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“When I look into the eyes of Bahraini protesters today, too many times I see that hope has been replaced by bitterness,” she wrote in a letter smuggled from jail.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?’”
The Bahrain regime has responded to calls for democracy and human rights in a similar way to how some U.S. police reacted to King’s civil rights movement – by tear gassing protestors, jailing leaders and smearing its supporters as violent, foreign-funded extremists. Zainab studied in the United States and has an impressive understanding of its civil rights movement. She wrote, “As I read Dr. King’s words recently, I found myself wondering what he would have to say about U.S. support of Bahraini dictators.” The U.S. counts Bahrain as a close ally, continues to base the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the country and to supply Bahrain’s military with arms.
Zainab’s family says she has been prevented from going outdoors since March and fears that she is at risk of contracting the highly contagious Hepatitis A and B from other prisoners at the Isa Town women’s prison. She has asked to be vaccinated, but her family reports that Zainab’s requests have been refused.
“The echo of Martin Luther King’s words has travelled across oceans, through the walls and metal bars of a Bahraini prison, and into the overcrowded and filthy cell I sit in,” she said. Zainab recounted how, when a prison official threatened to beat her for telling another inmate that they had the right to call a lawyer, “I did not shout back, I repeated King’s words in my head ‘no matter how emotional your opponents are, you must be calm.’ Sometimes, through his words, he has been a companion, a cell mate more than a teacher.”
In 1983, I spent all night on a bus to get to Washington for the 20th anniversary commemoration of Dr. King’s most famous speech. Wednesday will be very different, charged by the significance of America’s first black president standing where King stood 50 years before. Many are hoping to sense the legacy of King’s presence in the vast crowd and I wish Zainab could be there to experience that with us. But something of King’s spirit is already with her as she sits in prison.
As President Obama rightly pays tribute to the power of King’s message Wednesday, I hope he and those within his administration will take a moment to reflect on what the U.S. government is doing to press Bahrain for the release of Zainab and its other political prisoners. I hope they realize that Dr. King’s dream resonates beyond the U.S. with countless activists around the world, human rights defenders who deserve America’s vocal support and action.