by: Brian Dooley
I’m going to the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday to hear President Obama mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech and I wish Zainab Al Khawaja could come with me. She’s a human rights defender, an expert on King’s philosophy and activism, stuck in a Bahraini prison until February for peacefully protesting against the repressive regime there.
"King's philosophy of nonviolent resistance has always been a major influence on Zainab's activism; she studied it, learned from it, tried to apply it in Bahrain. And it's landed her in jail," her sister Maryam told me. In March, Zainab wrote a letter from jail saying she felt that King “is reaching out to us from another land and another time to teach very important lessons ... that we must not become bitter, that we must be willing to sacrifice for freedom, and that we can never sink to the level of our oppressors.”
When we last spoke, before she was jailed in February 2013, Zainab again told me about how important King’s experience was in shaping her own approach to what was happening in Bahrain, including how difficult it can be to persuade protestors to stay nonviolent when they see few benefits from peaceful resistance.
“When I look into the eyes of Bahraini protesters today, too many times I see that hope has been replaced by bitterness,” she wrote in a letter smuggled from jail. “It’s the same bitterness Martin Luther King Jr. saw in the eyes of rioters in the slums of Chicago in 1966. He saw that the same people who had been leading non-violent protests, who were willing to be beaten without striking back, were now convinced that violence was the only language the world understood. I, like Dr. King, am saddened to find some of the same protesters who faced tanks and guns with bare chests and flowers, today asking ‘what’s the use of non-violence, or of moral superiority, If no one is listening?’”