Academic whitewashing: How Bahrain uses academic partnerships to hide its gross human rights abuses

November 2021. 1

There are numerous definitions of the concept of whitewashing with the most common one being “to gloss over or cover up vices, crimes or scandals or to exonerate by means of a perfunctory investigation or biased presentation of data”. There is no agreed definition on the concept of academic whitewashing, however, an example would be collaborations between an academic institution, such as a university and an abusive regime with a deteriorating human rights record. These collaborations can be in the forms of receiving or donating funds, regular visits to strengthen relationships, engaging in propagating misinformation, and teaching courses despite awareness regarding the countries’ widespread and systematic human rights abuses. Consequently, involved parties are disguising the true human rights situation in the concerned country. This deliberate “strategy” to deflect a country’s image as a prevalent human rights violator is used in different environments with the academic sphere being a major one.

Bahrain’s ambassador to the US, Mr. AlKhalifa, is a member of the ruling family in Bahrain. He maintains a relationship with Boston University and Suffolk University, while he has a history of overseeing human rights abuses committed by the Bahraini government. This includes the prison conditions and detention centres in which human rights defenders remain arbitrarily detained. By collaborating with Ambassador Al Khalifa, the Universities of Boston and Suffolk are engaging in academic whitewashing, which also benefits Ambassador AlKhalifa by enabling him to whitewash Bahrain’s atrocious human rights record.

Another example of academic whitewashing in practice involves the UK based University of Huddersfield. By teaching an exclusive MSc in Security Science, the University is directly involved with Bahrain’s Royal Academy of Policing (RAP), an organisation that has repeatedly been accused of engaging in torture. Despite testimonies alleging torture coupled with various NGOs calling for a suspension of the course, the University has refused to disclose their financial gain from the course, nor to remove the program. 

The most recent example of academic whitewashing takes us straight to Rome. On November 5, 2018, the Italian University “La Sapienza” inaugurated a new professorship to honor Bahrain’s King, the “King Hamad Chair for inter-religious dialogue and peaceful co-existence”. During the inauguration, Bahrain’s Minister of Culture stated that in Bahrain “all faiths have lived side by side for centuries and today we are happy to live in a multicultural and multi-religious society”. 

Despite claiming the opposite, Bahrain has a long-standing history of sectarian discrimination and religious intolerance. In fact, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has defined Bahrain as a country that commits systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of the freedom of religion. Even though nearly 70% of Bahrain’s population is Shia, the political power of the country is allocated within the Sunni Al Khalifa ruling family, which has led the Shia community to be targeted for their cultural, religious, political, and legal rights. 

The government of Bahrain has engaged in the demolition of many Shia places of worship as well as regularly interfering in traditional Shia religious practices and suppressing peaceful public demonstrations. Shia clerics are harassed and punitively denaturalized by the government, rendering many stateless and deported.

Bahrain’s defense sector (which includes military, intelligence, and police) has traditionally excluded Shia members from participating through discriminatory hiring practices. In education, Shia communities are also discriminated against: teachers face hiring discrimination and are not allowed to teach religion and history, textbooks endorse the Sunni vision of Islam and derogatorily depict Shia Muslims, and Shia students face discrimination by their teachers and other students. 

Despite evidence that the Bahraini government systematically discriminates against the Shia community, La Sapienza University granted King Hamad a Laurea Honoris Causa for his commitment to “promoting interreligious coexistence”, in addition to the new professorship. Italy has furthermore strengthened its institutional and trade ties with the Kingdom: Italy is Bahrain’s main European trading partner, and the Italian Embassy frequently engages in meetings with government officials or members of the royal family. Due to economic interests and ties to the Kingdom, Italy has failed to critically engage on human rights concerns such as religious discrimination, despite the calls for action from MPs such as Laura Boldrini, who recently asked for La Sapienza to stop supporting the Bahraini regime.

By giving a space of expression to the government of Bahrain in such a prestigious institution, the University of La Sapienza portrays an image of the Bahraini regime that is not only dangerous, but that is simply false. The constant discrimination faced by the Shia inhabitants of Bahrain and the subsequent violations of human rights are an undeniable reality documented by governments, the United Nations  and NGOs alike. La Sapienza University is thus openly neglecting intellectual honesty, as well as ignoring the word of academics and specialists that work in the field and have been denouncing the situation for decades. The fact that a university, that should transmit the love of knowledge, the permanent curiosity and the unstoppable research of the truth, is collaborating with a regime that lies is very worrying. 

Dictatorships such as Bahrain have a wide variety of sectors to choose from in order to give a positive image of themselves abroad. Sports, culture, business, tourism, diplomacy, all means are good to achieve their goal. Having tight links with a university sends various messages: Bahrain is a generous country, but not only: Bahrain is also committed to the education of future generations, to science, to literature, to history, to research, in short, to knowledge. The only problem is that, once again, it is only a mirage. Think that Bahrain is a country that sponsors academic work? Meet Dr. Abduljalil Al Singace. Dr. Al Singace holds a PhD from the University of Manchester, and used to be the head of the department of Mechanical Engineering in the University of Bahrain. He was also a member of the Bahrain Academic Society and expressed his brilliant ideas in an online blog. His commitment to the research of the truth is what cost him his freedom, as he was imprisoned in 2009 for asking for democracy and exposing the truth about human rights violations in the country. Recently, he started yet another hunger strike to protest his detention conditions (despite being sick, he has systematically been denied medical assistance), and the confiscation of a research book he had been writing for years. Bahrain finances academic research abroad but does not protect academics at home.

This collaboration also sends the message that there is nothing wrong with dealing with the government of this country. As if Bahrain was not a strict dictatorship, did not imprison those who disagree, torture its own citizens, perpetrate oppression against women, repress violently peaceful gatherings, violate international law, was not a major human trafficking hub, or did not strip people of their nationality for expressing their opinion. 

Winston Churchill once said: “[y]ou see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police … yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home — all the more powerful because forbidden — terrify them.” The Bahraini regime is afraid of words, of the truth, and of the unstoppable will of its people to become free. By associating itself with the Bahraini regime, La Sapienza is placing itself on the side of the perpetrator. It actively silences the voices of those who fight daily for democracy and human rights, of the courageous Bahraini activists both in the country and in exile, the voice of NGOs who try to raise awareness on the subject, the voice of the United Nations, and the European Parliament when they express their concerns. Their message is thus not heard by all those who could take action to bring positive change. Depriving Bahraini people from their right to democracy and human rights.