Bahrain’s Double Standard on Religious Freedom: The Case of Ashura 2020

Ashura is a time of mourning and remembrance for the Shia Muslims. In Bahrain, its observance serves as both a symbol of their religion and a marker of their religious freedom. However, this year, Bahraini authorities have continued the systematic discrimination against the Shia citizens by curtailing their freedom of religious observation, citing COVID-19 as an excuse. This follows similar anti-Shia discrimination that occurred in the past.

COVID-19 Restrictions

In a meeting on 14 August with the Administrative Council and the National Medical Task Force for Combating the Coronavirus, Yousef bin Saleh al-Saleh, Chair of the Jafari Endowments Council, introduced restrictions to be imposed on Ma’tams and worshippers during Ashura. These restrictions included holding the Muharram ceremonies virtually with only the administration and broadcasting staff present in the Ma’tam and adhering to all precautionary measures; restricting the duration of the ceremonies to a maximum of 20 minutes; prohibiting the installation of black banners outside the perimeter of the Ma’tam; forbidding ceremonies and sermons to be broadcasted on loudspeakers; and banning Ma’tams and ceremonies for women. Conversely, public spaces throughout Bahrain–including entertainment facilities, gyms, malls, and swimming pools–were reopened on 6 August. The discrepancy between policies illustrates how the government is using COVID-19 as an excuse to target Shia worship during the month of Muharram.

The Jafari Endowments issued another statement urging Ma’tams to form organization committees to prevent assembly during Ashura ceremonies. On 26 August, the sixth day of Muharram, the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs and the Ministry of Justice approved the gradual reopening of mosques, while maintaining safety precautions. In light of this decision, the Jafari Endowments and the National Medical Taskforce approved measures regarding the commemoration of Ashura, including requirements that worshippers sit two meters apart; that worshippers remain in their seats for the duration of their ceremonies; that children, the elderly, and people with chronic diseases are prohibited from attending gatherings; and that worshippers must commemorate only within in their residential areas. Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad disregarded these rules, however, when he represented the king and the Government of Bahrain at a Hindu celebration with no masks and no social distancing on 1 September, immediately after Ashura.

Clampdown on Worshippers and Places of Worship

Even before the decision by the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, the MOI had begun targeting the leadership and administrations of Ma’tams. In fact, the MOI summoned the administrations of several Ma’tams and threatened them with a 3-year closure and a fine of 10,000 Bahraini dinars. The ministry also prohibited Husainiyas from broadcasting the Muharram ceremonies through speakers for the residents of the neighborhood. Additionally, journalists were asked to write articles opposing the reopening of Husainiyas during Muharram, and medical personnel were asked to issue statements to the press opposing the reopening of Husainiyas because that would increase the risk of transmission of COVID-19.

Even though there were already widespread restrictions on Shia worship before, the targeting of Ma’tams and individuals increased with the start of Muharram, with authorities often citing the on-going pandemic as an excuse. Many residents were summoned and forced to take down Ashura banners placed on their private property. Members of leadership were criminally implicated for setting up a projector. Members of the administration of Masjids were summoned for commemorating Ashura inside Masjids instead of Ma’tams, and Masjids were closed for the same reason, even though there is no Ma’tam in their area to replace them. Some Ma’tams were prohibited from broadcasting ceremonies through speakers, and many others were prohibited from processions. Some Ma’tams were closed, and people were arrested for reciting Ziyarat Ashura–a Shia salutatory prayer–and accused of insulting the companions of the Prophet, although the prayer is not derogatory and is deliberately misinterpreted in order to target those who employ it.

Maddahs were summoned over poems. Others were summoned for targeting Yazid, the killer of Imam Hussein; sentenced to prison for insulting Muawiya bin Abi Sufyan and Banu Umayya, and talking about the crimes that they committed against Ahl al Bayt; some were detained in inhumane conditions.

