Bahrain’s Selective Separation of Religion from Politics
By Leah Schulz
Last month Bahrain’s parliament passed a measure prohibiting religious figures from participating in political activities. Under this amendment to the 2005 Political Society Law, involvement in the political sphere is off limits to all those who have active religious roles, and no religious figure who delivers sermons can be a member of a political society. Parliament members cited the “benefits of keeping the domains of politics and faith separate.”
But the government has never shied away from mixing politics and religion when it comes to ensuring Sunni dominance over the majority Shia population. In virtually every sphere of life, the government has enacted laws and promoted policies that discriminate on the basis of religion. For example, while Islamic studies are mandatory for all Muslim public school students, only the Sunni Maliki school of jurisprudence is taught. The government has repeatedly blocked efforts over the last decade to incorporate Shia traditions into the education system and in 2014 dissolved the Islamic Scholar Council, a leading Shia education organization, for unlicensed engagement in “political activities.”
In criminal matters, the government’s professed desire to separate church and state has not stopped it from prosecuting individuals for “defaming” religious figures and symbols in social media posts. Numerous people have been prosecuted under Bahrain’s Penal Code—including human rights defender Nader Abdulemam, who served six months in prison in 2014-2015—for “openly insulting a person exalted in religion.” The charges against Abdulemam were based on his tweets about Khalid Bin Al Waleed, a companion to the Prophet Mohammed esteemed in the Sunni but not Shia tradition.
The aim of last month’s amendment is the continued disempowerment of religious figures who are openly critical of the regime. The government has a long history of targeting religious leaders who advocate for political change. At least twenty religious figures have been arrested since 2007, including Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s main opposition society. Salman was prosecuted based on a series of speeches he gave in the fall of 2014. On Monday his prison sentence was increased from four to nine years.
A week before Salman’s verdict, a court sentenced another Shia religious figure, Sheikh Al Mansi, to one year in prison for delivering an “unauthorized” sermon in a Mosque following Friday prayers. Like Salman, Al Mansi is an advocate for political reform and openly criticizes the state’s religious discrimination.
Throughout history religious leaders of all faiths have preached about equality, tolerance, and justice. In a speech before his 2014 arrest, Salman spoke of the right of “all Bahrainis to enjoy equality in redistribution, without exclusion or discrimination against any citizen.” When such core values are compromised, spiritual leaders often feel compelled to speak out. Denying this right to Bahrain’s religious leaders only fuels division.