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Respecting religious festivals in Bahrain

Never has this region been more exposed to dangerous attempts to stoke up sectarian tensions. On one hand, we have ISIS, which has directly attacked Shia and non-Muslim communities, while launching attacks against Shia mosques in GCC states. On the other hand, there is Iran, exploiting its connections with Shia political groups to foment unrest and instability in numerous Arab states.

At this time Bahrain should exercise high levels of vigilance to avoid any actions which could play into ISIS or Iran’s hands by allowing tensions to grow and fester.

In this context we view with concern recent reports of gunmen firing off shots in the vicinity of Shia places of worship over the 17 October weekend. These incidents may in themselves have been relatively minor and didn’t lead to casualties. However, in a small country like Bahrain, minor infractions can have serious repercussions and clearly the intention was to cause loss of life and panic.

In this context, we should state what an excellent job the security forces have done in recent weeks in protecting both Shia and Sunni places of worship from potential attacks by extremists. We are talking about a relatively tiny proportion of Bahrainis who have heeded ISIS’s message of hatred, but it only takes a handful of determined individuals to perpetrate serious attacks and cause loss of life.

We still continue to hear reports of preachers from both sects propagating intolerant and inflammatory messages from their platforms. We should recognize the serious long-term consequences of sectarian hate speech and ensure that there is a zero-tolerance policy against influential figures who inflame tensions between the primary sects which constitute Bahrain’s society.

Ashoura has always been unique in Bahrain. Despite being a Shia festival, large numbers of Sunnis have traditionally spectated at Ashoura processions and paid their respects to their Shia co-religionists. Ashoura is a public holiday for all Bahrainis. Sunnis can also relate to the martyrdom of the Imam Hussain, as a wise religious leader who died for his faith.

However, there has been a political tendency which has sought to exploit Ashoura as an opportunity to raise tensions and further their militant agenda. This can be evidenced on a drive around Bahrain over the Ashoura period. One can easily find banners whose “religious” messages have a blatantly political subtext, sometimes in a manner which appears hostile to Sunnis or against Bahrain’s leadership.

People have commented on a steady increase of intolerant attempts to flood parts of Bahrain with Ashoura banners outside their designated areas, which then stay up well beyond the Ashoura period. The Interior Ministry has cited incidents where such flags, banners and decorations have obstructed traffic, particularly in areas where militants have sought to combine Ashoura decorations with roadblocks and other obstacles to passers-by.

Thus, a genuine religious event takes on a gangster-like dimension of marking out territory and acting as a challenge or even a threat against those of other sectarian persuasions.

This has created a problem for the authorities, which don’t want to appear to discriminate against a particular sect, but who are under pressure to take action against such antisocial behaviours. On 20 October, this gave rise to minor faceoff when police took it upon themselves to remove a number of inappropriate and illegally-located banners. Those who had put up the banners then reacted violently. In other incidents, police were ambushed and then fired on with firebombs and makeshift bullets.

We would also condemn Sunni or non-Muslim individuals who have attended Ashoura processions with bad intentions, for example, calling out sectarian insults or ridiculing worshippers. 

These kinds of activities go directly against the ethics of coexistence and tolerance which have always defined Bahrain. For centuries Shia and Sunnis have lived together and have grown up learning to honour and respect each other’s beliefs and practices.

By putting this ethic of coexistence at the centre of the Bahraini identity, we inoculate ourselves against the disease of religious extremism which is destroying so many other states in the region. It is up to individuals to live by this standard, but it is also up to the State to take action against preachers of hate and ensure that the message that young people grow up with in schools is one of mutual respect and affection.

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