
2004: 171).
Secondly, Cramer highlights the explanatory and simplification power of categorization as a
means to understand the complexities of the world. Categorization allows for patterns to be
discerned. In this sense, categorization and framing are equitable concepts; both are forms of
schemata of interpretation which function as a guide to help organize experience and guide
action (Benford and Snow 2000: 614; Cramer 2006). When it comes to constructing such
schemata of interpretation for complex, confusing, or seemingly threatening social realities
through framing or categorization (or both) conspiracy theories such as the one at hand here
function as the perfect tool. As stated by Silverstein in his discussion of conspiracy theories
in the context of the Algerian civil war, “every event of the conflict has been subject to
numerous, rival interpretations in the mode of conspiracy theorizing” and these conspiracist
interpretations “prioritize agency and fetishize causality in making sense of everyday
violence” (2002: 655, 644). Hence, everyday complexities or insecurities are elucidated
through explanations centered on agency and causality in the form of conspiracy theories.
The explanatory power of conspiracy theories is also highlighted by Abalakina-Paap et al,
who argues that “people who feel powerless may find comfort in conspiracy theories
because these theories help them to accept and explain their predicament” (1999: 637, 639)vii.
In Bahrain, the narrative of a conspiracy theory framing the long-term predicaments of
limited representation and democracy as well as discrimination as perceived by the
marginalized and disempowered Shi’a majority in terms of a governmentally orchestrated
plot indeed offers an all-encompassing explanation centered on, as suggested by Silverstein,
a prioritization of agency and the fetishizing of causality. Such pre-occupation with agency
and causality highlights the conspiracist’s “quest for the unmediated truth” in which,
through the production of what Silverstein labels as “causal narratives”, the conspiracist
searches “incessantly for causal chains and link[s] these chains to actions of intentional
agents” in what is ultimately a rejection of the notion of coincidence (2002: 647, 648, 663). As
such, “conspiracy theories seek to explain [misfortunes like violence] by pointing a finger at
one or another known agent”; agents like the government as well as Sunni immigrants in the
case of this contemporary conspiracy theory in Bahrain are branded as the causal agent
(Silverstein 2000: 6). Hence, this conspiracy theory offers an explanation of the complex
realities in Bahraini society by categorizing, and thereby labeling groups as the agent and
cause of the unfortunates’ grievances is accused. Such simplified explanations along the lines
of a supreme causal factor and accusations centered around the identification of victims and
perpetrators, as seen in the conspiracy theory analyzed here, has been referred to by
(amongst others) Benford and Snow as “boundary framing” or “adversarial framing”; two
“related attributional processes that seek to delineate to boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘evil’
and construct movement protagonists and antagonists” (2000: 616, also see Hunt et al 1994).
This leads to the third point made by Cramer regarding categorization: the construction of
categories as imposing artificial boundaries. In the case of Bahrain, the finger-pointing
rhetoric as constructed through the conspiracy theory concerning the naturalization of
Sunnis is a simplified explanation encompassing all aspects of reality and operationalized
through assertions of causality and agency. As the agent is identified as the cause of
misfortune, a boundary is established between the agent or the plotter (in the language of
conspiracism) and its accomplice(s), and the target of the plotter’s supposed conspiracy. This
boundary is based on the recognition of differences as, “particularly in times of conflict, one
assigns virtues to one’s own identity and decisions, and draws on a series of negative traits
to describe an opponent, relating to greed, irrationality, demonic nature or the absence of
civilization” (Bhatia 2005: 15). Such assignment of characteristics conveys a simplified
version of the ‘other’. As categorization allows for simplification, simplification allows for
categorization which culminates in an explanation centered on, in the case of conspiracy
theories, finger-pointing and a demarcation of the boundary between ‘them’ (the plotter) and
‘us’ (the target). In analyzing the Bahraini opposition’s and protesters’ conspiracy theory
alleging politicized naturalization it becomes apparent that there are in this context of
contemporary social unrest and violence, in fact, three boundaries or dichotomies being
portrayed and constructed in the re-emergence of this theory in contemporary Bahrain. The
first is the obvious one between the accused government and its affiliates, and the country’s
marginalized Shiite majority. It is the construction of this boundary which most clearly and
importantly forms the basis of the hypothetical analyst’s categorization of the recent events
in Bahrain as part of the Arab Spring revolutions.
The conspiracy theory’s inherent call for
democratization and equal opportunities along
the lines of “people reject…” is reminiscent of the
Arab Spring’s iconic ‘the people demand…’
slogan, evidencing the connection with and
inspiration gained from protests in Egypt and
Tunisia and signaling a process of frame
alignment. Frame alignment, in a deliberative
effort to link the interests of a social movements
to some external factor for the benefit of that
movement, encompasses the selective and
strategic process of frame bridging; the “linking
of two or more ideologically congruent but
structurally unconnected frames [as it happens]
across social movements” (Benford and Snow
Figure iii: the black graffiti reads: “god, country,
king” and the green graffiti, in response, reads:
2000: 624). The rhetoric of the conspiracy theory
“protect, from, evil”. Together they read: “god
at hand here aligns the conspiracist frame of the
protect country from king evil”.
government’s demographic engineering with the
regional developments in the context of the Arab Spring movements in other Arab countries
as they come to be presented and perceived as ideologically compatible despite the
movements’ possible structural differences (like geographic location). Additionally,
attestations to the rift between ‘the people’ and their government (and its supporters) emerge
through this conspiracy theory’s inherent questioning of the rulers’ legitimacy. In fact, this
conspiracy theory not only questions the government’s legitimacy but openly challenges it,
implicitly asserting that the government is acting in secret against the majority of its own
people. And what legitimate government secretly coerces and creates such a devious plot
against legitimate and innocent citizens? The rift between Bahrain’s protesters and
opposition, and its government and supporters is quite literally illustrated in Figure iii in
which the black graffiti is that of regime loyalists and the green graffiti that of protesters. The
second boundary attested to in this conspiracy theory is the one between the Sunni
immigrants being naturalized and, as such, used as tools in the government’s plot and their
‘indigenous’ or ‘native’ Shiite counter-parts. This boundary actively excludes and includes,
marking those to be excluded as foreigners, invaders and, in the contemporary context of
violence and social distrust, mercenaries. Hence, at the heart of this aspect of the conspiracy
theory about the naturalization of Sunni immigrants, lies the emblematic discourse of a
demographic threat, grounded in a rhetoric of nationalism and the discourse of the
indigenous. As argued by Silverstein, in Algeria, the people’s conspiracist explanations, “like
those of the government, were largely couched in a discourse of nationalism mixed with
human rights” (2002: 659). The same can be asserted in the case of this conspiracy theory in
Bahrain as the marginalized ‘native’ Bahraini claims to be discriminated against and
disadvantaged over Sunni ‘foreigners’. As such, this conspiracy theory can be seen as a form
of “exclusionist protection” whereby the native
and ‘true’ Bahraini is warned against a foreign
threat and made aware of the need for
protection (Jabri 1996: 134). This points to the
notion that “conspiracy theorists think they are
serving the public good. Often their motivations
are patriotic” (Rudmin 2003). What this
exclusionism indicates is a fear of foreigners and
foreign powers, a fear justifying and even
calling for nationalism; in this case, nationalism
in terms of indigenous and native roots.
Thirdly, a dangerous and thoroughly sinister
boundary construction is the demarcation
Figure iv: a protester in Manama holding a sign
reading “neither Sunni nor Shi’a but national
between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims as
inherently but implicitly entrenched in this
conspiracy theory. In terms of this division, the conspiracy theory’s exclusionist protection
conveys not only nationalism in terms of a ‘native’ discourse, but also a desire for the
maintenance of the Shiite group, perhaps even the maintenance of this group’s stance as the
(albeit marginalized) majority in a state ruled by perceivably oppressive Sunni autocrats. As
the Sunni government is accused of importing Sunni immigrants to alter Bahrain’s sectarian
balance, Sunnis and Shiites almost automatically come to stand in a dichotomized
relationship along the lines of sectarianism. While signs (such as Figure iv) and slogans
declaring Shiite and Sunni unity appear to be fairly common sights in Bahrain’s protests, the
mere existence of such signs -- based essentially and ironically on notions of a sectarian
divide -- actually conveys the same inherent sectarian boundary as the conspiracy theory at
hand, framing reality in terms a Sunnis (‘them’) and Shiite (‘us’) dichotomy. As will be
discussed in depth in later chapters, this boundary construction between Shiites and Sunnis
is of trans-national importance and stands in contrast to discourses highlighting the
democratic aims of the opposition and protesters in the context of the Arab Spring. Rather, as
will also be analyzed later, the framing of reality in terms of the Sunni Shiite dichotomy
directly aligns itself with frames of the regional (and international) power-struggles, most
adamantly in relation to Iran and the Iraqi conflict.
As will become apparent throughout this thesis, these three dichotomies inlaid in the
boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ as constructed and portrayed through conspiracist
categorization are, in one form or another, of recurring thematic importance when discussing
not just conspiracism but also the more general complexity of the current and recent
situation in Bahrain.
In light of the constructivist stance of this discussion about categorization, the explanatory
power of conspiracy theories as a means to categorize, and the demarcation of the ‘other’ by
imposing boundaries, Cramer highlights a fourth crucial aspect of categorization, namely:
purpose (2006). As stated previously, classification or categorization systems are generally
determined by some purpose. Having argued above that conspiracy theories are indeed
forms of such classification systems, the purpose of their proposed and asserted
categorization(s) begs attention. Particularly in times of conflict and social unrest such as in
Bahrain -- when confusion, fear, information discrepancy and threats reign -- a conspiracy
theory can fulfill the purpose of “becom[ing] a stable center in itself – the missing detail in a
life. The little world of like-thinkers one joins, the massive adversary always almost caught,
the focus” (Stewart 1999: 15). Conspiracy theories can offer comfort and clarity in times of
need. However, as I have already hinted at, I argue that while conspiracist explanations for
complex situations, such as the one being discussed in this chapter may serve the need for
both individual and communal comfort, their explanatory portrayal of reality in terms of ‘us’
versus ‘them’ through categorization entailing boundary construction, in inherently being
both socially meaningful and politically functional, encages a rather more purposeful and
political agenda as wellviii.
From ‘other’ to ‘enemy-other’:
In accusing the government of secretly and coordinately plotting against segments of its own
population, with the either active or passive help of third-party foreigners, Bahrain’s
opposition conspiracists not only accuse the government of plotting but also directly blame
their government for misfortunes portrayed to be caused by the plot. Such finger-pointing
has its strategic benefits as both blame and responsibility are cast on the ‘other’. With such
culpa-attribution comes a whole series of negative associations now descriptive of this ‘other’.
As such, identities are re-formatted in terms of good and evil, in terms of innocence and
culpability. In these terms, placing blame and responsibility in the hands of the ‘other’, as
inherent in conspiracy theories, is basically synonymous to enemy-construction; blame
implies perpetration and, thereby, a certain degree of evil-doing. A clear illustration of this
affiliation between blame and evil perpetration is evidenced in Figure i; in a larger, red font
the word ‘Crime’ takes center stage on the sign. As such, the plotters of the naturalization
conspiracy – the government and affiliates—are not simply the ‘other’ but also categorized as
criminals; they become the ‘criminal-other’, driven by greed and evil intentions. In this
regard, the typical assignment of “virtues to one’s own identity and decisions” and the
drawing “on a series of negative traits to describe an opponent, relating to greed,
irrationality, demonic nature or the absence of civilization”, as quoted earlier, is not simply a
means of categorization and simplification allowing for boundary construction between the
‘self’ and the ‘other’, but also and moreover a vilification as purely negative attributes, by
any normative standard, are ascribed to this ‘other’ (Bhatia 2005 : 15). What we see here is the
formulation of reality and, more specifically, social relationships in apocalyptic terms
whereby “what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil”. As
argued by Hofstadter, “the paranoid spokesman [the conspiracist] sees the fate of conspiracy
in apocalyptic terms – he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political
orders, whole systems of human values” (1964: 82). Throughout history, conspiracists have
indeed proven to stand by this apocalyptic formulation of reality. Ellen Schrecker, in her
discussion of McCarthyism, political repression and fear, asserts that “despite the tenuous
nature of the Cold War, American policy-makers portrayed it in the most apocalyptic of
terms. The issue – freedom versus communism – is a life and death matter” (2004: 1048). In
this apocalyptic world, the actions of the ‘other’ are portrayed as criminal, as evil, while the
moral superiority of ‘us’ and ‘our’ cause is either implicitly or explicitly emphasized.
The ‘other’ is now not just different and separate from the ‘us’ but an enemy to ‘us’, a threat
whose crimes endanger the very existence of the ‘us’. In essence, conspiracist discourses thus
provide what Jean B. Elshtain has referred to as “moral absolutism” constituted through
language whereby the enemy is constructed as absolutely evil. Through such discursive
absolutism “we are invited to hate without limit and told, in time of [conflict], that we are
good citizens for doing so” (1985: 25).
Thus, conspiracy theories can be adequately described as providing “the sure knowledge
(and experience) that everything is interconnected and merging – a seduction, a dreaming, a
moving toward and within – [but] coupled with a guilty pang, the moment of terror when
something whispers in our ear that inter-connectedness is all controlled by a dark monolithic
Other and we are in it, no exit" (Stewart 1999; 13). As such, the conspiracy theory that the
government is plotting to tilt the demographic balance in its favor is both a comforting,
totalizing explanation allowing for the comprehension of complexities as well as a
representation and even creation of a “dark monolithic Other” to be feared and blamed as
the ultimate all-powerful agent causing only bad things, as the ultimate ‘enemy-other’. In
this ‘enemy-other’ construction the enemy is presented as an indistinguishable mass; it is the
government and Sunni immigrants who are to blame for the misfortunes caused by their plot
of demographic engineering and who present a threat, not specific individuals in the
government or specific immigrants. Instead of there being a group of enemies, there is an
enemy-group. This recognition or categorization of a certain group as the enemy, or “enemy
recognition”, is “always a performative procedure which brings to light/constructs the
enemy’s ‘true face’… [I]n order to recognize the enemy, one has to ‘schematize’ the logical
figure of the Enemy, providing it with concrete features which will make it an appropriate
target of hate and struggle” (Bar and Ben-Ari 2005: 133). Placing blame and responsibility for
misfortunes upon the ‘other’, as is done in this conspiracy theory, is one way to provide such
concrete features, appropriating the ‘other’ as the enemy to be hated and struggled against.
As such, in constructing frames by which to interpret reality along the boundaries of blame
and thus vilification, conspiracy theories such as this one in Bahrain have a certain
“transformative power”; they do not just outline the procedure for ‘othering’ but actively
and explicitly transform this ‘other’ into an adversary. In this sense, conspiracy theories
share their transformative power with witchcraft, which also “project[s] guilt onto others in
ways that cause them (or still others) harm” (Stewart and Strathern 2004: 16, 29)ix.
This process of transformative vilification is particularly dominant in times of conflict when
diverging interests and grievances are asserted. During such times, “of conflict […]
constructions of the ‘other’ conflate with constructions of the enemy” (Steuter and Wills
2009: 12). As the enemy is constructed and given distinctive features and reputations which
ground hatred against or at least fear of them, the importance of cohesion within the ‘us’
group takes center stage. In order to nip any existential threat posed by this ‘enemy-other’ in
the bud support in the (supposedly) defensive fight against this ‘other’ is of the essence. As
such, “the discourse of war aims at the construction of a mythology based on [exclusion and
inclusion]. This categorization sharply contrasts the insiders from the outsiders who are the
‘others’, or the deserving enemy”. Yet “this process cannot be confined to the definition of
the enemy but incorporates the inclusion of texts which valorize the history and cause of one
party to a conflict while depicting the claims of the enemy as unfounded, unjust or even
diabolical. The discourse of inclusion and exclusion cannot allow uncertainty or doubt, so if
such is expressed, they must be represented as irrational or even treacherous”. Thus,
crucially, while ‘othering’ and excluding are key functions served by the discursive
construction of conspiracy theories in times of such conflict as in contemporary Bahrain, “the
language of war aims primarily at the generation of conformity within a unified social
entity” whereby inclusion and group cohesion, in relation to modes of exclusion, recruit
support for the cause and sake of ‘us’ (Jabri 1996: 97; also see Bhatia 2005: 12).
One for all and all for one:
According to the inscription on the sign in Figure i, “Bahraini people” are the ones to reject
and thus oppose the supposed government conspiracy of naturalization. While the issue of
which Bahraini people this refers to specifically remains unclear and open to interpretation,
it is evident that there is at least a group of Bahraini’s who stand by this rejection; a group
which has named itself “Bahraini people”. Such a name serves as a means to “mobilize
support along nationalist lines”(Silverstein 2002: 648). As argued by Michael Ignatieff,
nationalism “is a rhetoric that takes the facts of differences and turns them into a narrative
justifying political self-determination. In the process of providing legitimacy for a political
project – the attainment of statehood
– it glorifies identity. It turns
neighbors into strangers and the
permeable boundaries of identity
into impassable frontiers” (1999: 58).
