A bulwark against sectarianism?

Bahrain is to renovate a Jewish synagogue in the capital, Manama, Gulf News reports:

Visiting the religious venue, Minister of Culture Shaikha Mai Bint Mohammad al-Khalifa said that she was looking forward to the renovation of the synagogue as one of the iconic places in Manama that reflected the kingdom’s cultural pluralism.

“The Ministry of Culture is keen on reinforcing bonds with all communities in the Bahraini society, known for their tolerance and centuries-old peaceful coexistence,” Shaikha Mai said.

“Manama has always been famous for being the capital where mosques, churches and synagogues coexist in full harmony without the slightest disagreement,” she said.

Bahrain has a tiny Jewish community and one of its prominent female members, Houda Nonoo, served as Bahrain’s ambassador in Washington from 2008 to 2013. She was the first Jewish ambassador to represent any Arab country.

Nineteen non-Muslim religious groups are officially recognised in Bahrain, including Christian churches and a Hindu temple. In 2012, the ruling family donated 9,000 square metres of land to the Roman Catholic church so that the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia could transfer its headquarters from Kuwait to Bahrain. Bahrain’s current ambassador in London, Alice Samaan, is a Christian.

Gestures of this kind help to promote the idea that Bahrain is a haven of religious tolerance – a point that Ms Nonoo used to emphasise during her ambassadorial term in Washington. In a talk to American Presbyterians, according to a press release from Bahrain’s PR firm, Qorvis, she “highlighted the kingdom's superlative record in preserving religious freedom”.

Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim rulers have been remarkably successful in portraying themselves as a bulwark against sectarianism while simultaneously pursuing a sectarian agenda with regard to Shia Muslims.

The idea that the ruling Khalifa family are saving the kingdom from religious strife has been adopted by some western analysts and used as an argument against allowing full-scale democracy.
In a paper for the Brookings Institution last year, Gregory Gause 

"More so than in the other monarchies, an American push for real democracy in Bahrain will only exacerbate sectarianism, rather than mitigate it.”

Ronald Neumann, a former US ambassador to Bahrain, 
made a similar argument in a paper for the American Middle East Council.

Nice as Bahrain may be for Jews, Christians, Hindus, Baha'is, Buddhists and Sikhs, these minorities can be tolerated (and even used for propaganda purposes) because they pose no threat to the rule of the Khalifa family.

It’s a different matter for Shia Muslims who actually form a majority of Bahrain’s population. Here are some quotes from the US State’s Department’s most recent report on religious freedom in Bahrain (relating to 2012):

  • The Sunni Muslim citizen population enjoyed favoured status. 

  • The government increasingly scrutinised clerics’ sermons, arrested members of the Shia community, including clerics, and stripped the citizenship of 31 Shia citizens, including three clerics, it deemed posed a security threat to the country. 

  • In newer residential developments such as Hamad Town and Isa Town, which often have mixed Shia and Sunni populations, there tends to be a disproportionate number of Sunni mosques.

  • Although Shia are believed to constitute the majority of citizens, Sunnis dominate political life. Of the 40 members of the Shura Council who are appointed by the king, 18 are Shia. Five of the 29 cabinet ministers are Shia, including one of the four deputy prime ministers.

  • Islamic studies are mandatory for all public school students. The Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence forms the basis of the curriculum, which does not include the Jaafari traditions of Shia Islam.

  • During the year, police arrested individuals, overwhelmingly from the Shia sect, for activities that were both political and religious in nature. 

  • Domestic and international human rights organisations reported numerous instances of torture; the victims were overwhelmingly Shia. 

  • In November Ministry of Interior personnel set up blockades to prevent worshippers from attending a Friday sermon led by prominent Shia cleric Shaikh Isa Qassem. In the ensuing clashes, one young Shia died and several members of the security forces were injured.

  • Members of the Shia community independently built simple structures for worship or rebuilt mosques in some locations without acquiring a property deed or building permit at the sites of some religious structures the government demolished in 2011. The government demolished some of these unlicensed structures.

  • Sunni citizens often received preference for employment in sensitive government positions, in the managerial ranks of the civil service, and in the military. 

  • Bahrain TV did not broadcast Friday sermons from Shia mosques, while broadcasts from Sunni mosques appeared regularly on Bahrain TV.

  • Anti-Shia commentary appeared regularly in pro-government broadcasts and publications. In January former parliamentarian Mohammed Khalid called for the killing of Shia protesters, labelling them “traitors”.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 21 February 2014