Religious Freedoms in Prison

On 8 August 2020, in a voice recording broadcasted from prison, the human rights activist Naji Fateel stated that he, along with around 500 other political prisoners in Buildings 13 and 14 of Jau Prison, would be going on a hunger strike starting 9 August to protest the administration’s ban on religious rituals, in particular, because Ashura was drawing closer. The next day, on 10 August, Fateel and five other prisoners were transferred to Building 15 as a form of punishment for mobilizing the other inmates. Isolated in Building 15, the six men were unable to perform religious rituals, a deprivation which constitutes a direct violation of their human rights.

On 27 August, the ninth day of Muharram and one day before Ashura, an altercation occurred between a prisoner named Al-Wazir and a Yemeni officer, on account of the latter’s provocation and insults. As a result of the incident, Al-Wazir and Sheikh Abbas were both transferred to solitary confinement, the former for the altercation, and the latter for allegedly inciting Al-Wazir after prison administration confiscated the Sheikh’s prayer books. This rendered both men completely unable to perform Ashura rites.

In some prison buildings, inmates were completely prohibited from collective worship and had their religious books confiscated. They were also prohibited from making phone calls in retaliation for practicing their religious rituals on Ashura, in addition to being barred from watching Ashura ceremonies on television. Despite this, the NIHR insisted that inmates freely practiced religious rituals during Muharram, as guaranteed by international standards, and officials claimed that they had visited prisons to examine the situation.

Selective Accountability

 Bahraini authorities have shown bias and double standards in terms of law enforcement and accountability, but there are situations where sectarian strife and xenophobia have been dealt with effectively. One example occurred on 15 August when a video surfaced of a woman breaking a Hindu statue at a local store and proclaiming Bahrain a Muslim country. The MOI issued a statement the next day stating that the case was being transferred to the Public Prosecution.

On the other hand, when harassment is directed at the Shia citizens, authorities fail to enforce laws guaranteeing public peace and unity. On 24 August, Abdul Menhem Ebrahim, a Bahraini journalist, published an article in Akhbar Al Khaleej criticizing Shia worshippers who were practicing Muharram rituals, implicitly comparing them to animals. The only action taken was to submit a communication to the Public Prosecution against the newspaper that published the article.

Other news sources utilized to spread anti-Shia sentiment include the government-owned Al-Watan newspaper that published a photo supposedly showing Ashura ceremonies in 2020 that violate COVID-19 safety practices, when in fact the photo is from 2017. The government then used the photo as an excuse to remove speakers broadcasting Ashura ceremonies. Also in Al-Watan, journalist Fareed Ahmed Hasan published an article saying that Ashura ceremonies caused an increase in COVID-19 infections, even though King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and the MOI praised the way Ashura ceremonies were held, declaring their success.

In fact, studies show that the infection rate is the same as it was before Ashura and that the rate was higher after Eid al-Fitr. The false news stories blaming Ashura for a non-existent increase in cases of COVID-19 are nothing more than sectarian rhetoric. Some Shia Bahrainis even think that the government intentionally increased PCR testing so that the number of cases would be higher after Ashura, in order to use Ashura ceremonies as a scapegoat.

After a recording was released of Isa Saleh al-Hasan threatening a Fatwa that would permit the killing of Shias in Bahrain, activist Hasan al-Sitra submitted the recording as evidence to the Anti-Cyber Crime Directorate. The response was that Al-Hasan was not a Bahraini citizen, but a Saudi national, so no action could be taken, despite Al-Hasan residing in Bahrain and being able to run in Bahrain’s 2018 elections. However, after significant pressure from Bahraini citizens, the MOI said in a tweet that it is working on taking the necessary legal action to arrest the man behind the recording. Nevertheless, many Shia Bahrainis still believe that nothing will happen, because of similar previous cases where nothing happened.

Every year, discrimination against the Shia in Bahrain increases during the period of Ashura. However, the discrimination and suppression of religious events took on a new form this year, because the authorities can use the pandemic as an excuse for their actions. Given that the government is allowing other religions and sects to practice their rituals without health restrictions–and that it is also not taking strict measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 in public areas–it is clear that COVID-19 is an excuse, rather than a reason, to limit Shia worship.