While the Bahraini opposition and
protesters may not be calling for
self-determination and the
attainment of statehood persé, the
rhetoric of nationalism serves a
Figure v: Bahraini protester
similar justifying function when the
with a scarf reading “ready
political project is one aiming for
to die for Bahrain”
increased political power and representation, and decreased discrimination. Through
nationalist rhetoric, boundaries are not only constructed but also doubly re-enforced; in
pursuit of the political project, some Bahraini’s are turned into “strangers” while for others
nationalism indeed glorifies (aspects of) identity. This conspiracy theory, as expressed in the
phrasing analyzed here, holds in its heart rhetoric based on nationalism which aims to unite
the like-minded and those of similar defining identity for the cause of the well-being and,
ultimately, the survival of the Bahraini people in what is, on an even grander scale of things,
a contest over what really defines the Bahraini identity. As illustrated in Figure v, the better
Bahrain that is being demanded by Bahraini people in their protests and resistance is a cause
these Bahrainis’ are, in allusion to true patriotism and martyrdom for their country, willing
to fight for and, evidently, even die for. Clearly, those not willing to die or at least fight for
the same Bahrain do not share the identity of those who are willing to die and fight for the
changes they envision.
While nationalist rhetoric is one means though which both boundaries and inter-group unity
are constructed, the very construction and portrayal of the ‘enemy-other’ as inherently
inscribed in this conspiracy theory is another way through which support for and unity
within the ‘us-group’ is garnered. The inscription “Bahraini people reject political
naturalization crime” is somewhat reminiscent of Slobodan Milosevic’s remark to protesting
Kosovan Serbs: “they [the Albanians] will never beat you again”x. Where the perpetrators of
the “naturalization crime” are the enemy in terms of the conspiracy theory discussed here,
Milosovic portrayed the Albanian’s as the attackers of Kosovan Serbs. I argue that in both
cases, while one case relates to conspiracism and the other to “a curious inversion of reality”,
“genuine grievances and self-pitying paranoia was ignited” through the process of ‘othering’
and enemy identification, unifying the victim-group in their cause and finger-pointing
(Ignatieff 1999: 42). In line with this, the very union of this group of “Bahraini people” as
presented through this inscription is conferred by its rejection of the plot and, in fact, the
entire being of what has been portrayed as the enemy. As argued by Bhatia, “an
announcement or identification of evil is thus closely intertwined with a political project
occurring within a society, as ‘these alter-drives…are required for the stabilization of
identity’”. Hence, conspiracy theories portray and actively create not only the identity of the
‘enemy-other’ but also and relatedly the identity of the ‘us’. Again referring to Bhatia and his
assertion concerning the assignment of positive virtues and negative traits, while the ‘other’
is cast in shadows of evilness and perpetration, the ‘self’ is cast in the lime-light and assigned
strictly positive virtues in terms of justness, heroism and innocent victimhood in relation to
the actions of the perpetrator (2005: 15). Essentially, these identities are formed by the
portrayal of not just opposition but total polarity as the ‘us’ comes to be the anti-image of the
‘enemy-other’. In turn, the portrayal of the ‘enemy-other’ as, for example criminal, comes to
convey the anti-image of society as popular conceptions of “maleficium” are defined in this
portrayal. The (explicit or implicit) portrayal of such polarity through conspiracy theories
such as the one discussed here serves a crucial function as “social movements grow by
defining themselves in dialectic opposition to others”, usually evil others (Stewart and
Strathern 2004: 17). As such, the opposition and protesters in Bahrain communicating this
conspiracy theory are “categorizing beliefs in such a way that marshals support and
opposition to their interests” (Scheufele 1999: 110). As support for the interest of the ‘us’ – in
the form of a ‘cause’ -- is thus marshaled in direct relationship to the existence of an ‘enemyother’, the step to unified action against this ‘other’ is a small one. While the discursive
legitimization for action will be the subject of the following chapter, it needs to be asserted
here that discourse legitimizes action and, in the language of war such action tends to be
both unified and violent. Even though it is impossible to assert causality, a link can be
asserted between the discourse of the conspiracy theory alleging demographic engineering
and the violent acts against Sunni immigrants in Bahrain. Considering the grievances of
unequal job opportunities and discrimination underlying this conspiracy theory, as well as
the fact that much of Bahrain’s police force – the same force that continues to brutally crack
down on protesters -- is comprised of foreigners, as well as the actual narrative of a plot
being composed against Bahrain’s native Shi’a population with foreign Sunni nationals as
the government’s agents, the ‘retaliatory’ violence enacted against Sunni immigrants should
come as no great surprise. In our interview, Ying Welsh asserted that in the chaos of
contemporary Bahrain, “Sunni immigrants – from Pakistan or Syria or places like that -- were
mistaken for the same type of reckless mercenary who didn’t have a problem with
destroying the fabric of society” and that “people thought they could get away with
attacking these immigrants because their human rights aren’t respected anyway. Like in
other places in the Gulf, they are at the bottom of the social hierarchy”6. As such attacks on
other members of society come to make sense through the discourse of ‘othering’ and
unification, the dualisms in the discourse of conflict become apparent, dualisms consistent of
notions of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and conformity versus dissent (Demmers 2012: 8; Jabri 1996:
108). As asserted earlier, in the process of categorization the discourse of exclusion and
inclusion entails the assimilation of positive attributes with the ‘self’, and negative attributes
with the ‘enemy-other’. As such, the ‘self’ “is associated with courage and civilization while
the ‘other’ is presented as barbaric and diabolical. The interconnected dualism of conformity
versus dissent embodies the idea that if you are not with ‘us’ then you are against ‘us’. In this
totalizing discursive minefield, nuances become a rarity, at least according to the
conspiracist. Society and politics become polarized as reality is portrayed in terms of these
dualisms, present even in a simple six-word hand-written protest sign.
In discussing conspiracism in the context of the Algerian Civil War, Silverstein highlights
how, time and time again, conspiracy theorists have, in their conspiracist narratives and
discourses, framed reality to provide an answer to the question “qui tue qui?” – “who is
killing whom”? (2002: 655). The question’s formulation in the present tense begs a certain
degree of urgency and actuality as the killing is still happening now as it has in the past.
Those to be held responsible need to be stopped and their guilt remembered throughout
history as the truth behind the story being told. As such, if we move away from the literal
meaning of this question and understand it to refer to who to hold accountable for a social
misfortune, what lies at the heart of such question begging is the construction of a
framework to guide discursive versions and constructions of reality in terms of blame and
accusation. For, in asking who did what, the conspiracist, as a discursive actor, will
Author’s interview with Ying Welsh, on 22-03-12.
inevitably point a finger in order to provide an un-falsifiable answer – a socially meaningful
and politically functional diagnosis. As argued throughout this chapter, in the case of
conspiracism and conspiracy theories in Bahrain, this finger is pointed at ‘others’, in this
specific case the Bahraini government and Sunni immigrants. Within the process of
‘othering’ by placing blame, responsibility and finger-pointing, in the context of Bahrain’s
dire social situation, the ‘other’ quickly becomes the enemy; an enemy to be remembered
throughout history. While such blaming and vilifying constructs and is born from division
on the one hand, it asserts unity and cohesion on the other hand. In the discourse of
exclusion and inclusion, the ‘other’ represents dissent and thereby treachery while the ‘us’
supports the morally superior cause through conformity. Hence, the conspiracy theory of a
government plot to tilt the sectarian and demographic balance in favor of Bahrain’s minority
Sunni population through the naturalization of Sunni immigrants serves as an answer in
terms of the question: qui tue qui? in that it provides a framework to explain reality as it
encompasses past discourses on the same topic, protesters’ grievances, and figments of both
imagination and evidence. In doing so conspiracy theories such as the one at hand here
function in a transformative process of ‘othering’ as structures for identifying the ‘enemyother’ are constructed and support is garnered for ‘us’, the innocent victims of a heinous
crime committed by a criminal, an ‘other’, an adversary of the worst kind.
Bahrain is technically a constitutional hereditary monarchy with the King as the Head of State and
the Prime Minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa (uncle to the King) as the Head of
Government. Bahrain’s prime minister is, according to the Al Jazeera documentary ‘Bahrain: Shouting
in the Dark’, the World’s longest ruling Prime Minister (‘Shouting in the Dark’ 2011). In practice, “the
King enjoys broad executive powers, which he exercises both directly and through his ministers, who
are appointed and dismissed by Royal Decree”. Additionally, the King is supreme commander of the
Bahrain Defense Force and presides over the Higher Judicial Council (BICI Report 2011: 13 - 15).
Indicatively, Bahrain’s iconic Financial Harbor area was sold to the Al Khalifa family at the symbolic
price of one Bahraini dinar. (‘Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark’ 2011).
While they also state that there is no evidence to support “the idea that people believe in conspiracy
theories because they provide simplified explanations of complex events”, this does not entail that
conspiracy theories do not function as simplified explanations of complex events when confronted
with a predicament (Abalakina-Paap and Stephan 1999: 637, 639).
See introduction on why conspiracy theories flourish.
The actual causing of harm against the constructed ‘enemy-other’ will be discussed in the following
Milosovic, made this remark while giving a speech…)
Chapter II
Who is Killing Whom? – The Victim’s Defense…
The legitimization of violence and ‘sectarianization’
When asked about foreign intervention and interference in Bahrain in the context of its
contemporary social unrest, Matthew Cassel (journalist and photographer) replied:
If you want to talk about foreign intervention in Bahrain – it was
very clear when the GCC and Saudi forces entered Bahrain. You
don’t see Iranian flags in Bahrain. In the Shi’a houses there may be a
picture of Hassan Nasrallah or Khomeini. But I saw maybe one of
each of these and I went to a lot of households. On the other hand
you do see a lot of Saudi Arabian flags, sort of like after 9/11 in the
US – to show that you are supportive of the regime you can put a
sticker on your car with a Bahraini flag intertwined with a Saudi
Arabian flag. There are Saudi flags just hanging in the street7 xi.
Yet while Cassel asserts his skepticism with regards to any foreign intervention in Bahrain
other than from Saudi Arabia and the GCC forces, others have, in fact, asserted that
Bahrain’s opposition and the protesters are connected to foreign powers through more than
hanging the odd picture of foreigners like Hassan Nasrallah or Khomeini on the walls of
their homes.
In a speech on the 8th of April as aired on Bahraini state T.V., His Royal Highness Crown
Prince Salman Al Khalifa asserted the government’s line regarding Bahrain’s recent unrest,
the state’s response and his hopes and aims for the country’s future. In outlining the course
and reality of the recent events in Bahrain, the Crown Prince stated the following:
We have witnessed unfortunate events and faced difficult situations.
We were aware from the beginning the magnitude of what was
occurring and the seriousness of the threat posed by those seeking to
manipulate events. We were immensely concerned that some of our
youth were pushed towards a destructive path and that the nation
was drawn along with them. With our responsibility towards the
people of Bahrain, we took necessary action to preserve lives and the
livelihood and interests of all the people, based on our commitment
to Islamic and Arab values (translated from Arabic. Pattas 2011).
As asserted by Van Dijk, “we know that discourse is never fully explicit” and that “language
users presuppose that recipients have vast amounts of general socio-cultural knowledge
[…]” (2008(b): 184). Implicit in the Crown Prince’s statement is a reference to the role of
Author’s interview with Cassel, on 02-04-12.
external forces in what is being perceived as the misfortune of the protests. Particularly
telling is the statement’s reference to Bahraini youth and their being pushed “towards a
destructive path”. What is evidenced here is how “the [supposed] actions of the few are
consistently used to characterize the [supposed] experience, beliefs and intentions of many”
(Bhatia 2005: 14). Through statements such as this the protesters and Bahrain’s opposition,
as an equitable enemy-mass, are implicitly framed as external agents and, thereby, external
threats against Bahrain’s “Islamic and Arab values”, guided by the ‘hidden hand’ of “those
seeking to manipulate events”. These ‘manipulators’ have been specifically identified as Iran
and, less commonly but equally significant, Hezbollah.
It is the government’s and regime loyalists’ conspiracist assertions of the later – Hezbollah’s
involvement in Bahrain – which will function as the focus of this chapter. As the Sunni state
and royal family accuse the (mostly) Shiite opposition of being agents to a foreign power in
the conspiracy theory of Hezbollah’s involvement in the protests, the same three crucial
dichotomies as those highlighted in the previous chapter become apparent, albeit in a
slightly different form. Firstly, this conspiracy theory differentiates between ‘us’ and ‘them’
in terms of the government and regime loyalists, and the opposition and protesters.
However, rather than affirming the protests’ relation to the larger Arab Spring movement,
the divide as framed here questions and challenges the legitimacy of the protesters as they
are said to be scheming, with foreign support against the Bahraini state’s. Secondly, this
conspiracy theory is congenial to the construction of a boundary between Bahrainis and
foreigners. The same type of xenophobia as revealed in the previous chapter underlies the
conspiracy theory at hand here. However, this fear of foreigners is not directed against a
general and relatively powerless tool of the conspirators such as ‘the Sunni immigrant’ but,
rather, against very specific foreign powers. As such, the Bahraini state projects its fear linearecta at enemies across its border – a projection which, as will be discussed in the following
chapter, reveals regional, international and even global tensions and schisms. Thirdly and
relatedly, this conspiracy theory again references the ticking time bomb that is sectarian
tension in not only Bahrain but in the entire region. As these boundaries converge in the
narrative of this conspiracy theory, a clearly demarcated ‘enemy-other’ emerges through the
process of ‘othering’ (as described in the previous chapter) the construction of whom serves
in a process of the legitimization for action against this identified and vilified ‘other’. As
reality is framed in terms of a diagnosis demarcating ‘us’ from the ‘enemy-other’, conspiracy
theories as manifest in Bahrain thus also function as a prognosis – a plan of action against
the diagnosed problem in what is an inherently adversarial and violent construction of
reality. It is this process of framing reality, in this case by the state, in conspiracist terms so
as to legitimize action in the name of what is portrayed as a morally just cause, which is the
topic of this chapter. I argue that, through the conspiracy theory dealt with here, blame and
responsibility are cast in terms of victims and perpetrators whereby defensive action (and by
action I mean violence) against the ‘other’ becomes not only imaginable but perceived as the
only and best course for history. As violence is legitimized, the inherent processes of
reification and polarization create a new (contested) reality, signifying the function of
conspiracist portrayals of reality such as the one at hand here in a transformative process
which alters the social reality xii.
The ‘Bahraini Hezbollah’ conspiracy theory:
As asserted by Jay Solomon in his Wall Street Journal article, “Bahrain has accused the
Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah with seeking to overthrow the island-state's ruling family,
in a report to the United Nations, escalating the growing cold war between Sunni Arab
states and Shiite-dominated Iran”. The confidential report claims that Bahraini members of
the opposition have been receiving training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon for years and
“accuses Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and other senior members of the Islamist
Lebanese organization of directly plotting with Bahrain's largely Shiite opposition on how to
challenge the ruling Khalifa family” (Solomon 25-04-11). While, as with the opposition’s and
protesters’ conspiracy theory discussed in the previous chapter, evidence is scant and Iran,
Hezbollah and the opposition deny any affiliation with each other, “many Bahraini and
other Gulf Arab Sunnis appear to believe deeply, or at least are continuously told, that
dissent and unrest in the country is driven
by not only Iran, but Hezbollah, which
supposedly has a large long-standing
organization in Bahrain” (Solomon 25-0411; Ibish 2011: 7). This supposed longstanding Hezbollah organization is also
known as Bahraini Hezbollah, a name
applied to the Al Wefaq National Islamic
Society (Al Wefaq) opposition party by the
government, regime loyalists, and
Bahrain’s state media. As asserted in an
article from the website of the state-owned
Al Watan News, “some Bahraini and Arab
Figure vi: an image of, supposedly, a nurse’s locker with
pictures of Nasrallah at Salmaniya Medical Complex as
personalities declared that the Bahraini
posted online on April 20 2011.
Hezbollah, represented by Al Wefaq
society and their followers are servants to their masters in Qom and Tehran and are
implementing a hostile agenda against Bahrain to serve Safavid and populist schemes”
(Youssef 01-10-11). Such assertions are supported and evidenced by images such as Figure
vi showing pictures of Nasrallah supposedly stuck on a nurse’s locker at Salmaniya Medical
Complex. Where Bahrain’s Crown Prince, in his speech as quoted above, carefully asserts
the apparent magnitude and seriousness of threats posed to Bahrain and its values by
implicitly referencing external influences, the Al Watan article and other conspiracist
sources like Figure vi openly rely on ambiguous conspiracist language and interpretations to
convey the same message. Terms such as ‘schemes’, ‘implementing’, ‘hostile agenda’, and
‘masters’, convey the existence of an evil foreign master plot. Silverstein highlights the usage
of similar terminology in the Algerian state’s conspiracist rhetoric during the country’s Civil
War, asserting that the government in its conspiracist communicative wartime practice
“pointed the finger at a congeries of ‘foreign circles’ from Tehran to ‘London and other
European capitals’ for contributing to the ‘fiendish process’ of terrorism […] and seeking to
‘interfere’ with and destabilize Algeria” (2002: 651).
