Bahrain moves to suppress religious debate

Bahrain has become the latest Gulf state to propose a formal ban on critical discussion of religion.

In a report of last Sunday's cabinet meeting, the government news agency says:

"A draft law on criminalising contempt of religions, such as insulting divinity, defaming divine books, prophets, Allah's Messengers, as well as their wives or companions, and any hate and sectarian discourse that undermines national unity, differentiates between individuals or groups on the bases of religion, creed or sect and triggers conflict between individuals or groups, was also discussed.

"The bill was presented in the memorandum submitted by the Interior Minister, and was referred to the Ministerial Committee for Legal Affairs for further study."

This sounds remarkably similar to an ill-conceived decree issued in the UAE last July which criminalised "insulting God" (and anything connected with Him) under the guise of cracking down on "hate speech".

Both moves appear to be part of a renewed effort by Islamic states to protect religious ideas from scrutiny. In July, at an international conference in France, a Saudi official from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs called for the worldwide introduction of blasphemy laws, as a matter of urgency. 

In this context it's worth recalling a report compiled by experts for the UN three years ago. At a purely practical level, the report said, national laws protecting religion fail to safeguard the religious rights of individuals, stifle debate that can be "constructive, healthy and needed", and are often applied in a discriminatory manner by favouring whichever religion happens to predominate in any particular country:

"There are numerous examples of persecution of religious minorities or dissenters, but also of atheists and non-theists, as a result of legislation on religious offences or overzealous application of laws that are fairly neutral.

"Moreover, the right to freedom of religion or belief, as enshrined in relevant international legal standards, does not include the right to have a religion or a belief that is free from criticism or ridicule."

The kind of rules now being introduced would – if they had been applied in the past – have required the imprisonment of many of the most important thinkers and writers in Islamic history. Trying to apply them today results in all sorts of discriminatory practices and, since all that is required is for someone to claim they have been offended, creates opportunities for score-settling in the courts, often over extremely trivial matters.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 2 September 2015