Performative gestures cannot vanish ongoing religious discrimination in Bahrain

On April 8, 2022, Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, the King’s son and representative for Humanitarian Work and Youth Affairs, held an interfaith Ramadan gathering at the Cathedral Our Lady of Arabia. In the days leading up to the event, Bahraini officials applauded the gathering as further evidence of the kingdom’s global commitment to prioritizing security through peace and emphasized how the holding of an interfaith dialogue was in keeping with the king’s dedication to promoting cultural reconciliation.

Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad says that, under the King, “Bahrain is a beacon of coexistence, peace, and tolerance” and that it is “an oasis of security and safety and a country of coexistence among all religions, beliefs and sects.However, even a cursory glance at the monarchy and its government’s record against religious freedoms could lead the casual observer to see through this cheap, false hypocrisy. The statement would be laudable – a genuine cause for celebration – if there were not, just under the surface of these words, indisputable evidence of state-sponsored religious discrimination and persecution occurring with a distressing frequency.

The words used by the king’s son at this interfaith prayer service do not, and cannot, vanish the pain and misery the monarchy inflicts upon its citizens through its policies of religious discrimination. The gross hypocrisy of the prince’s words, spoken in a church during a multi-religious prayer service when, just outside the church, the government unashamedly continues its systematic religious repression against the country’s majority Shia community, is an insult to every soul that has ever worked or died to protect a person’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The false appearance of virtue by the dictators of Bahrain, particularly the king’s son who has been connected to multiple acts of human rights abuses, including personally torturing pro-democracy activists, is designed as a positive publicity moment for the monarchy at a time when human rights violations perpetrated by Russia in Ukraine have placed a greater focus on the issue of rights violations by dictators.

Freedom of religion is ostensibly guaranteed by the Bahraini constitution, provided that individuals do not “infringe on the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine”. However, in practice the application of this freedom is subject to the caprices of Bahraini authorities. Though it would be a mistake to suggest that improvements have not been made towards protecting the rights of religious minorities, particularly as it concerns Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, and Hindus, it has been well documented that the Government of Bahrain is engaged in ongoing repression of the kingdom’s majority Shia population. Although Bahrain’s Shia community accounts for approximately 70 percent of the country’s total citizen population, all state institutions operate as an extension of the kingdom’s Sunni-minority monarchy. This has resulted in wide-ranging structural inequities, many of which have been worked into the policies of the state to ensure that Shia citizens remain subjugated within their own country. Significantly, these historic patterns of discrimination have been exacerbated in the wake the government’s violent suppression of the peaceful pro-democracy movement which emerged in 2011. In the eleven years since the uprising, the Bahraini government has taken dangerous actions to intensify and emphasize sectarian differences through collective citizenship revocations and the framing of democratic reforms as terrorist activities.

The government’s decision to arbitrarily dissolve Al Wefaq in 2016, the country’s largest political opposition group and one of the last remaining voices for Bahrain’s Shia community, only further marginalized the Shia majority by effectively removing any chance for even minimal representation within the state’s inherently unrepresentative governance structure. Additionally, the absence of transparency, uneven development initiatives, and an overt anti-Shia bias in hiring practices have created an ever-growing societal tension. Shia citizens continue to find themselves disproportionately confined to Bahrain’s lower socioeconomic strata. Furthermore, Bahraini authorities have made longstanding efforts to ignore, de-emphasize, or erase Shia cultural and religious sites.

The 2020 State Department Report on Religious Freedom in Bahrain notes that anti-Shia discrimination is not only manifested in preferential hiring practices and sectarianism within the government and media apparatuses, but is also evinced in the government’s continued efforts to restrict Shia religious practices. For the past several years, Bahraini authorities have engaged the systematic repression of Ashura rituals. In 2018 and 2019 officials from Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior (MOI) engaged in targeted harassment that included the arbitrary arrests of Shia clerics and orators and the use of excessive police force to disrupt and disperse crowds during religious processions to commemorate Ashura.

In 2021 during the month of Muharram, the government took measures to further marginalize the country’s Shia majority through arbitrary restrictions on Shia funeral processions; the removal of black flags that Shiites raise every year to express grief over the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad Mohamed; an intensified presence of security forces affiliated with the MOI who were reported to have behaved in  a manner to deliberately provoke a violent response; restrictions in prisons, whereby prison authorities prevented Shia prisoners from performing Ashura rituals; and a series of summons and arrests on charges related to the conduction of Ashura rituals. These actions represent a deliberate and consistent violations of Bahrain citizens’ rights to freedom of religion or belief enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 1 of the Declaration of the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, as well as their right to non-discrimination  enshrined in Article 7 of the UDHR and Article 26 of ICCPR.

While the Bahraini authorities have attempted to legitimize their restrictions on the participation in Ashura rituals, they did not impose any similar restriction on other events or celebrations with high public participation rates such as the national basketball tournaments and the celebration of the Indian Onam festival, revealing the disproportionate repression specific to Shia-related activities.

If the Government of Bahrain was truly committed to peaceful coexistence and the embrace of religious differences, they would abandon state policies of discrimination against Shia religious practices. Events such as this interfaith prayer service should be perceived as exactly what they are: performative gestures that are meant to conceal an unashamed refusal to recognize the rights of all religious sects. The recent interfaith meeting must not distract from the Bahraini government’s ongoing systematic oppression and harassment of the Shia religious majority in all sectors of life.