It is this specifically conspiracist language that, in a volatile social situation, affords
conspiracy theories their power to frame reality in terms of blame and responsibility. Hence,
their framing-power is what makes conspiracy theories, in Bhatia’s terms, combat devices;
their words are “of equal power to bombs” and can produce real disasters as their dialectic
nature can allow them to bridge the gap between figurative action and literal action (2005: 6;
Stewart and Strathern 2004: 29). As asserted by Stewart and Strathern, for this to happen and
to make simple words true combat devices, to make them “harmful, even lethal, in this way,
they have to be spoken in contexts of ideology that are congenial to them”(2004: 29). As with
the process of turning the ‘other’ into the enemy and garnering support for what is
portrayed as the morally superior cause, the process of turning words into action on behalf
of this cause depends on discourse being framed in social meaning congenial to notions of
legitimacy. What affords this conspiracy theory meaning, I argue, is its historical
significance and re-interpretation of historical events as well as its un-falsifiability in
contemporary times of turmoil and threats, whereby it “correspond[s] in some very
important ways with the perceptions about the world” that some Bahraini citizens and at
least significant parts of their government hold (Schrecker 2004: 1047). In essence, social
meaning as constructed through historicity, and therein memory, is used as a form of
evidence so as to ‘empirically’ support the discourse of this conspiracy theory. As referenced
earlier, Benford and Snow assert the role of ‘evidence’ in frames, stating that “empirical
credibility” is grounded in a relationship between the ‘real’ world and the discursive claims
of a frame where “the issue here is not whether diagnostic and prognostic claims [(as
manifest in this conspiracy theory)] are actually factual or valid, but whether their empirical
referents lend themselves to being read as ‘real’ indicators of the diagnostic claims” (2000:
620, my emphasis). As asserted by Gray, the linkage of the current situation in Bahrain to a
“wider historical narrative” pertaining to the Arab region as presented in the ‘BahrainiHezbollah’ conspiracy theory, “whether or not [Bahrain’s conspiracists] believe [their] own
rhetoric, [serves the function of] claim[ing] sympathy and legitimacy from society and the
region” for the cause of the conspiracist (2010(a): 34). While ‘sympathy’ is perhaps too
passive a word for the support gained in this manner, Gray’s reference to the achievement of
legitimacy for action through the conspiracist framing of reality in socially meaningful
discourse is, as illustrated upon analysis of the government’s ‘Bahraini-Hezbollah’
conspiracy theory and its dichotomizations, right on the mark.
The fear and threat of the ‘Safavid’:
As asserted above, the ‘Bahraini Hezbollah’ conspiracy theory is based on assertions along
the lines of a scheme at the hands of the conspirators’ masters in Qom and Tehran in an
attempt at Safavid and populist domination. Regarding this framing of reality and its
historical and social meaning, Cassel recalls the following in his article 48 hours in Sanabis:
In the early hours of the morning, when the clashes died down,
protesters gathered in "safe homes", said goodbye to each other and
went their separate ways. I heard them jokingly refer to each other as
‘Safawiin’ in Arabic and asked a protester what it meant. He
explained that he didn't understand the term when he first heard the
police and government supporters use it against them earlier this
year, so he went online to find its meaning. He discovered it's a
reference to the 16th century Safavid dynasty in Iran, which first
made Shia Islam the official state religion (Cassel 02-12-11).
While the label ‘safavid’ directly refers to Iran, or more specifically 17th century Persia, rather
than to Hezbollah, the two Shiite enemies are, in the narration and rhetoric of this
conspiracy theory, seen to be directly related to each other (also see Cole 1987). Hezbollah, in
being politically and financially supported by (amongst others) Iran, is here described as an
Iranian tool in its quest for re-establishing its long-lost control over Bahrain. Hezbollah, in
being a militia, is seen to serve the role of supplying protesters and the opposition with
practical knowledge and training, both through its camps and leaders in Lebanon, and
through its established Bahraini tentacle, Al Wefaq, also known by some as Bahraini
Hezbollah. Essentially, Bahrain’s Shabab, or youth, are portrayed as being corrupted by
Hezbollah and its affiliates on behalf of the implementation of an Iranian, and thereby Shiite
plot for dominance. In other words, Bahraini Hezbollah is a servant to its Iranian masters in
their quest to implement a new Safavid empire in the Gulf Island in which the Shiite rules
and the Sunni…well, disappears. This fear of Shi’a dominance at the expense of the Sunni as
expressed in this conspiracy theory was described by Ying Welsh during our interview as
from the perspective of a Bahraini Sunni MP who “said that many Sunnis in Bahrain are
afraid that Bahrain will be another Iraq with Sunnis lying in gutters with power-drill holes
in their bodies. Bahrain will turn into Iranian colony where Sunnis are persecuted”8.
Regardless of how real – or true -- the threat of Shiite dominance as apparently posed by
Iran and its Bahraini-Hezbollah agents is, the fear entrenched in society through such a
socially meaningful and politically functional conspiracist discourse is certainly real. Its
resonance and repercussions throughout society entails the portrayal and active
construction of dichotomies -- of boundaries and polarity grounded in fear, grievance, anger
and perceptions of existential threats. While Sunni members of Bahrain’s opposition were
certainly active and silenced perhaps even quicker and more forcefully than Shiite
opposition members in the context of the uprisings, a simplified version of Bahrain’s
complex social reality is constructed through this conspiracy theory as Shiites come to
symbolize not only the political opposition but also foreign agency in Bahrain’s situation.
The label ‘savafid’ as entrenched in Bahrain’s conspiracist rhetoric thus comes to
simultaneously encompass and fence-off Shiites, the political opposition and foreign powers
such as Iran and Hezbollah as a single, plotting enemy in a process of ‘othering’ as outlined
in the preceding chapter. Action against this fearful, threatening and now clearly
demarcated enemy comes to be perceived as necessary and imaginable as the enemy’s
presence in society becomes
comparable to a disease. And
“disease must be excised from
the body of the nation” – as
eloquently stated on a progovernment billboard in
Author’s interview with Ying Welsh, on 23-03-12.
Figure vii: a billboard in Muharraq portraying jailed opposition figures
with the slogan above reading “disease must be excised from the body of
the nation”.
Muharraq, Bahrain (see Figure vii). In essence, I argue, this billboard and the conspiracy
theory that is the subject of this chapter convey a similar discourse aimed against a
categorized and labeled ‘other’ with an eye on legitimizing action against this ‘other’
through playing on instilled fears within society. In the case of the billboard, the verb
‘excise’ says it all. After diagnosing the problem a prognosis is now offered: the threatening
and fearful ‘disease’ must be ousted and expelled and action in the form of excision is called
for, for the sake of the ‘body of the nation’xiii. What is evident in the fear of the ‘safavid’ in
general and the billboard and its slogans as shown in Figure vii specifically is how “national
borders confirm[…] the distinction between insiders and outsiders, emphasizing the
necessity of protecting citizens by ‘exterminating’ enemies or driving them beyond the civic
boundary” (Steuter and Wills 2009: 19). Like the billboard, the conspiracy theory of
Hezbollah’s hidden hand in Bahrain’s protests inherently frames reality in both diagnostic
and prognostic frames, highlighting, either explicitly or implicitly, the need for and logic
sense in action against those to be feared and (the ‘enemy-other’) diagnosed as no longer
welcome in the national realm; violent action against the threatening and fearful ‘enemyother’ -- as embodied in the ‘safavid’ – becomes imaginable (Benford and Snow 2000).
Dangerous imaginings, deadly reality:
“The moral boundary between war and non-war is
defined by the acceptance or legitimacy conferred on
violence as a form of human behavior” (Jabri 1996: 7).
Schröder and Schmidt define legitimation for violent action against the ‘other’ in the context
of conflict as “the official sanctioning of violence as the legitimate course of action through
the imagining of violent scenarios from the past and their social representation” (2001: 19).
In other words, “violence needs to be imagined in order to be carried out” and the
imagining of violence is born out of a certain portrayal of history; “the most important code
of the legitimation of war [or violence] is its historicity”. When it comes to framing reality in
terms of history, memory is a key player. As stated by Schröder and Schmidt, “elements of
history are de-contextualized and reinterpreted as part of a communal legend of
confrontation, creating an imaginary of internal solidarity and outside hostility.
Antagonistic discourses are not invented or discontinuous with history, but fragments of
memory are shifted in order to constitute new definitions of collective identity” (2001: 9, 11).
As the 17th century Persian Safavid rule in Bahrain and the Shiite dominance therein is
systematically recalled in contemporary anti-protester and opposition discourse memories
of this past become the basis for contemporary imaginings of violence as the best response to
the misfortune of these protests. As asserted by Schröder and Schmidt, “wars are fought
from memory, and they are often fought over memory, over the power to establish one
group’s view of the past as the legitimate one” (2001: 9). As both the past and the present are
contested in the struggle over the representation of reality, the legitimacy of violent
imaginaries and, therewith, violent action comes to be a prize in this contest over reality. In
other words, “the struggle over representation [of the present and the future as much as the
past] is directly a struggle over the legitimacy of violent acts” (Bhatia 2005: 12, 13). Schröder
and Schmidt argue exactly the same in their explanation of the process of discursive
legitimation in terms of the imagining of violent scenarios or violent imaginaries which
frame historicity in a code of social meaning; the struggle over violent imaginaries through
which violence is legitimized is the same as the struggle over the representation of reality.
As outlined by Schröder and Schmidt, violent imaginaries encompass five key elements,
which function as the discursive building blocks of Bahrain’s conspiracy theories, both those
produced by the government and by its opposition. The first characteristic of violent
imaginaries in their role as legitimizing devices for violent action is their “polarized
structure of ‘we:they’ that no individual can escape and leaves no room for ambiguity. As
the boundaries such as those highlighted above are constructed in polarizing terms of good
and evil, innocence and blame, ‘we’ become the anti-image of the ‘enemy-they’ in what
Schröder and Schmidt refer to as “strategies of social closure” (2001: 14). Inherent in the
process of ‘othering’ in the context of conspiracism and its finger-pointing is the second
element of violent imaginaries identified by Schröder and Schmidt, namely: “the principle of
totality” whereby “any action or expression by the other party of the confrontational
relationship is taken to be a threat or aggressive act that calls for defensive action”. Thirdly,
violent imaginaries include the “identification of ‘our’ side with the survival and well-being
of every individual: the struggle [and thereby action] is of vital importance for the life of the
group”. Hence, reality is portrayed in apocalyptic terms of life and death as applicable to an
entire group, just as dissent is seen as treachery toward this entirety and not just toward the
group’s leaders. In line with this, a fourth element highlighted by Schröder and Schmidt is
that “post-war society is portrayed in dire terms: there can only be complete victory or
defeat”. Such a portrayal calls for the presentation of “the moral superiority of ‘our’ cause”
as a factor independent of victory or defeat, a fifth characteristic of violent imaginaries (2001:
10, 11)xiv.
In the violent imaginary that is the conspiracist narrative of Hezbollah’s role in the protests
and violence in Bahrain, the ‘other’, the protester and the opposition member, the Shiite and
the agent of an un-godly militia working for a foreign power are all polarized from the ‘us’,
the legitimate ruler, the sustainer of order and the victim of the purely evil actions of those
‘others’ trying to manipulate the world. In this narrative, Hezbollah, with its terror-tactics
and affiliates are the anti-image of morality, of order and peace; they present the ultimate
existential threat to what has been called the Bahraini way of live. And without victory over
these terrorists and foreign agents, Bahraini Islamic and Arab values will be in dire straits,
leaving no option but to defeat those ‘others’ trying to defeat ‘us’. In line with the encoded
imaginaries as portrayed in this conspiracy theory and as outlined according to Schröder
and Schmidt’s characterization, Hofstadter elegantly proclaims the following about the
conspiracist, the reflection of which can be found in the conspiracy theory discussed here
(amongst others):
the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as
something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the
working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between
absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise
but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought
of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally
eliminated. […]. This enemy is [totally] delineated: he is the perfect
model of malice (1964: 85).
Offense in the name of defense:
In his discussion concerning the power of
names in times of conflict, and in line with
Hofstadter’s assertion concerning the
militant conspiracist, Bhatia states that “in
internal conflicts images and names are used
to depersonalize opponents and create fertile
ground for inter-communal violence, ethnic
cleansing and genocide. Rumors circulate
concerning impending attacks or political
conspiracies. Offensive action is taken in the
name of defense […]” (2005: 11).
Embroidering upon Bhatia’s reference to the
power of rumors, the same is asserted by
Stewart and Strathern who, in reference to
rumors circulating about the Sri Lankan
Tamil Tigers, state that “panic ensued,
which in turn influenced people’s attitudes
to ‘retaliatory’ violence. It is this syndrome
Figure viii: A sign at a pro-government rally in Isa Town,
[of rumor influencing attitudes towards
Bahrain, February 25 2011.
violence] that makes rumor such a potent
factor in labile situations: it redirects people’s choices of action” (2004: 185). Conspiracy
theories in contemporary Bahrain function in much the same way as the rumors highlighted
by Bhatia, and Stewart and Strathern. As the social situation escalated into unrest and
violence in Bahrain, ‘retaliatory’ violence against that which was perceived as the
misfortune and against allegations, accusations and fear of an ‘enemy attack’ was and is still
portrayed, through conspiracy theories such as this one, as legitimatexv. In portraying and
vilifying the ‘enemy- other’ in absolute and abstract terms as analyzed in the previous
chapter, what is ultimately constructed is a frame by which to “distinguish as sharply as
possible the act of killing from the act of murder” (Elshtain 1985: 25). Bahrain’s government,
in being portrayed as the target of an orchestrated plot, can now legitimately defend itself
against the categorically identified enemy, even if it is in the form of a pre-emptive,
technically offensive violent act like the brutal crackdown on protesters at Pearl Roundabout
on the morning of the 17th of February 2011 (as symbolized in Figure viii).
With such assertions of perpetration and the right to defensive action automatically come
assertions of ‘victimcy’. As asserted by Mats Utas in his discussion of victimcy and tactic
agency amongst women in Liberia, “there is so much to gain by supplying a complete victim
image. Such an image is intended to rid the person of social blame” (2005: 409). Hence, the
‘Bahraini Hezbollah’ conspiracy theory portrays the victim perpetrator dichotomy in
Bahrain in such a way that it meets the political goal of not only garnering support for the
cause but also legitimizing action on behalf of this cause. Action is thus framed as necessary
defense, even self-defense to which all innocent, blame-less victims have a right.
This specific framing of reality in terms of victims and perpetrators, innocence and blame,
and defensive and offensive action as seen through this analysis of the function of
conspiracy theories in Bahrain as a means to legitimize violent action, can be analyzed in
terms of collective action frame theory as presented by Benford and Snow (2000). While a
discussion of collective action and mobilization in relation to Bahrain’s protests lies beyond
the scope of this thesis, the notion of collective action frames needs to be highlighted in the
context of the legitimization of violence through conspiracy theories as these theories are
indeed frames and violence is indeed action. Much like Schröder and Schmidt’s
interpretation of violent imaginaries, collective action frames are employed in the struggle
and contest over meaning, reflecting and constructing notions of power and legitimacy.
Benford and Snow state that collective action frames “are action-oriented sets of beliefs and
meanings that inspire and legitimate the activities and campaigns of a social movement
organization” (2000: 614). In their overview of framing processes and social movements,
Benford and Snow distinguish between interlinked diagnostic collective action frames,
prognostic collective action frames and motivational collective action frames. They assert
that, “since social movements [or, in the case of Bahrain, social actors in a volatile context]
seek to remedy or alter some problematic situation or issue, it follows that directed action is
contingent on identification of the source(s) of causality, blame, and/or culpable agents”
(2000: 615, 616)xvi. As such, in accordance with a diagnosis, conspiracist frames also indicate
a prognosis or plan of attack. As an accusation against the ‘enemy-other’ is made,
“’reasonable’ solutions and strategies [are] advocated” through such prognostic framing.
Hence, prognostic framing based on a diagnosis of the culprit as seen in conspiracy theories
holds the potential to provide “a ‘call to arms’ or rationale for engaging in ameliorative
collective action” (Benford and Snow 2000: 616, 617). The “core framing task” of prognostic
framing is exemplified by Bahrain’s Crown Prince’s conspiracist speech on Bahraini national
T.V. on the 8th of April 2011, as quoted earlier, in which he stated: “with our responsibility
towards the people of Bahrain, we took necessary action to preserve lives and the livelihood
and interests of all the people, based on our commitment to Islamic and Arab values”
(Benford and Snow 2000, Pattas 2011). It is implicitly evident that this statement refers to the
general and much contested crackdown on protesters by the Bahraini police forces and all
other forms of violence employed on behalf of the Bahraini state and the retention of ‘order’
for the sake of “Arab and Islamic values” throughout the previous months of unrest.
Ranging from the indiscriminate firing of teargas into villagers’ homes and setting up
roadblocks around Shiite villages to shooting protesters at close range, in light of the
supposed conspiracy against the Bahraini state, the Crown Prince’s statement offers the
committers of this now legitimatized violence absolution. As such, through the assertion of
a prognosis in response to a diagnosis of the ‘problem’, blame is simultaneously placed on
the ‘perpetrator-other’ and diverted from the ‘victim-self’; the government is clearly not to
blame for the chaos, unrest and violence instigated in Bahrain by the evil-doings of external
powers and their agents, and any violence against these ‘true’ instigators of chaos is simply
part of a legitimate plan of action – like the use of antibiotics to fight off a nasty bacterial
infection. In the conspiracy theory of Hezbollah’s interference, the Bahraini state thus
legitimizes “behaviors that would otherwise be more easily challenged” through diagnostic
and prognostic framing as it (re-)directs blame toward another, an enemy (re-)constructed
for the occasion and “difficult to define or encapsulate fully” beyond their identification
with Hezbollah, Iran and a plot for Shiite dominance but clearly threatening and fearful
enough to justify violence (Gray 2010(b): 130). This goes to illustrate the direct link and
interconnectedness between the processes of ‘othering’ as discussed in the previous chapter
(through diagnostic framing) and processes of legitimizing action (through prognostic
framing). Fundamentally, as the sources of misfortune and the blamable agent are identified
thought the collective action frame of this conspiracy theory, violent action in the context of
the Bahraini conflict comes to be rendered an “inevitable and at times acceptable form of
human conduct”, even if its consequences are neither predictable nor necessarily desirable
(Jabri 1996: 3).
The ‘sectarianization’ of Bahrain’s conflict:
Crucially, at no point throughout the discursive process of the conspiracist portrayal of the
reality of social unrest do violent imaginaries or collective action frames spontaneously
result in actual violent action; “violent imaginaries do not turn into violent practices on their
own account, they are always implemented through human agency”. As such, violence,
once legitimized and enacted, can be described as a strictly “social action [based in
historicity and social meaning] relative to the interests and convictions of conscious actors”.
Thusly, we have to wonder who these human agents are and why they would implement or
communicate violent imaginaries through, for example, conspiracy theories, so as to make
violence happen (Schröder and Schmidt 2001: 9-11, 1). While this key question will be
referred back to in the following chapter, it can be said here that violence and anything that
leads to violent action is a performance. As stated by Schröder and Schmidt, violence
without an audience will still leave people dead but it is socially meaningless. Violent acts as
legitimized through, for example, the conspiracy theory discussed here tend to serve an
instrumental role within society, encompassing an element of rational instrumentality; they
are somehow useful and thus employed out of a desire to achieve a certain end. Violence is a
performance meant to entertain, or rather, condition as large an audience as possible, a
performance conveying messages about reality with unmistakable clarity; “violent acts are
efficient because of their staging of power and legitimacy” (2001: 3, 5, 6). However, while
violence may serve certain functions in and of itself, both it and the discursive constructions
that give it the capacity to stage power and legitimacy involve only an element of
instrumental rationality and political functionality. The other element that constitutes the
process of making violence happen as a means to an end is, as highlighted earlier, the
inclusion of social meaning in the process of legitimizing violence through discourses like
conspiracy theories. As asserted earlier, a discourse will not exist if it is not politically
functional and socially meaningful. It is this social meaning or, as it is referred to by
Schröder and Schmidt, the cultural grammar that is included in discourses in times of
conflict that afford such discourses and ensuing or related violence “a more permanent
meaning” (2001: 3). As such, while discourses can be politically functional in making
violence happen, neither the discourse nor the consequences of the violent reality it
constructs are predictable or entirely politically moldable. In essence, when it comes to
discourses such as the conspiracy theories in Bahrain and their prognostic capacity to make
violence happen, the instrumentalist or constructor of these discourses has only a limited
capacity to control the actual functionality of that discourse and its social repercussions.
This self-sustaining, practically uncontrollable aspect of discourse in the context of violence
transcends two dichotomies. Firstly, it indicates the mutually constitutive and dependent
nature of the relationship between elites and their followers in discourse construction, the
details of which will be saved for a different discussion at a different time. Secondly,
discursive constructions like the conspiracy theory dealt with here, in being socially
meaningful, can actually transcend the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy they so inherently and
effectively construct. While the government’s linkage of the protests to Hezbollah’s
infiltration as an attempt to implement an Iranian agenda in Bahrain legitimizes violence
against these protesters, it also calls upon socially meaningful memories and historicity to
construct its narrative and, therein, the identity of the protesters. While clearly meant as an
insult or at least an assertion of the protesters’ and opposition’s mal-intentions, the
government’s and regime loyalists’ rhetoric concerning the Safavid era of dominance and the
labeling of the protesters as ‘Safawiid’ has, as asserted by Cassel, come to function as a
discursive tool for the very people it was supposed to attack. In describing the use of the
term amongst protesters Cassel asserts that “rather than letting the ‘ridiculous’ name calling
get to them, the protester laughingly explained how he and others appropriated the term
and now use it amongst each other. Like the Pearl monument, first built as a symbol of unity
between Gulf nations, protesters appropriated the symbol as one of their revolution” (Cassel
02-12-11). In a perhaps unforeseen or uncontrollable back-lash, the symbolic arsenal of the
conspiracists’ opponent is amplified as protesters come to own the very language used
against them. In this way the narrative and rhetoric of this conspiracy theory serves not only
as a functional device on behalf of its creators but also on behalf of those it accuses, vilifies
and legitimizes violence against. This process of re-appropriation in the context of the only
partially controllable consequences of discourses like conspiracy theories, illustrates
Schröder and Schmidt’s assertion that, indeed, “the experience of violence can be framed
quite differently by victims and perpetrators. The victim can take the opportunity to subvert
the dominant group’s intention to intimidate them through the use of violence by attaching
cultural meaning of their own to the suffering, a meaning that allows them to re-claim
agency and political identity” (2001: 6).
In the context of the violence being perpetrated in Bahrain, this process of appropriation of
the conspiracist’s discourse by the ‘enemy-other’, in light of the uncontrollable nature of this
conspiracist discourse, exemplifies the development of a dangerous and sinister reality in
Bahrain. As asserted previously here and in other chapters, in emphasizing the Shiite nature
of the enemy, the conspiracist devises a boundary between Bahrain’s Sunni and Shiite
population. The violence that is legitimized and committed in the name of the protection of
one of these now constructed groups (in this case the Sunni minority) reifies (or ‘thingifies’)
this boundary and, thereby, polarizes Bahrain’s two main sectarian groups. In other words,
Bahrain’s violence makes religious orientation a real ‘thing’ as it is now, in the context of this
violence, a matter of life and death. In this sense, Bahrain’s government, while claiming to
want to prevent the country from falling into a sectarian abyss, seems to have made the all
too common ‘error of reification’ (‘Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark’ 2011). Baumann conveys
about ethnic violence that, “if one responds to it [the supposed ethnic violence] by ethnic
mobilization, one plays the same card as the ethnicists themselves, and unless one is careful,
one risks feeding the very monster one set out to kill” (Baumann 1999: 63). The same can be
asserted when it comes to the emphasis and legitimization of violence based on assertions of
sectarian violence as seen in Bahrain. As “hostility begets hostility”, violence breeds violence
and the man-made construction of religion and religious differences become reified,
Bahrain’s conflict, rather than allowing for clear-cut categorization as a pro-democracy
protest becomes sectarian instead; the scene of Bahrain’s conflict is polluted as through
violent acts the portrayal of a ‘sectarianized’ reality offered through the government’s
conspiracy theory becomes the actual reality (Azar 1990: 15). This essential ‘sectarianization’
of Bahrain’s conflict can be related to what Brubaker and Laitin refer to as the ‘ethnicization’
of political violence whereby “there is an increase in the share of ethnic and nationalist
violence in all political violence”. Crucially, “the ‘ethnic’ quality of ethnic violence is not
intrinsic to the act itself; it emerges through after-the-fact interpretive claims. Such claims
may be contested, generating what Horowitz has called a metaconflict – a ‘conflict over the
nature of the conflict’” (Brubaker and Laitin 1998: 424, 443).
Thus, in essence and as asserted by Schröder and Schmidt, with violence “concrete settings
and […] concrete results” are created and produced (2001: 6). The conspiracy theory
concerning a Hezbollah driven plot against the government and Bahraini Sunnis imposes
upon the unrest and violence a ‘sectarian’ quality the way ethnicity is imposed on that
which is labeled as ‘ethnic violence’. As such, in legitimizing violence through sectarian
rhetoric based on social meaning, this conspiracy theory functions as a political tool in the
discursive contest over the representation of the reality of the situation in Bahrain. As
violence is legitimized and enacted on behalf of the government’s ‘cause’, it transforms
society; it creates the concrete setting and result of Bahraini sectarianism, riskily awakening
a beast with unforeseeably long, trans-national tentacles.
In portraying Bahrain’s opposition and protesters not just as a political opposition but as
agents to foreign and malevolent powers the discourse of the ‘Bahraini Hezbollah’
conspiracy theory can be “seen to be of equal power to [a] bomb[…]” as it serves as a violent
imaginary in the process of discursively legitimizing real and deadly action (Bhatia 2005: 6).
As reality is conveyed in terms of victims and perpetrators, prognostic frames grounded in
blame and assertions of responsibility are used to portray what is really offensive action
against the ‘enemy-other’ as legitimate and necessary defense on behalf of the victim, the
‘self’ and all the good it stands for. Thus, when it comes to the ultimate conspiracist question
of qui tue qui? – who is killing whom? the answer this time lies with the victim whose
discursive legitimation of violent action is framed in terms of (self-)defense against the
supposedly violent perpetrations of the ‘enemy-other’; the Bahraini government thus
legitimizes its actions against protesters portrayed foreign agents and foreign interference
on behalf of arch-enemy Iran.
As action against the evil Hezbollah-agents working towards Iranian dominance in Bahrain
is legitimized, their Shiite identity and the concurring label of the ‘Safavid’ is reified; it and
the boundaries that sustain it become a matter of life or death. Inherent in this reification is
the process of the transformation of the conflict in Bahrain; as the narrative of Hezbollah’s
interference in the country’s unrest, based on memory and history, portrays reality along
sectarian lines and legitimizes violence along these same lines, social reality becomes
‘sectarianized’. As the conflict comes to be portrayed and actually played out in terms of
sectarianism constructed through the enactment of violence, Bahrain’s social and political
landscapes become polarized, the repercussions of which may be beyond any conspiracist’s
control as Bahrain’s sectarianism reverberates through its own social fabric across time and
space into regional and international levels, both in the present and quite possibly in the
future. Hence, in the discursive contest over reality, legitimizing and taking action against
an ‘enemy-other’ comes to entail much more than the simple capacity use violence against a
supposed enemy; it encompasses a complex array of dynamics, the true nature and
consequences of which are, in the context of social unrest like in Bahrain, metaphorically
comparable to the possible side-effects of strong medication – always negative and never
fully predictable.
Cassel then went on to describe how, in covering the protests in the Bahraini village of Sanabis in
September of 2011, he accompanied Sanabis’ youth, or shabab during their protests and in their
struggle against raids and attacks by Bahraini state police who targeted the Shi’a villagers at random,
throwing teargas canisters into houses without any discretion. When they would run into police on
the streets of the village, Cassel describes fleeing into the nearest house as their only option. The silver
lining of this was that he managed to interview and talk to more of the village’s residents in their own
houses than he ever would have otherwise, allowing him a more complete picture of not just the
events but the people at the heart of them.
It needs to be highlighted here that the framing of the contemporary reality of the protests and social
unrest in Bahrain in conspiracist discourse cannot simply be categorized as a habit of society’s
marginalized. As asserted by Gray, “an important source of conspiracism in the Arab Middle East is
the narratives that derive from a sense of marginalization […]”. Much of the early literature on
conspiracism, from the 1960’s and 1970’s indeed saw conspiracism as a discourse of the marginalized
and extremist rather than as a “broad characteristic of the political culture” (2010(b): 29). Indeed, this
view of conspiracy theories has its merits, as argued and evidence by Abalakina-Paap and
Stephanwho indeed assert that powerlessness, alienation and ideas of hostility are conducive to
conspiracy theories and conspiracism (1991: 637). As evidenced in the previous chapter,
marginalization and the accompanying grievances can stand in direct relation with conspiracy
theorizing. However, as argued by Silverstein, conspiracy theories are more than a discourse of the
marginalized and powerless; conspiracy theorizing practices “constitute as much an element in the
enactment of conflict as a response to it” (2002: 644). While in times of dire social situations the
marginalized may respond to their crisis through conspiracist explanations, such explanations also
form part of the act of fighting; they are, yes indeed, combat devices. Against approaches that relate
conspiracism only to marginalization and see it as a form of marginalized resistance, it can indeed
function as a means of fighting, as a discursive tool with real outcomes and political significance in its
portrayal of everyday reality. This is particularly evident in the case of Bahrain where a minority state
and group is accusing the marginalized majority of plotting against them. As such, I argue that
conspiracy theories in Bahrain, while certainly communicative of a discourse of resistance and the
marginalized, serve a function for all parties to the conflict as an element in the enactment of that
conflict. Be it a marginalized majority or dominant minority, any group “under threat of perceiving
itself as [either marginalized or a minority], will develop a sense of fear and seek an explanation for
the situation” (Gray 2010(b): 30). And in explaining their situation through conspiracy theories these
groups will (be it in response to a genuinely believed conspiracy or for purely instrumental reasons)
portray the misfortune that is reality in a manner conducive to their aim and purpose within the
conflict; a manner that will frame violent action as legitimate. In this way, conspiracy theories are
indeed far more than marginalized critiques or stories of the alienated. For in being constructive
discourses, they also empower; their portrayal and framing of reality enables the construction of
imaginaries whereby violent action is legitimized.
Crucially, such prognostic framing in terms of metaphors referring to disease and calling for the
expulsion of disease are emblematic narratives not just in Bahrain but in conflict discourse throughout
the world and its history. As asserted by Steuter and Wills, metaphors such as those referencing
disease and the need to exterminate it are “far from being merely descriptive, [as they] affect the way
we think and act”; they actively construct a social reality (2009: 18, 19).
Clearly, the characteristics of violent imaginaries and their legitimization of violence is closely
related to the conspiracist (and generally discursive) process of ‘othering’, vilification and garnering
support as analyzed and outlined in the previous chapter.
It needs to be re-asserted here that the perceived threat posed by the ‘other’ and the fear induced
and framed by the protests cannot be retraced to a specific event. Rather, it is the general existence of
social unrest, which, in Bahrain, has resulted in the framing of reality in a manner that justifies socalled retaliatory violence or offensive action in the name of defense against the general threat (in this
case to the state) posed by the protests and ensuing violence.
Naturally, in close relation to placing blame and responsibility stands the role of the construction
and portrayal of boundaries, known in the context of framing theory as “boundary framing”. As
previously discussed here in the context of the portrayal of categorizations and ‘us’ versus ‘them’
structures, such framing delineates the ‘good’ from the ‘evil’ and could also be called “adversarial
framing” as protagonists and antagonists are identified and constructed in relation to one-another
(Benford and Snow 2000: 615, 616; see also Hunt et al 1994: 194).
Chapter III
Who is Killing Whom? – The Question of Power
Conspiracism and the maintenance, (re-)assertion and portrayal of power
According to Ibish, “one of the strangest of the anti-Shiite conspiracy theories currently
making the rounds of pro-government advocacy is the allegation of the existence of an
alternative Bahraini flag, [replacing] the traditional eight, ten or five point flag [with] a 12point banner” (2011: 7). A quick search on Google or YouTube in terms of ‘protests Bahrain’
will inevitably lead to images and videos such as the one portrayed in Figure ix, a screen
shot of a YouTube video aimed at providing evidence of the use of such a 12 point flag
during Bahrain’s protests.
Figure ix: Screenshot of a YouTube video about Bahrain’s protests.
While it is impossible to discern whether or not the encircled flags are indeed 12-pointers, the
very assertion that they are holds significant meaning. As highlighted by Ibish, it is alleged
that this 12 point flag is representative of “the 12 imams of Shiite denomination and therefore
a symbol of a seditious sectarian conspiracy” (2011: 7). The 12 points are a reference to
Shiism in Bahrain, which is pervasive of ‘Twelver Shiism’ as practiced in Iranxvii (Blanchard
2006: 5). As such. what lies at the heart of such allegations as those voiced in this
conspiracist video is the greater plot of Iran’s involvement in Bahrain’s current situation; the
conspiracy theory accusing protesters of using a 12 point flag is a sub-conspiracy theory of
the narrative of an Iranian hidden hand in Bahrain.
The conspiracy theory alleging Iranian involvement in Bahrain and labeling protesters and
Bahrain’s opposition as Shi’a Iranian agents stands in stark contrast to the protesters’ and
opposition’s assertions that their movement is peaceful, their demands legitimate and their
struggle fits into the geo-political context of the Arab Spring. The discourse of Iran’s hidden
hand in Bahrain instead highlights sectarianism, the divides of which pertain not only to
Bahrain but to the entire Arab region. As Iran is pulled onto Bahrain’s discursive stage, it
seems that Bahrain has becomes a micro-cosmos in which immense regional and
international power-struggles are played out with Saudi Arabia explicitly and the U.S.
implicitly still supporting the Bahraini regime and Iran -- their feared enemy -- supporting
Bahrain’s Shiite protesters. As such, this conspiracist discourse highlights the same three
dichotomies as those discussed in past chapters. The divide between protesters and the
political opposition and Bahrain’s government manifests itself through the Bahraini
government’s expression of fear of external influence and agents which, in turn, plays upon a
regional rift between Shiite and Sunni Muslims as well as international power-struggles.
Considering this meaning entrenched in and the regional and international significance of
this narrative concerning Iran, as well as the conspiracy theory’s active dichotomization of
Bahraini society, I argue that, like any discursive construction, this conspiracy theory as
presented by Bahrain’s regime in its particular social and political context is related to
processes of power maintenance and (re)assertion in support of the cause of the Al Khalifa
regime, namely: existence. In this discussion the notion of power and related concepts are
based on Foucauldian insights whereby power is seen as socially constructed and relational.
Through the practical capacity to create discourse, power relations can be both maintained -as the maintenance of the status quo is discursively promoted -- and re-asserted through
conspiracist propaganda. In essence, Bahrain’s conspiracy theory alleging Iranian
involvement thus functions in a multitude of ways whereby the relationship between
conspiracy theories as seen in Bahrain and social power is elucidated; as asserted by
Silverstein, “practices of conspiracy theorizing outline salient epistemological frames for
comprehending and interpreting the complexity of contemporary relations of power and
domination” and the government’s conspiracy theory of an Iranian plot in Bahrain is no
different (2002: 648).
The ‘Iranian hidden hand’ conspiracy theory:
“The Battle of Karbala' still rages between the two sides
in the present and in the future. It is being held within
the soul, at home and in all areas of life and society.
People will remain divided and they are either in the
Hussain camp or in the Yazid camp. So choose your
camp.” (‘Ashura’ banner in Manama, 2006)
In a discussion regarding the conspiracy theory alleging Iran’s involvement in Bahrain’s
unrest during our interview (less than two weeks before he was arrested on the evening of
May 5th 2012) Nabeel Rajab, director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and seen by
some to be one of the leaders of the revolution, stated:
It is disturbing because the government, the ruling family, came
to this country 200 years ago and we are the indigenous
population and they are doubting and challenging our loyalty to
our land by linking [the protests] to Iran. We are the indigenous
people of this nation, people who come from outside and then
doubt your loyalty –it is disturbing. It is disturbing that some of
the western countries are quiet about our revolution because of
the fear of Iran9.
Rajab’s statement, loaded with nationalist and indigenous rhetoric, hints at the thoroughly
complex nature of the government’s assertions of Iran’s involvement in Bahrain’s situation
and its significance on various levels, ranging from local dynamics in the context of the
protests to international power struggles played out on the global stage. The accusation, of
an Iranian hidden hand in Bahrain builds upon Bahrain’s historical ties to Iran and Persia
much like the Bahraini Hezbollah conspiracy theory discussed in the previous chapter.
Narratives trace Iran’s animosity and role as Bahrain’s (and, in fact, the entire Gulf region’s)
arch-nemesis back through the centuries. In fact, the source of assertions of Iran’s
expansionist evil even goes beyond the establishing of the Persian Safavid Empire to the roots
of Islam as we know it now; roots which continue to shape Arab politics and societies as the
at times undeniable rift between Shiite Muslims and their Sunni counterparts re-emerges.
Throughout Bahrain’s past, social movements calling for reform have been branded, by the
government as well as internationally, as Shi’a uprisings against the Sunni rulers and
population. Throughout the Arab world, the Shia-Sunni conflict has proven to be an equally
salient, molding and divisive phenomenon. As eloquently summarized by Nasr,
the Shia –Sunni conflict is at once a struggle for the soul of Islam –
a great war of competing theologies and conceptions of sacred
history – and a manifestation of the kind of tribal wars of
ethnicities and identities, so seemingly archaic at times, yet so
surprisingly vital, with which humanity has become wearily
familiar. Faith and identity converge in this conflict, and their
combined power goes a long way toward explaining why, despite
the periods of coexistence, the struggle has lasted so long and
retains such urgency and significance (Nasr 2007: 20).
Author’s interview with Rajab, on 23-04-12.
Nasr continues on to state that this age-old conflict “has become deeply embedded in
popular prejudice”. Particularly the Shi’a are targeted and stereotyped, labeled as
“provincial, uncouth, and unfit for their lofty pretension of representing Lebanon” (2007: 22,
23). With the Shi’a – Sunni divide embedded in societies as such, Nasr predicts that “as war,
democracy and globalization force the Middle East to open itself up to a number of longresisted forms of change, conflicts such as the Shia-Sunni rift will become both more frequent
and more intense”(2007: 24)xviii. In the contemporary Arab World, Iran stands on one side of
this rift, the Shiite side, while other Arab states and their rulers like Bahrain’s Sunni Al
Khalifa monarchy stand on the otherxix. The tensions between these two sides come into
particularly sharp focus in Bahrain, and more specifically, the conspiracist discourse
accusing Iran of meddling in and steering Bahrain’s protests in favor of Shiite dominance
over Bahrain’s Sunni leadersxx.
While the truth about the extent of Iran’s involvement remains obscured and the search for it
is certainly not the aim of this discussion, its inclusion in the formula of actors related to the
events in contemporary Bahrain serves as an interesting piece to complete a triangular power
struggle; the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Iran seem to have come face to face on Bahrain’s tiny
battleground, drawn in by the threats posed by what is a relatively small-scale conflict in a
highly strategic country. While discussing the government’s framing of the protests through
its conspiracy theory about an Iranian plot, Rajab summarized the following, highlighting
the discourse’s geo-political context:
This is their best card to play now since the Western States, U.S., and
the Gulf States have a problem with Iran. To get the Americans and
the Western countries on your side the best move is to link the
protesters to Iran, and then you frighten the world that democracy
will serve Iran. But we have nothing to do with Iran. We just want a
secure system. No one sees Iran as the model of government to be
applied here. [Yet] the government tried to mobilize Sunni nations
around the region to support dictators because Shiites are revolting
against the ruling family. In reality it is not religious, it is not
sectarian. It is about clear demands to do with the national standard
for human rights. We are fighting for international standards to be
applied in our country. There is nothing about Shia and Sunni10.
In this comment, Rajab highlights the key international and regional players and dynamics
on Bahrain’s conflict stage.
With the protests in Tunisia hitting the world’s radar in December 2010 and the uprising in
Egypt in January 2011, and with other Arab states following suit, Bahrain’s February 14th
Revolution appears to snugly fit into the sequence of Arab Spring protests with regards to
timing. However, some crucial differences between the regional and international contexts of
most Arab Spring uprisings and the uprising in Bahrain need to be noted, particular with
Author’s interview with Rajab, on 23-04-12.
regards to the U.S. reaction to the unrest in Bahrain. To the U.S., Bahrain plays a major
strategic role for several reasons. Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet, the
primary American naval force in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and parts of
the African Coast. As such, Bahrain is a crucial and direct link between the U.S. and the
entire Gulf region. Additionally, the U.S. has, in the past year, shown its desire to increase its
defense strategy in the Gulf region through, for example, weapons sales to Bahrain. So far,
these sales have been postponed but there is no reason to think that they will not happen in
the future as they have in the past (Ibish 2011: 12). In contrast to the relative inaction of the
U.S., Saudi Arabia is the primary external actor in Bahrain. Like the U.S., Saudi Arabia has
several strategic interests in Bahrain. The tiny island lies just off the coast of Eastern Saudi
Arabia. According to Ying Welsh, “the people of Eastern Saudi Arabia are the exact same
people as those in Bahrain –- if you have a revolution in Bahrain you will start having it in
eastern Saudi Arabia as well, which is
the ground zero of Saudi’s oil
wealth”11. With protests of its own in
the Arab Spring context, a rising
threat to the Al Khalifa’s was also a
rising threat to House of Saud. As an
assertion of its power both nationally
and regionally, Saudi Arabia asserted
“took control of the Peninsula Shield
Force, “interpreting the uprising[s in
Bahrain] as a threat to collective
Figure x: A Bahraini and Saudi Arabian flag as seen in South
Manama on September 17 2011.
security, […] justifying the
intervention [as a necessary move] to secure Bahrain’s vital and strategically important
military infrastructure from any foreign interference” (Ibish 2011: 10). Moreover, and as
indicated in its reason for interfering militarily in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the GCC in
general “are worried about the Iranian influence in the region, and the Shi’as. This made
Bahrain’s revolution even more inconvenient”12. This fear of Iran is coded in terms of
‘foreign’ or ‘external’ interference. With Bahrain’s government actively narrating Iran’s
involvement in the protests, Saudi Arabia’s (and the Gcc’s) fear of Iranian influence through
Shi’a populations in the Gulf was confirmed enough to warrant actionxxi. As Saudi forces
crossed the causeway linking the Island of Bahrain to the Saudi Arabian mainland, their
military presence sent a clear message: no 12 point flag would represent Bahrain. Rather,
Saudi Arabia’s flag would dominate and hang next to Bahrain’s official flag in a combined
assault on those Iranian invaders (as literally exemplified in Figure x)xxii.
Taking into account these regional and international dynamics as manifest in the context of
Bahrain’s uprisings, the Bahraini regime’s conspiracy theory alleging Iran’s involvement is
indicative of what Benford and Snow (2000) have referred to as frame alignment. As part of
the strategic process within the development of frames like the conspiracy theory at hand
here, frame alignment entails the purposeful and utilitarian creation of a frame that functions
Author’s interview with Ying Welsh, on 22-03-12.
as a way “to link [the framers] interests and interpretive frames with those of prospective
constituents and actual or prospective resource providers”. With Saudi Arabia and the US as
its powerful international allies, Bahrain’s regime has, through the Iranian hidden hand
conspiracy theory, strategically aligned its representation of the events in Bahrain with the
interests, opinions and interpretive frames of these allies. A bridge is, so to speak,
constructed between the globally and regionally perceived threat of Iran (be it through the
War on Terror, nuclear power struggles, sectarian concerns or another frame) and the real, or
strategically portrayed fear of Iran domestically. As outlined by Benford and Snow, within
this process of frame alignment the fear of Iran as communicated and constructed through
this conspiracy theory amplifies and taps into “existing cultural values, beliefs, narratives,
folk wisdom, and the like” in a process of frame amplification (2000: 624, 625).
Essentially, and as clearly evidenced by the
Figure xi
conspiracy theory alleging Iran’s involvement
when seen in its geo-political context, while
perhaps the protesters themselves consider the
social movement in Bahrain to be an ‘Arab Spring
movement’ aiming for democratic reform through
grass-root protests, Bahrain’s government and
various international powers have (conveniently)
chosen to see it in a different light; a light
illuminating sectarian divisions and a fear of Iran
not only locally and nationally (as illustrated in
Figure xi in which the Bahraini King is depicted as
literally dividing Bahrain in sectarian segments)
but also regionally as Iran is invited to join the
scene. While the Shi’a- Sunni divide has always
been part of Bahraini society, its salience to
Bahrain’s communities and individuals comes and goes – and in the Bahrain of 2011 and
2012 it seems to be going. In reference to the quoted Ashoura banner above, camps are being
chosen and boundaries long in the making re-erected as the contest over the portrayal of
reality in Bahrain makes for a hostile arena in which identities converge and society is
polarized; as some (Bahrain’s protesters and opposition) see only spring-like winds of
change, others (Bahrain’s government, regime loyalists and international allies) see a
hurricane threatening to disturb the status quo with change bringing only sectarianism and
perhaps even domination of the ‘safavid’ – an ‘other’ embodying an ultimate, existential
As such, the conspiracy theory of Iran’s involvement in Bahrain’s internal situation is
grounded in both historical and contemporary meaning. Incorporated in this conspiracy
theory is the fear of the ‘safavid’, as highlighted in the previous chapter as well – a historically
grounded fear which is translated into the Bahrain of the 21st century -- while at the same
time Bahrain’s contemporary geopolitical context, as outlined here, revolves around
essentially the same -- the threat and fear of Iran. It is this historicism as well as intricate
knowledge of the contemporary geopolitical context as entrenched in the conspiracy theory
accusing Iran of plotting against Bahrain’s leaders which afford it such hegemony and make
it both socially meaningful and politically functional. Yet its function in serving to both
maintain and (re-)assert social power in contemporary Bahrain cannot be understood
without first analyzing the processes by which conspiracist discourses like the one at hand
here are constructed in the first place since no discourse spontaneously appears within
society. Rather, a discourse is actively constructed within a social context by those with the
practical capacity – or power – to do so, with the aim of supporting their cause – a cause
portrayed in the conspiracist’s world to be their very (nature of) existence.
The capacity to control imagery:
“In a fluid and uncertain political world, power and talk
tend to collapse on themselves”
(Stewart and Strathern 2004: 192)
In her discussion of literary ethnics and conspiracy theories in terms of The Protocols of Zion,
Boym quotes the following excerpt from Dialogues in Hell by Maurice Joly as published in
Montesquieu: Now you may go on to the regulation of books
Machiavelli: …in the first place, I shall oblige those who wish to exercise the
profession of printer, editor or librarian to secure a seal, that is,
authorization which the government may always withdraw, either
directly or indirectly, or by decision of the court
Montesquieu: But in that case…the instruments of thought will become the
instruments of power! (Boym 1999: 107).
What is highlighted by Joly here is also asserted by Philip Gourevitch in his account of the
genocide in Rwanda. Gourevitch states that “power consists in the ability to make others
inhabit your story of their reality” (1998: 48). Inherent in these statements is the intricate
relationship between power and discourse whereby, as will be discussed throughout this
chapter, power (in the sense of practical, relational capacity to act upon others’ actions
(including in the realm of discourse)) enables portrayal and portrayal (re-)asserts power (in
the sense of social relationships). As hinted at here, the type of power that forms the subject
of this discussion in the context of the overall framework of discourse analysis is, as
characterized by van Dijk, social power: the power that confers control onto “one group or
organization (or its members) over the actions and/or the minds of (the members of) another
group, thus limiting the freedom of actions of the others, or influencing their knowledge,
attitudes or ideologies” (2008(a): 65). As such, power is relational. In reference to Michel
Foucault’s theory on power and discourse, “power brings into play relations between
individuals (or between groups)” as “it is a way in which some act on others” in what is
ultimately a strategic struggle within the social and political context (1982: 337, 340). The
enactment of power is, therefore, “not simply a form of action, but a form of social
interaction” (van Dijk 2008(a): 30). As stated by Foucault, “power relations are exercised, to
an exceedingly important extent, through the production and exchange of signs”, where
‘signs’ are taken to entail communication, reciprocity, and the production of meaning –
discourse, in other words (1982: 337, 338). Taking into account this conceptualization of
power, the actions taken upon other’s actions through communication, “that is, discourse,
[…] specifically deal with control over the discourse of others”. Such control, or power,
applies not only “to discourse as social practice [(whereby people are not free to
communicate in whichever way they may please because of social constraints like laws and
norms)], but also to the minds of those who are being controlled, that is, their knowledge,
opinions attitudes, ideologies as well as other personal or social representations”. As such, a
discourse like the conspiracy theory alleging an Iranian plot, provided that it is both socially
meaningful (given its context) and politically functional, can serve as a means to manipulate
and persuade rather than simply coerce. As highlighted by van Dijk, this conveys that social
power, in being relational, “is usually indirect and operates through the minds of people, for
instance by managing the necessary information or opinions they need to plan and execute
their actions” (2008(a): 29). In other words, “if discourse controls minds, and minds control
action, it is crucial for those in power to control discourse in the first place” (2008(a): 9, 10).
According to Gray, the state as a conspiracist (as is clearly the case here) is “aided [in its
conspiracist narration] by state monopolization, control or influences over mass media,
strong governing party structures, and the direction of a charismatic or domineering leader”
(2010(b): 119). In line with this, the Bahraini state is afforded the power to construct
conspiracy theories such as the narrative about an Iranian plot based on these three crucial
elements. Particularly the first, the monopolization, control or influence over mass media
plays a crucial role in Bahrain and the construction of such a dominant discourse as the
conspiracy theory discussed here. As asserted by van Dijk, knowledge acquisition and
opinion formation about most events in the world appears to be largely based on news
discourse in the press and on television [...]. Probably no other type of discourse is so
pervasive and so shared and read by so many people at more or less the same time. Its
power potential, therefore, is enormous” (2008(a): 58). The Bahraini government’s control of
mass media is extensive. While not quite a monopoly, the number of independent news
organizations is massively outnumbered by those owned by the state, indicative of a media
biased towards to the state; six out of seven daily newspapers are “pro-government and the
broadcasting is state-controlled” (BICI Report 2011: 401). Moreover, journalists continue to
be the target of repression. This became especially apparent in the contemporary volatile
context as countless journalists and other media personnel were arrested, tortured and
obstructed from doing their work. For example, as one of the only independent and nonloyalist newspapers, Al Wasat was banned on the 3rd of April 2011 following its critical
coverage of the government’s crackdown on the protesters at Pearl Roundabout in the
preceding weeks. The ban lasted until August when the state emergency law was lifted
despite the fact that the Independent Commission of Inquiry found no evidence regarding
the accusations of incitement to violence against Al Wasat (Al Jazeera 03-04-11; BICI Report
2011: 400)xxiii.
Regarding the second point highlighted by Gray, Bahrain’s governing party structures are,
as mentioned previously, under the auspices of the royal family strengthened by traditional
family ties. Almost all of Bahrain’s leading government officials are direct relatives of the
royal family or connected to them through the delicate network of power-sharing families in
the Gulf. Relatedly and regarding the third element attributing power to a conspiracist state
is the fact that Bahrain is ruled by a monarchy. While Bahrain’s king is not known to be
outstandingly charismatic, the very notion of a monarchy like that in Bahrain is based on the
establishment of “dynastic patterns of rule which, to a large extent enjoy a basic acceptance
of legitimacy”, at least amongst some groups in society (Gray 2010(b): 119).
As the Bahraini government’s conspiracism is enabled as described above, the interplay
between such practical capacity and the discursive production of so-called alternative
regimes of truth comes to light. Regarding this notion of regimes of truth, Foucault states the
truth isn’t outside power or lacking in power: […]. Truth is a thing of
this world; it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of
constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has
its own regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth – that is, the
types of discourse it accepts and makes function as true; the
mechanisms and instances that enable one to distinguish true and
false statements; the means by which each is sanctioned; the
techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth;
the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true
(1977: 131).
In further explanation of this statement regarding the construction of truth regimes within
society, Foucault asserts that “’truth is linked in a circular relation with systems of power
that produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it – a
‘regime’ of truth” (1977: 132). As stated by Silverstein, the ‘paranoia’ of conspiracy theorizing
“represents a particularly nuanced understanding of the intimate relationship between truth
and power, an effectively well-organized genre of vernacular moral critique” (Silverstein
2002: 664). Based on such an understanding and incorporation of the dialectical relationships
between truth, power and discourse, conspiracy theories thus function in the construction of
their own regime of truth, an “alternative regime[…] of truth based in and through excess”
(Silverstein 2002: 656). As such and in line with Foucault again, “it is important to look at
how truth is constructed, who has the right to speak, what counts as the truth, and whose
interpretations of reality are ignored, marginalized, forgotten, or disqualified as anecdotal or
unscientific” (Keen 2008: 15). Clearly, those with the practical power to construct and
communicate a discourse such as the conspiracy theory about an Iranian hidden hand in
Bahrain play a leading role in the construction of ‘truth’ (or versions of reality) within
societyxxiv. Moreover, in its construction of an alternative regime of truth whereby reality is
framed and understood, Bahrain’s “conspiracism may act as a way for the state to crowd out
other discourses in society, including
counter-explanations to its own, in
effect coming to monopolize the public
space and public discourse” (Gray 2010(a): 38). As
such, this conspiracy theory is, in being a
dominant discourse about the recent
events in Bahrain, a form of truth
construction within society – a
construction which, as a regime of truth
encompasses its “own discursive rules,
institutions, political economic stakes,
diffusion networks, ideological
struggles…and potentially violent
Figure xiii: the same image as shown in Figure xii but the
consequences” (Silverstein 2002: 665).
protesters’ sign this times reads: “Our protests are peaceful, our
Illustrative of the construction of this
demands are legitimate”.
conspiracist truth regime in
contemporary Bahrain are Figures xi
and xii. As the same picture comes to communicate
an entirely different story, the discursive
contest of which all of Bahrain’s
conspiracy theories are a part is clearly
visualizedxxv. The relativity of and social
constructivism fundamental to truth
becomes apparent as Bahrain’s audience
is allowed the opportunity to choose
which picture – and thereby which
narrative of Bahrain’s reality -- to take as
real despite the fact the one of them is, without a doubt, fake. In this sense, a conspiracist
truth regime as constructed through the conspiracy theory alleging Iran’s involvement in
Bahrain constructs a parallel reality in which truth is simply that which an audience chooses
it to be from an array of given options. As such, in the world of conspiracist discourses
reality and truth actually have remarkably little to do with each other as neither guarantees
the other and both can be constructed for “their reliable instrumental efficacy” (Gordon 2002:
Figure xii: protesters at Pearl Roundabout holding a sign reading:
“NO to the traitor Arabs, long live Iran”.
The power of the status quo:
“When it comes to national security, human rights aren’t
the most important thing. Or did the Americans and
their allies think about human rights when they marched
into Iraq and Afghanistan?” (Prime Minister prince
Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa in Der Spiegel 27-14-12)
According to Ralph L. Rosnow and Gary Alan Fine, rumors and gossip are employed as a
way of adapting to change within society (1976: 54, 55). However, I argue that, while in
almost all other aspects rumors, gossip and conspiracy theories are comparable if not highly
similar, Bahrain’s conspiracy theories and the conspiracy theory presented here in particular
serve the function of averting change rather than allowing for adaptation to it. Under the
banner of maintaining order and through constructing fear of change conspiracy theories
serve to maintain the status quo as it benefits those with power in the order of things as they
stand. In this sense, and as clearly asserted by Foucault in his discussion concerning social
power, power should be conceptualized as an inherently strategic relationship where
‘strategy’ entails a “choice of winning solutions”, whereby every power relationship implies
a “strategy of struggle”; a struggle that make visible social structures of domination which,
in being a form of power relations, are a manifestation “at the level of the whole social body”
(1982: 346-148). Van Dijk asserts that such domination can, in the context of a power
relationship, be enacted through discourses. He understands domination to be the
illegitimate use (abuse) of discursive power whereby the “discourse or its possible
consequences systematically violate the human or civil rights of people” (2008(a): 21). Such
domination through abuse of power -- both discursive and social (meaning through the
capacity to construct discourses as well as the capacity to act on others’ actions) -- may, albeit
relational, be challenged and resisted, even in a violent manner; “the establishing of power
does not exclude the use of violence any more than it does the obtaining of consent”
(Foucault 1982: 340)xxvi. In this sense, “power is seldom absolute” and since it may be resisted
(in, for example, a violent manner such as in Bahrain) its maintenance-process as enacted
through hegemonic discourses will be of crucial importance to those playing the dominant
role within the power relationship (van Dijk 2008(a): 88, 89). Essentially and as is the case in
Bahrain, social resistance calling for change and, as such, encapsulating the alteration of
social power relations, directly threatens the dominant party’s very nature. And, in turn, this
resistance against domination in the form of calls for change can be discursively resisted
through the maintenance of the status quo as discursively asserted through the conspiracy
theory dealt with here in a dangerous game of what is ultimately resistance against
During our interview, Rajab stressed the following: “I find myself [to be] one of the young
people in the revolution who believe that we need to see changes in the region. We cannot be
ruled by an absolute monarchy as we were in the past 200 years. We cannot be ruled like
slaves. We need to see changes”13. In this statement, Rajab has summarized the core of all the
demands made by Bahrain’s protesters and opposition parties: the people demand
change!xxvii As it has been throughout the ages, the people’s call for change within society is
hardly met with consensus. On the contrary, Bahrain’s opposition and protesters’ goals are
totally and mutually incompatible with the Bahraini government and royal family’s goals.
During our interview, Ying Welsh stated that “the government in Bahrain is sticking to its
narrative about Iran’s involvement as a way to smear their opponents as foreign agents
Author’s interview with Rajab, on 23-04-12.
working for a foreign power because the alternative is that your own people don’t want
In this form, the people’s cries for democratic change are an existential threat to the
government and, thereby, the royal family of Bahrain. The government’s struggle to resist
fundamental changes as called for during these past and present protests in Bahrain is
exemplified by its imposition of a state of emergency and an Emergency Law, both of which
were aimed at re-establishing national security and order. Upon imposing this state of
emergency, Bahrain’s King stated on national television that he had "authorized the
commander of Bahrain's defense forces to take all necessary measures to protect the safety of
the country and its citizens" (Al Jazeera 15-04-11). This evidently includes the persecution of
anyone involved in the (increasingly violent) protests; on the 11th of June 2012, an 11 year
old boy was released from police custody lasting almost a month based on the charge of
participating in an illegal gathering. He was arrested while blocking a road after “a man
accused of stirring trouble gave him and some of his friends three dinars, or about [eight U.S.
dollars]”. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Abdul Aziz al Khalifa, spokesperson for the
Bahrain Information Affairs Authority, asserted that “we [the authorities] have an obligation
to the rest of the population in Bahrain to preserve law and order” (Al Jazeera 11-06-12).
In accusing the protesters and opposition of being linked, somehow, to Iran and Iran’s plot
for (Shiite and political) dominance in the Arab World, Bahrain’s protesters are thoroughly
de-legitimized and their cries for democracy become like lies to cover up their true
intentions; as stated by Ying Welsh, they are smeared. Their tarnished reputation as Iranian
or simply foreign agents legitimizes action against them on behalf of the protection of that
which is untarnished, un-smeared; that which is pure, wholesome and true. Since the now
apparently dangerous change demanded by Iran’s invasive agents in Bahrain is threatening
that which is legitimate, this change must, at all costs, be averted. Again, Bahrain’s reality is,
through the de-legitimization and smearing of protesters and opposition forces as conveyed
in this conspiracy theory portrayed in strictly apocalyptic terms as a future in which these
Iranian agents dominate would is portrayed as the end of all that is pure and legitimate in
Hence, where one party to the conflict is calling for change, the other party is directly
threatened by this change and calls for its aversion. In its desperate communication of the
need to maintain the status quo for the sake of supposedly legitimate power structures, the
conspiracy theory of an Iranian hidden hand in Bahrain perfectly matches and compliments
the imposition of extreme repressive and restricting measures in the name of order, security,
safety and other so-called national interests. In other words, the aversion of change in the
name of order and through repression in the hopes of maintaining or (re-)asserting power
and the general status quo, can be, as highlighted here, functionalized through conspiracy
theories and their discursive construction of reality.
Conspiracist propaganda:
Author’s interview with Ying Welsh, on 22-03-12.
“The actual ability to name, and to have that name
accepted by and audience, holds great power [;] by
assigning names we impose a pattern […] which allows
us to manipulate the world” (Bhatia 2005: 8, 9).
According to Jeffrey Herf and his discussion of the Jewish enemy and Nazi propaganda
during World War II, “from the foundations of the Nazi party to Hitler’s rantings in a Berlin
bunker in 1945, the key themes in the regime’s anti-semitic story line were righteous
indignation about victimization at the hands of a powerful and evil foe, promises of
retaliation, and projections of aggressive genocidal intention onto others”. As “shaping
popular opinion began with destruction of the free press”, Nazi propaganda characterized
itself less by “the lie than by the imposition of a paranoiac pattern on world events”. The
Jews came to be presented as a single political actor called Jewry and were accused of malintentions along the lines of aiming to exterminate Germany and the Germans in the ultimate
Jewish international conspiracy (2006: 37, 18, 2). As such, Nazi propaganda was based on a
conspiracist world view whereby portrayals and accusations against the ‘enemy-other’ came
to legitimize so-called defensive action as fear was induced and another universe with its
own deadly, even genocidal reality was constructed. The characteristics of this conspiracist
propaganda are universal and while I at no point wish to compare or even remotely link
conspiracism in Bahrain to these genocidal intentions voiced in Nazi propaganda, Herf’s
account of Nazi propaganda does offer an interesting insight into the relationship between
propaganda and conspiracism.
While there are many definitions of propaganda, the notion centers on the discourse of mass
persuasion and “symbolically induced influences” (Cunningham 2002: 6). As asserted above,
discourse serves to control the mind and through it action in the larger social context. If such
action has no negative associations or consequences then, indeed, it can be seen as a form of
persuasion. If, on the other hand, the rhetoric of mass persuasion is what van Dijk would
assert to be an illegitimate form of interaction whereby it only serves the “interest of one
party, and [functions] against the best interests of the recipients” manipulation is perhaps a
more fitting adjective when it comes to the conceptualization of propaganda, and
conspiracist propaganda specifically (2008(a): 212 – 215). As ‘symbolically induced
influences’ conspire to create a version of reality to be communicated through conspiracist
discourse on behalf of the interests of Bahrain’s regime, the conspiracy theory’s audience is
persuaded through manipulation as such discourses tear at the Bahrain’s delicate social
fabric with negative repercussions for all members of society as violence ensues. Yet while
manipulative, Bahrain’s conspiracy theories and their propagation do not function in a topdown process whereby the masses simply follow the elites. Rather and again in reference to
Foucault, the power relationship that is asserted in this conspiracy theory is, while to some
clearly a form of domination, for others a positive relationship; power can be constructive in
the sense that it “also comprises the intention to teach, to mold conduct, to instill forms of
self-awareness and identities” (Gordon 2002: xix). As such, the discourse of a fearful Iranian
hidden hand posing a threat to the power relationship perceived by some to be constructive
becomes salient in Bahrain’s contemporary context. The people (or at least a group of people)
consent to and embrace the regime of truth created by this conspiracist discourse not because
of sheep-like passivity but because of rational considerations based on a whole array of
individual and social considerations. Hence, discourse may control the mind but it can only
do so if what it propagates is socially (at least to a certain extent) supported. When it comes
to propaganda as manifest in the conspiracy theory of Iran’s hidden hand, power is asserted
through both a social belief in the constructive nature of a certain power relationship as well
as, of course, the context (the social meaning) in which this propagation is presented; what is
propagated and how it is propagated are of equal importance when it comes to constructing
a functional propagandist discourse.
According to Gray, while “state conspiracism and state propaganda are not the same thing
[,] conspiracism nonetheless is one form of state propaganda, because of several
characteristics of propaganda and similar styles of state rhetoric” and, I would add, the
similar roles they play (2010(b): 131). Firstly, both state propaganda and conspiracy theories
commonly feature nationalist rhetoric. In the case of the Bahraini government’s conspiracy
theory concerning allegations against Iran, the nationalist element is obvious: an Iranian plot
to overthrow the royal family and turn Bahrain into an annexed Shiite power-base in the
Gulf is a direct threat to the so-called Bahraini norms and values as well as ‘proper’ Arabic
norms and values; Bahrain as we know it would disappear and Iranian-style terror and
terrorism would reign. In other words, “state slogans that target Islamist opposition forces as
traitors to their country or spies for another […] can bridge the gap between nationalism and
propaganda by using conspiracism, directly or inferred, as a tool”. In his discussion of
nationalism, identity and conflict, Michael Ignatieff refers to the political tactics of “politics of
fantasy”; a politics aimed at distracting its audience, the population, “away from real issues,
such as deepening economic difficulties” and other social grievances. A discursive focus on
the fantasy that is nationalism and “the nationalist dream” serves the political function of
distracting the population, of diverting its attention (1999: 43). While nationalism is
inherently included in but not the only theme comprising the conspiracy theory presented in
this chapter, the narrative of an Iranian hidden hand can also be seen as a form of politics of
fantasy. As the Bahraini state emphasizes the sectarian nature of the protests and the
protesters’ aims through its consistent portrayal of reality in terms of Iran and its plot, it aims
to distract attention from other or ‘real’ issues at play such as the socio-economic and
political grievances expressed by Bahrain’s protesters. As such, the fantasy, or at least the
unproven assertion of an Iranian hidden hand in Bahrain’s protests serves the function of
propagating a rhetoric designed to “distract public attention away from the failings or
shortcomings of the state and towards an enemy that is constructed or exaggerated” (Gray
2010: 130).
Secondly and clearly relatedly, both conspiracy theories and propaganda entail the
provocation of fear within society; “the fear excited by [state] conspiracists eases the process
by which the state maintains its control” as repressive and invasive measures taken by
authorities become socially acceptable and even perfectly legitimate. Warnings against fitna
(turmoil or tumult “alluding more widely to civil conflict, war and secession”) confer onto
the authorities or other powerful actors in society the power and freedom to re-assert power
through repression that would not otherwise be permissible (Gray 2010(b): 131, 132). Hence,
as one group’s freedom is restricted, the other’s is enhanced through such conspiracist state
propaganda as the Bahraini government’s conspiracy theory about an Iranian plot and its
agents’ sectarian goals. In line with this and the earlier discussion on the maintenance of the
status quo, the government’s incitement of the fear of Shiite dominance and Bahrain
becoming a part of the Iranian theocratic republic allows for the continuation and even
solidification of structures of inequality. Indeed, van Dijk asserts the potential of discourse,
especially a manipulative one, to construct “societal consequences” as “it reproduces, or may
reproduce, inequality” (2008(a): 216). Regarding conspiracist discourses in particular,
Silverstein asserts much the same: conspiracy theories (can) “serve as a prop for existing
structures of political and economic inequality” (2000: 6). I argue here that the same goes for
conspiracy theories in the context of the contemporary situation in Bahrain. As, through
conspiracist propaganda and politics of fantasy, the Bahraini government dismissed
protesters’ grievances as sectarian rather than sincerely democratic, democratic change is
averted through the construction of fear. Hence, the concepts of politics of fantasy and
politics of fear intertwine and join forces in this conspiracy theory about Bahrain’s reality.
Hereby Bahrain’s government enforces the status quo while absolving itself of guilt and
responsibility regarding the protests and the protesting Bahraini citizens; nationalistic
fantasy diverts while fear legitimizes as reality is portrayed in such propagandistic rhetoric
as the conspiracy theory about an Iranian plot lurking within Bahrain’s protests. In essence,
this conspiracy theory, like the others discussed in previous chapters thus functions in a
social transformative process. As power is maintained and (re-)asserted through the
repression of change and propagandist conspiracism, a version of reality with new power
relations is constructed and reality is, to an extent at least, transformed.
As argued by Cassel during our interview, “it is government propaganda that claims that the
protesters are influenced by external forces. Iran is the main Shia country in the region and
Shia people outside Iran are somehow going to feel close to that. I think it is very unfair to
look at the conflict through that lens”15. Yet, as explained by Rajab, unfair or not, the story
about an Iranian hidden hand is, indeed, the “best card for the government to play now”16.
The double-edged sword:
In an opinion piece entitled ‘Iran’s Man in Bahrain’ as published on the website of the
Council on Foreign Relations, Ed Husain offers a brief sample of fragments from the Bahraini
“ayatollah” Isa Qassim’s sermons (given over the years on and around anniversaries of the
Iranian revolution and Khomeini’s death up until 2009) as supposed proof of Qassim’s and
his follower’s allegiance to Ayatollah Khomeini and, thereby, Iran as the Iranian revolution
and its Shiite theocracy is idealized. He relays the key point that “it is necessary for
democracy activists to be democrats, not theocrats” and argues that “policymakers in
Washington should be well aware of the forces that are opposing the [Bahraini] monarchy”
(Husain 27-04-12). The threat posed by these supposedly sectarian forces is portrayed by
Husain to be imminent and existential, a threat to be reckoned with in order for Bahrain’s
monarchy to avert change on Iran’s terms and to ultimately retain and re-assert power in the
nation. As discourse legitimizes action (again), conspiracism such as Husain’s in the context
Author’s interview with Cassel, on 02-04-12.
Author’s interview with Rajab, on 23-04-12.
of contemporary Bahrain can be related to, for example, the destruction of Shiite mosques
and places of worship (Al Jazeera, 14-05-11)xxviii.
Yet while the link between power, its maintenance and its re-assertion through the
government’s conspiracy theory about Iranian interference (and other conspiracy theories in
Bahrain) is evident as analyzed above, conspiracism as discursive practice (at least in the case
of Bahrain) has its limits when it comes to its function related to power. As the status quo of
Bahrain’s power structures is enhanced through conspiracist portrayals of reality entailed in
propagandistic rhetoric, blame and responsibility are inherently placed at the feet of the
‘other’, the enemy. As asserted in previous chapters, blame and responsibility are asserted
through conspiracism in its search for ultimate causality and agency. In this search, causality
and agency are, as inherent in the composition and structure of a conspiracy theory, entirely
attributed to this constructed ‘enemy-other’. Hereby, while clearly an essential tool in the reassertion and maintenance of power of the conspiracist, conspiracy theories also empower
the very people, groups, threats or forces they are constructed to accuse, vilify and legitimize
violent action against. In other words, as ultimate blame is asserted, ultimate intentionality
and agency (or capacity) are also discursively attributed to the fearful other. In his discussion
of conspiracy theories and conspiracism in Algeria during its civil war, Silverstein asserts
that, indeed, “by attributing […] intentionality to the various structures of the civil war, such
theorizing simultaneously provides a discursive prop for the same […] power” it unfalsifiably blames for misfortune (Silverstein 2002: 649). Hence, through the conspiracy
theory accusing Iran of meddling to plot against Bahrain’s regime, Iran does not just become
the ‘enemy-other’ but also the all-powerful enemy. Bahrain’s conspiracist has limited
capacity to promote its own power without the undesirable consequence of altering the
power relationship in favor of the enemy – Iran – since where the perpetrator is portrayed as
the all-powerful agent intentionally plotting against a victim, this victim is inherently
portrayed as less powerful and with less capacity to act intentionally. Hence, conspiracy
theories, when it comes to power, are somewhat bipolar. They serve the function of
maintaining and re-asserting power relations through portrayals of reality centered on
victimhood, but can only do so limitedly as the supposed conspirator is, at the same time,
inherently and unavoidably portrayed as the all-powerful perpetrator, blameable through
ultimate causality, agency, intentionality and capacity to act upon the actions of others.
Crucially, as asserted in the previous chapter, the discursive construction of a conspiracy
theory such as the one dealt with here, while portraying reality in a functional and
meaningful way at the behest of the conspiracist, is riddled with consequences and
repercussions which lie outside of the conspiracist’s scope of control. Conspiracy theories, in
being discursive structures in the same societal context of the power relationships they serve
to maintain and assert thus offer a key insight into both the functions served by discourses
and the limits of this functionality once such a discourse had been unleashed within society
in turmoil.
Bahrain’s monarchy, government and regime loyalists continue (as they have throughout
Bahrain’s history) to portray Bahrain’s reality through a conspiracist lens, narrating and
adamantly asserting the role of an Iranian hidden hand in Bahrain’s recent and on-going
unrest and violence. This conspiracy theory, like other conspiracy theories in Bahrain, serves
the function of both maintaining and re-asserting power. As those with the practical capacity
to portray and communicate reality and ‘truth’ do so in a manner attributing blame and
responsibility to a constructed ‘enemy-other’, the change proposed by this ‘other’ and
whatever power it represents becomes as much a threat as any other action perpetrated by
this enemy. Hence, in order to avert this change, conspiracy theories such as the one dealt
with here serve to preserve the status quo and all its social power structures as those with the
capacity to do so construct a regime of truth; a reality based on the relationship between
power, truth and discourse. The conspiracy theory about an Iranian plot dictating the
essence of Bahrain’s protests is also a construction of reality in terms of its propagandist
qualities. Power relations are re-asserted and strengthened through politics of fantasy (such
as rhetoric based around nationalism) as well as politics of fear (whereby controlling the
audience-population becomes easier). However, while conspiracy theories such as the one
analyzed here clearly stand in direct relation to processes of power through their portrayals
of reality, conspiracy theories are inherently limited in their functionality as tools for the
conspiracist. In placing blame and responsibility, they unavoidably attribute intentionality
and even ultimate agency to the very enemy they are constructed and aimed against.
Taking the above into account, it is evident that the Bahraini conspiracist’s answer to the
ultimate conspiracist question of qui tue qui – who is killing whom, implicitly entails the
conspiracist’s capacity to construct reality in protection of the status quo as well as to re-assert
power through propagandist rhetoric centered on inherent blaming and causality
attribution. However, the conspircism concerning an Iranian plot and other conspiracy
theories’ uncontrollable repercussions as a social constructions entice, in the context of this
discussion about power relations and conspiracist discourses, a different question as well;
one along the lines of qui a le pouvoir de tue qui? - who has the power to kill whom? The
conspiracists’ answer, ironically, remains the same as for the original question: the ‘other’,
the enemy, the all-powerful perpetrator.
Twelver Shiism is a reference to twelve imam descendants from the prophet Ali Ibn Abi Taleb.
These imams are seen as “harbors of the faith and as the designated interpreters of law and theology”
(Blanchard 2006: 5).
On the tenth day of the holy month of Muharram, known as Ashoura, Shi’a Muslims recall the
death of their most revered saint, Imam Hussein. According to Nasr, “this is a ritual filled with
symbolism and passion. It is deeply spiritual and communal” (2007: 33). The Shi’a day of Ashoura is
just one example of how political differences stemming from early Muslim history have resulted in
spiritual and even theological and anthropological differences between the two sects
As the ultimate Shi’a state, Iran logically functions as a long-distance protector of Shi’a populations
throughout the region (Ruthven 1997: 67-72)xix. As stated by Ying Welsh “for sure there were Iranian
agents at the Pearl Roundabout who reported back to Iran and heralded the protesters like heroes and
the government like the devil. They were probably hoping the situation would escalate, making things
worse for Saudi Arabia” while Iranian state T.V. “milked the protests in Bahrain for all they were
worth, covering the events in Bahrain as relentlessly as [the] Al Jazeera [news network] covered Tahrir
Square in Egypt”(Author’s interview with Ying Welsh, on 22-03-12). In an interview Abdullah stated
that he “[could] not affirm that it helped the Bahraini population with arms; aid was more political
than concrete” (Author’s interview with Abdullah, on 21-03-12). However, according to some,
particularly government officials and regime loyalists, Iran did more than just cover the protests in
Bahrain; they are said to have actively supported them through the engagement of Iranian agents
while Bahraini protesters said to be Iranian agents pursuing a sectarian cause on behalf of Iran.
According to the existing narrative, these Iranian agents have been active in Bahrain for a substantial
amount of time. As asserted by Jane Kinninmont, “parts of the government, and the state media, have
spent months, if not years trying to convince much of the Sunni population that Shia Bahrainis are
incapable of taking part in democracy because they have religious links with clerics in […] Iran –
rather reminiscent of charges leveled against Catholics and Jews in different contexts”. Yet Iran has
refuted and continues to refute all charges of involvement (Ibish 2011: 7, 8). Historically speaking this
assertion is not entirely ungrounded. Iran has, in the past, “made territorial claims on Bahrain”. There
is still a widespread belief that Iran is aiming to replicate its theocratic system and like during the
1990’s protests in Bahrain, these protests are seen by some to illustrate that Iran has never fully
abandoned its territorial ambitions regarding Bahrain (Ibish 2011: 4, 10, 11).
The question of leadership seems to lie at the heart of the divide ever since the death of the prophet
Muhammad in 632 c.e. when Sunnis chose to follow a new leader of the Muslim community as elected
by a council of elders. Even if less (religiously) capable leaders were thusly elected, Sunnis tended to
stick to the motto “better sixty years of tyranny than a single day of civil strife”. Yet the Shi’a saw this
very motto as the foundation of their dissent and argued for the leadership to be handed to a direct
descendent of the Prophet, Ali Ibn Abi Taleb. The Sunni conception of leadership tends to “center[…]
on a preoccupation with order [, stating that] religion does not depend on the quality of political
authority but only on its ability to help to help the faith survive and grow”, where the Shi’a
interpretation of leadership centers around a special relationship with God and the notion of the
Ayatollah, meaning ‘sign of God’. As such (although simplified here) Shi’a revolutionary zeal was
born along with their hesitance to bestow legitimacy on caliphs and sultans throughout history while
the Sunnis embraced leaders as long as they provided order and protected Islam (Nasr 2007: 33-43). In
other words, Shi’a and Sunni stand by solidly different notions of legitimate power. While this is
certainly not the only difference between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims (as there are, for example, spiritual
diversions too), it is has proven to be one of the most irreconcilable and salient ones throughout the
ages as it composes both religious and political ideological discrepancies.
This would not be the first time this line of thought and the fear of Iranian dominance in the region
determined Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic stance: “in the beginning of the new millennium, the kingdom
regarded the Shiites in Yemen as part of an Iranian conspiracy and supported the current Yemeni
regime”(Hassan 2011: 3). Saudi Arabia’s active involvement in Bahrain thus also functions as a clear
message to Shi’a populations in other Gulf States – crudely stated: if you protest then we will invade
(Ibish 2011: 10).
As highlighted by several political commentators, the plot thickens: the protests in Bahrain are the
first to have been countered so successfully, a characteristic that can be attributed to Saudi Arabia’s
direct involvement in Bahrain’s internal situation. In light of Saudi Arabia’s involvement on behalf of
the Bahraini regime, the U.S.’s explicit support for the opposition would have all too clearly
elucidated the tensions and discrepancies between the interests of Bahrain’s freakishly powerful Arab
neighbor and the omnipresent world-power unable to prioritize its interests. Naturally, the U.S.
would have little interest in straining its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Thus, for now, “Washington
has seemingly accepted that […] the Saudis have won the battle for influence in Bahrain” (Ibish 2011:
12, 13). Where the U.S. explicitly supported the ousting of Mubarak in Egypt (despite the regime
being a former ally), and NATO intervened militarily in Libya against the Gaddafi regime in March of
2011, Bahrain presents a different challenge; the delicate situation in the island has put into sharp
focus the dynamics of international power and diplomatic relations with regards to the U.S . In its
relationship with the state, and particularly the government of Bahrain, the tension between the U.S.’s
proclamations in favor of democracy and their wish to be on the ‘right side of history’, and their
strategic relationships with regimes of questionable legitimacy becomes particularly salient. As such,
while the U.S. has real power over Bahrain’s regime, it seems to have opted for the use of gentle
words of warning for the government instead.
is important to remember that the media is not “simply a mouthpiece of the elite [;] the media
also show that they are an inherent part of societal power structures, of which they manage the
symbolic dimension” (van Dijk 2008(a): 55).
This relates directly to studies on how dominant modes of discourse come to be constructed, how a
hegemonic discursive accord arises and “how and why [people are] resistant or receptive to certain
repertoires” (Demmers and van den Brink n.d.).
As the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words and, like a political cartoon, it “permeate[s]
our consciousness” while both reflecting and molding the social reality. It cannot be argued with or
defend itself and it “hit[s] you primitively and emotionally […]. It is a frontal assault, a slam dunk, a
cluster bomb” (Steuter and Wills 2009: 11). Hence, the truths communicated by these images as
presented in Figures xii and xiii sustain discursive arsenals of opposing regimes of truth as almost
indisputable evidence.
This is not to say that relationships of power are “by nature a manifestation of consensus”, nor of
violence. As action upon action the exercise of the relationship of power is, rather, a “’conduct of
conducts’ and a management of possibilities” whereby “power is less a confrontation between two
adversaries or their mutual engagement than a question of ‘government’. And “to govern, in this
sense, is to structure the possible field of action of others” (Foucault 1982: 340, 341).
While some opposition hardliners are indeed calling for an end to the monarchy all together,
others (both members of the opposition and protesters) are calling for specific reforms based on socioeconomic and political grievances such as the discrimination and lack of political representation
highlighted earlier.
According to Adel Al-Moawda, deputy chairman of the Bahraini parliament, mosques and places
of worship were destroyed because they were not licensed and thus built illegally (Al Jazeera, 14-0511).
“Nothing, including the exercise of power, is evil in itself
– but everything is dangerous. To be able to detect and
diagnose real dangers, we need to avoid equally the twin
seductions of paranoia and universal suspicion, on the
one hand, and the compulsive quest for foundationalist
certainties and guarantees on the other – both of which
serve to impede or dispense us from the rational and
responsible work of careful and specific investigation”
(Gordon 2002: xix)
As revolutions and uprisings in the Arab world continue to unfold in the context of what has
become known as the Arab Spring, violence and human rights abuses continue to go hand in
hand with cries for democracy, reform and equality. Yet in every Arab country that has seen
protests, revolution, violence and, in some cases, reform -- be it in the heart of the Middle
East, North Africa, or in the Gulf region -- no simple narrative about the actual reality of
events will suffice. While the world seems to have adopted the label of Arab Spring as a
means to collectively categorize, describe and understand the recent events in some Arab
countries, this label, like any label, indeed does not begin to do justice to the true contest
over reality lurking just beneath its surface. As illustrated in the above regarding the case of
Bahrain in the context of its protests and violence, there is no simple truth about reality. In
fact, Bahrain’s contemporary reality defies easy chronicling, description and categorization
as multiple and diverging stories attempt to portray and construct (a version of) the ‘truth’.
The conspiracy theories described and analyzed in this thesis are such stories. Each of the
conspiracist discourses analyzed here portrays a different (although at times concurring)
version of Bahrain’s contemporary reality. Based on assertions of absolute blame, dire threat,
and the ultimate causality and agency of the enemy-plotter, these theories, construct
particular ‘truths’ based on fantasy and false logic as well as a keen understanding of the
functional relationship between discourse and social reality. While the threatening reality
they convey through such functional truth-construction may or may not be real, each
conspiracy theory presented throughout this thesis is an intricately constructed mosaic
comprised of little shards of ‘evidence’ ordered in a delicately un-falsifiable manner and
grounded in both the political functionality of discourses as well as social meaningfulness.
These mosaics are each functional components in the age-old, continuous contest over the
portrayal of reality. And within this contest, each conspiracist mosaic constructs a realm of
‘truth’, producing (at least a fragment of) the multiple ‘truths’ that can reign within a society.
As both socially meaningful and politically functional, Bahrain’s conspiracy theories and the
‘truths’ they construct actively create the social reality they discursively portray. And as
such, whether the conspiracy they theorize about actually exists or not, they each hold a
certain transformative and therefore real and potentially dangerous power within society.
In the context of the situation in contemporary Bahrain and the intrinsically constructed
conspiracist stories, each asserting a truth about the reality of this volatile situation, the
purpose of this thesis was to provide insight into and generate ideas concerning the
question: What specific functions do the various forms of conspiracy theories and conspiracism serve
in the context of the on-going violence and unrest in contemporary Bahrain?xxix
Throughout my analysis as presented here I have identified three main trends regarding the
functions served by conspiracist discourses as found in Bahrain, all of which are interlinked,
mutually dependent and functional in no particular chronological order. I have argued that
conspiracy theories, through numerous processes, serve the function of ‘othering’,
legitimizing action, and maintaining and/or (re-)asserting power, all in the name of an overarching cause found in the very essence of the conspiracist world view: the fight against an
existential threat anchored in the type of fear that can instill anything from a rift to
murderous hatred between neighbors, friends and even family.
Based on this analysis of the functions served by conspiracy theories in the context of the
violence and unrest in contemporary Bahrain, several key conclusions can be drawn in light
of the question: what does this thesis actually contribute to the academic community? While
the analysis presented in this thesis is composed of a compilation and integration of a
theoretical framework and the case-study of contemporary Bahrain, for the sake of clarity I
will attempt to address this question by first reflecting on theoretical matters made to arise
through the analysis of conspiracy theories in a framework of CDA and frame analysis, and
then discussing the conclusions to be drawn regarding conspiracist discourses in relation to
the conflict in Bahrain.
Notions of conspiracism’s functionality:
Grounded in a theoretical framework centered on the field of CDA and, more specifically,
frame analysis, I have analyzed the political functionality of conspiracist portrayals of reality
as found in contemporary Bahrain in relation to its conflict and violence in the context of the
age-old and continuous contest over the representation of reality. The focus of this thesis
thus lies in providing a systematic description and, moreover, understanding of conspiracist
discourses within their social and historical context so as to unweave the logics that structure
them, thereby analyzing their core functionality in politics and society in general. From a
theoretical perspective, the analysis presented here is solidly grounded in the key notion that
discourses serve a function within a specific social context.
While this is not an attempt to decipher the complex manner in which discourses are actually
constructed (the how), the conspiracy theories discussed here, like all discourses, are made to
embed historical and contemporary contexts by those who construct them whereby they
become socially meaningful. Yet being grounded in social meaning is not the only criteria for
a discursive construction; a discourse like the conspiracy theories in Bahrain will only be
constructed by those with the power to do so if it is politically functional, if there is a
political will. As such, conspiracy theories are constructed based on social meaning and
political functionality whereby, in turn, they actively construct meaning and representation
in a specific context, asserting their political functionality (Jabri 2002: 94). In being both
socially meaningful and politically functional, conspiracy theories thus function in a cyclical
process within their social context. And it is within the enactment of this cyclical process of
functional meaning construction that conspiracy theories serve the key functions of
‘othering’, legitimizing action, and maintaining and (re-)asserting power in light of a
conspiracist cause framed to be, ultimately, (the nature of) the conspiracist’s existence as
threatened by the conspirator. In discussing these functions and the processes that
accompany them, this thesis thus highlights the recognitive patterns of expectation and
evaluation whereby social categorizations of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, the victim and the
perpetrator, and ultimately good and evil are constructed. Additionally, my analysis of the
functions served by Bahrain’s conspiracy theories incorporates concepts in relation to the
process of legitimization whereby action, in the context of conflict – meaning violence -comes to be perceived by a certain group within society as imaginable, acceptable and even
the best possible option; it becomes a regular form of human conductxxx.
Ultimately, conspiracy theories, as discourses, thus function as constructions of reality in the
age-old and continuous contest over the representation of reality. In conveying reality
through the attribution of names and labels, and the portrayal of images and symbols they
construct a reality—a reality based on both portrayal and construction of dichotomies and,
relatedly, encompassing processes of social transformation. In essence, conspiracist
discourses -- in their discursive portrayal of social reality and its dichotomies -- dichotomize
society in two ways, the first relating to social dichotomization in terms of groups,
communities and individuals (as will be discussed later), and the second relating to moral
dichotomization. It is this ultimate moral (and thereby normative) dichotomization that
makes the successful portrayal of reality so desirable; such portrayal of reality would not be
worth contesting and constructing if it wasn’t for its potential to construct not only the
present reality but also the future. As one group within society is divided from another, what
is ultimately being dictated is the distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, victim
and perpetrator in a process of attempting to obtain moral absolution. As the present
becomes the past and memory takes over from experience, history will continue to dictate
these dichotomized portrayals of right and wrong, solidifying such portrayal across time and
space. This is how discourses actively do things: they function in the construction of social
reality as they portray the ‘truth’ about reality, through their functions of ‘othering’,
legitimizing violence, and maintaining and (re-)asserting power. Regardless of whether
discourse takes the form of scientifically grounded chronicling or of an un-provable and unfalsifiable assertion of a plot, in being constructed it, in its inherent and intricatel interwoven
functions as outlined in this thesis, holds the potential (or even power) to construct as the
figurative world is translated into the physical one and vice versa in a transformative process
of continuous dialectics.
Suggestions for further research:
As asserted throughout this discussion, conspiracy theories as manifest in contemporary
Bahrain are, indeed, functional in a greater, over-arching process of social transformation.
Yet while an analysis of the functions served by such discourses highlights the active nature
of discourse as it transforms that which it is built upon, what remains is a clear and, when it
comes to CDA unavoidable question of actual causality (Fairclough 2010: 9). As social
activity, discourses naturally holds the potential to influence and change the society in which
they are created but what exactly it is they change or transform remains difficult to discern
and would require extensive case by case, event by event research.
In line with the need to study causality so as to better understand the real, concrete
relationship between discourse (once constructed) and society in the context of a discussion
concerning the functionality of discourse it would also be interesting to further investigate
agent intentionality. For while I have asserted that discourses do serve clear (political)
functions and are, particularly in times of conflict, useful tools for those with the power to
construct them, the question of whether these constructing agents are aware of what their
discourses can function as and how their propagation of names, labels and symbols (-- a
version of reality--) in these constructions relates to social reality remains (also see Bhatia
2005: 19).
Additionally, this thesis (while at no point promising to do so) fails to address in full
analytical details the question of how discourses come to be constructed in the first place.
Referring to the specific case of Bahrain with regards to this, further study could be
conducted regarding the question (for example): how do conspiracy theories come to be
constructed in contemporary Bahrain? Similar to its disregard for the question of how
conspiracist discourses are constructed in contemporary Bahrain, this thesis also fails to
address in accurate detail the processes of discourse formation by which a discourse becomes
a hegemonic accord. While I have referred to the notions of social meaning and positive
power in my discussion of conspiracist propaganda in chapter III, this subject would require
further in depth research. I believe it would be especially interesting to analyze the rise of a
conspiracist discourse as a hegemonic accord in a comparative fashion whereby
conspiracism in two separate cases of conflict forms the topic. I also believe this comparative
element to be missing in this analysis. In this sense, my discussion could be seen as the first
of a series of analysis of the functions served by conspiracist discourses in a society in
Bahrain and conspiracist mosaics of truth:
Despite the fact that Bahrain has now seen almost a year and a half worth of violence and
unrest (or perhaps because of it…) it remains under-acknowledged and under-studied in
international media, in policy making circles, in diplomatic circles and, not in the least and
shamefully, in the academic world. This thesis is thus an attempt to remedy the academic
analysis deficit concerning Bahrain in the context of the Arab Spring. While my analysis
deals with the very specific phenomenon of conspiracy theories, some conclusions of higher
abstraction can be drawn concerning the dynamics of the conflict in contemporary Bahrain in
light of my analysis of the functions served by conspiracy theories within this social and
political context.
Bahrain’s discursive stage, like any discursive stage in a society in conflict, is composed of
countless narratives about the social reality from all groups in that society. When zooming in
on the phenomenon that is Bahrain’s conspiracism, this observation remains the same. It
seems that all parties to Bahrain’s conflict have, to a certain extent, participated in the
discursive construction of a conspiracist reality. As such, I argue that conspiracism and the
processes of naming and portrayal that are inherent in it are not “a one-way process of
government versus protesters” but rather, that conspiracism as seen in Bahrain is a “verbal
tool[…] and strategy[y] of both governments and non-state movements as they compete for
legitimacy”. As both Bahrain’s regime, and its protesters and political opposition compose
their own conspiracy theories, they each participate in the construction of a socially
meaningful and politically functional ‘truth’ regime about reality. As such, it is evident that
“global discourse is no longer one where a singular hegemon or state is able to dictate one
name, and have this universally followed and used by its intended audiences”; multiple
names, and thereby ‘truths’ are simultaneously constructed through the multiple
conspiracist discourses in contemporary Bahrain (Bhatia 2005: 19).
Yet while Bahrain’s conspiracist discourses are not monopolized by the state and thus come
in a variety of shapes and colors (so to speak), their essence unlike their subject matter
remains consistently the same. By essence I mean their very nature as discourses centered on
accusations, assertions of ultimate causality, and the portrayal of existential threats in a quest
for foundationalist certainties grounded in social meaning and political functionality. It is
through this conspiracist essence that all conspiracy theories (be they alleging a government
plot to alter the demographic balance or an accusation leveled against so-called foreign
agents attempting to overthrow a regime) serve the discursive functions of ‘othering’,
legitimizing action, and maintaining and (re-)asserting power for the sake of the cause of
existence. In serving these functions as causality- and agency-asserting stories about reality,
Bahrain’s conspiracy theories ultimately both portray and, therein, construct a dichotomized
social reality; in being centered on a universal suspicion of ‘another’, Bahrain’s conspiracy
theories are both based upon and construct social divisions. As asserted throughout my
analysis, all three of the conspiracy theories at hand here relate to the same three
dichotomies, namely those between Bahrain’s political opposition and protesters and the
government; between foreigners, immigrants and strangers, and native, indigenous or real
Bahrainis; and between Shiite and Sunni Muslim sects. While each of these underlying
dichotomies conveys a different story and focusses on a different characteristic of the ‘other’
and the ‘self’, they essentially funnel down into a single, universally recognizable and clearly
conflict-related dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’; they are the discursive realization of the
innately human and practically instinctive divide between the ‘self’ in the comfortable inner
world and the ‘other’ in the unknown outer world gone bad as through conspiracism the
‘other’ unavoidably becomes the enemy, the fearful threat. In inherently conveying the same
message, these dichotomies as found in Bahrain’s conspiracist discourses thus strengthen
each other in the construction of a reality – a reality in which a label, a simple name, entails a
whole world of meaning and consequences (Bhatia 2005).
Seen in this light, Bahrain’s conspiracy theories and the inherent dichotomizing processes
entrenched in their inherent functions as socially constructed discourses serve in the
destruction of Bahrain’s social fabric as they portray, reiterate and ultimately construct social
rifts. In essence, conspiracist discourses like those seen in Bahrain function in the pursuit of a
political agenda only realizable through the destructive construction of social rifts which, in
reverberating throughout society have real, even tangible consequences. The social and
political implications of the dichotomies underlying and constructed through the functions
served by these conspiracist discourses have ranged from increased political repression in
the form of, for example, mass arrests and trials, and political and social violence as the
‘other’ is attacked for being a ‘safavid’, a protester or member of the political opposition, a
regime loyalist, an immigrant from Pakistan or Syria, a spy for Hezbollah, a secret Iranian
agent, a too-mouthy journalist, or a kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. Evidently, the
dichotomization of society entrenched in the functional nature of Bahrain’s conspiracy
theories will escape none and let none escape within contemporary Bahraini society. As
such, when one speaks of the destruction caused by discourses like Bahrain’s conspiracy
theories one also has to speak of construction. For conspiracy theories in Bahrain, like all
discourses, cannot actively ‘do’ one without the other; as a certain reality is destroyed by the
dichotomization of society, another one – a new one -- arises. As such, the transformative
potential of Bahrain’s conspiracy theories comes to light as conspiracist discourses construct
a new reality -- a conspiracist reality grounded in division, threats and fears, unrest and
Considering the direct and underlying functional processes entrenched in conspiracy
theories as seen in Bahrain, it above all else, becomes evident that the functional power of
discourses in times of conflict as seen in Bahrain is a dangerous one, even, or perhaps
especially, if those discourses are un-provable, un-falisfiable, based in faulty logic and
consistent of fragments of ‘evidence’ glued together with fantasy, imagination and
manipulation -- like an artfully crafted mosaic. In line with this, I argue, conspiracy theories
as seen in Bahrain are not afforded their discursive power because of their basis in ‘truth’
(whatever that may be), but rather in their savvy incorporation of social context -- meaning,
history and memory -- and political functionality to convey a story about reality which
ultimately comes to construct a version of reality; a functional truth construction amongst
other functional truth constructions in the contest over the representation of reality – a reality
which, in the case of contemporary Bahrain, entails accusations, insecurity, polarization,
violence, reification, sectarianization, and all other dynamics of violent conflict. For this is (in
turn) the reality of artfully constructed discourses like the conspiracy theories as manifest in
contemporary Bahrain. Like a mosaic created out of tiny colored stones that, when inlaid in a
certain functional and meaningful manner, portray a certain pattern which entrenches itself
in the social reality, conspiracy theories too become part of the social reality (as much as the
discursive one) as they serve their inherent functions and construct as much as depend on
politics and meaning.
In the end, in our world discourse matters even if the story it conveys is a mosaic composed
of false logic, fantasy and un-provable ‘truths’.xxxi
Clearly, the concepts and ideas presented throughout this thesis are based on the phenomenon of
conspiracy theories and conspiracism as researched and analyzed in the context of the specific casestudy of contemporary Bahrain. As such, in this final chapter, as throughout the preceding chapters, I
do not aim to offer definite conclusions concerning the functions served by conspiracy theories in
Regarding the relationship between the violence in Bahrain and conspiracist discourses in its
context, it is interesting to note that Bahrain’s conspiracy theories and its contemporary violence are
also conceptually closely related social manifestations. Both are functional and both can be employed
as a means to an end. Both are made to happen in a specific context and both, eventually and to a
certain extent, have the power to run their own course (footnote and source). Yet violence does not
happen without discourses making it imaginable, without discourses serving as violent imaginaries
(Schröder and Schmidt 2001). As such, I argue, discourses like conspiracy theories as seen in Bahrain
and the violence that can be constructed based on their portrayals of reality function in the same
process – a transformative process -- with discursive truth construction being a first and continuous
While the analysis of conspiracist discourses as manifest in contemporary Bahrain presented
throughout this thesis is written from the ivory tower of academic research and interpretation, it is
also a tribute to and re-assertion of the knowledge that, in analyzing and discussing violence and
conflict there really is no such thing as an ivory tower. For what is ultimately being discussed here,
whilst shrouded in analysis and theory, is a matter of suffering and resistance, of hope and courage, of
violence and aggression, and, in the end, of life and death.
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Cover page: Hasan Jamali, AP Images, 13-03-11, online available at:
Permission for the reproduction of any illustration already published was asked by the author.
Figure i PressTV.ir, 09-03-11, online available at:
Figure ii: The National Interest, 02-08-11, online available at:
Figure iii: Wordpress, Rebellious Walls, 2011, online available at:
Figure iv: MRzine, 06-03-11, online available at:
Figure v: Hasan Jamali, AP Images, 10-05-12, online available at:
http://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Bahrain-violence-grows-with-mobattacks-3473738.php - photo-2802731
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Appendix A – details of research:
My research spans three separate fields of study for which the literature research forms and
essential backbone. Firstly, the literature was used to obtain knowledge and insight into the
theoretical framework as presented above. Secondly, it served to academically interpret the
phenomenon of conspiracy theories and conspiracism, allowing me to build my thesis
around this phenomenon. Thirdly, my literature research also pertains to the case study at
hand: Bahrain. The research of these three fields is grounded in academic literature as found
in books and academic journals, as well as non-academic newspaper articles, reports,
journalistic literature and other internet sources.
For this thesis, a total of five in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with a
variety of people selected based on their knowledge of the current situation in Bahrain.
These interviews lasted between 45 minutes and one hour and 15 minutes and were
conducted with the guidance of a topic guide so as to provide a systematic way to interpret
the information gathered. The questions posed were thematic an aimed at extrapolating both
professional and personal opinions and insights. I used a recorder during all my interviews
to facilitate my later analysis. In light of this thesis being a study in frame analysis, the
information obtained from my interviews served an additional purpose, seconded by my
literature research. Most of my interviewees are, in one way or another, affiliated with the Al
Jazeera Network. This is related to my choice to do a six-week internship with Al Jazeera in
the first place; as one of the only networks to thoroughly cover Bahrain and being located in
the heart of the GCC, the network’s productions and articles on Bahrain have, indeed,
proven invaluable to my research. Among the people I interviewed are May Ying Welsh,
journalist at Al Jazeera English and producer of the documentary “Bahrain: Shouting in the
Dark”; Riyaad Minty, Head of the new media department at Al Jazeera English; Dr. Jamal
Abdullah, researcher at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies; and Matthew Cassel, now a
journalist for Al Jazeera and photographer. My last interview (conducted over Skype) was
with Nabeel Rajab, director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and currently
imprisoned for his activities over the past few months. In addition to my interviews, I
attended a conference organized by Chatham House, Royal Institute of International Affairs
in London on the 18th of June entitled: Bahrain: Youth Perspectives on the Future. The
conference was held under the Chatham House rule, signifying that any knowledge obtained
during the conference can be used but “neither the identity nor the affiliation of the
speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed” (Chatham House Rule).
As will become apparent in the following chapters, my analysis and discussion of Bahrain’s
conspiracy theories is sustained by various discursive exemplifications of conspiracism.
These take the shape of narratives, inscriptions and performances as speeches, protests signs,
cartoons, and newspaper articles referenced and analyzed. The samples taken from these
various sources are simply that: samples. They are by no means the only examples of
conspiracist rhetoric in Bahrain but they do provide insight into the wide variety of
conspiracist discourse as concretized on Bahrain’s discursive battlefield.
Appendix B --