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Banning clerics from politics – A historic step for Bahrain

 On 22 May Bahrain’s Shura Council approved a law which prevents serving clerics from being members of political societies and from having any kind of involvement in political activities. The draft bill was passed by the elected Parliament on 17 May.

The bill dictates that is a religious figure wanted to play any kind of political role, they would have to desist from religious activity altogether – including on a voluntary basis.

As the Justice Minister Shaikh Khalid Bin-Ali Al Khalifa argued during the Parliament session, the religious pulpit had previously been exploited by those pursuing their political interests, including by some candidates during the 2014 elections. A mature political system should not be subject to the influence of religious leaders telling their supporters which political society or candidate to vote for.

As Citizens for Bahrain has previously reported, although Islamist MPs are a small minority within the Parliament, they have often succeeded in being disproportionately influential by enlisting the support of conservative MPs. For example during the vote last month on implementation of the CEDAW UN women’s rights convention, Islamist MPs were only two votes short of securing a parliamentary majority and defeating the bill.

This new law therefore is arguably a historic step in cementing the separation of religion and politics – a move which is also to the benefit of the religious domain in keeping it pure of the dealings and compromises necessary for the political sphere.

Separating religion from politics – Bahrain’s progressive path

This new legislation is part of a process which has played a role in distancing the spheres of politics and religion. Below we will look at this wider context and how this has helped facilitate King Hamad’s reform process and create a more robust political system.

Tolerant traditions

As a group of islands dependent on international trade, Bahrain has historically differed from its mainland neighbours in being more culturally diverse and more tolerant in its attitudes. Non-Muslims have coexisted peacefully in Bahrain and the nation has a progressive record for the empowerment of women, being the first GCC nation to educate girls and the most liberal nation for dress codes and encouraging women in the workplace.

2001 National Action Charter

King Hamad’s 2001 Constitution was the starting point for the entire political phase which Bahrain is in today; particularly in providing for a two chamber Parliament and regular elections. Although the Constitution recognized that Bahrain was a state rooted in Islamic traditions, it also strongly emphasized the rights of all religions, freedom of expression and the rights of women. All of these provisions set the National Action Charter apart as one of the most progressive constitutions in the region and a major step towards defining the domains of religion and politics.

International legislation and CEDAW

Bahrain is fully signed up to most international charters, including international human rights legislation. Some of this legislation has proved controversial within Islamic circles, particularly CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Bahrain signed up to the Convention in 2002 with a number of reservations. Between 2014 and 2016 Bahrain sought to rewrite these reservations in order to enhance its implementation status. 

A vote on these revisions was passed in April 2016 despite an intense campaign by Islamists against CEDAW who decried the Convention as a “Western plot” which sought to tear Bahrain away from its Muslim heritage.

The failure of these efforts can be taken as a sign of the dwindling influence of Islamist elements in Bahrain; as well as a strong indicator of Bahrain’s determination to abide by international legal standards and expectations on women, religious freedoms, outlawing torture, freedom of expression and the rights of the individual.

2005 Political Societies Law

The 2005 Political Societies Law regulates the activities of political societies. This law became the point of reference governing the activities of political societies. This law banned societies from establishing themselves of sectarian grounds.

Further 2014 amendments to this 2005 law disallowed these societies from using the religious pulpit to promote themselves. However, many critical voices said that the authorities did not go far enough and that the law was not sufficiently rigourous in how it was enforced.

Declining popularity of religious societies

Sunni political societies peaked in their share of the parliamentary vote when the Salafist Al-Asalah and the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Al-Minbar society managed to gain 12 seats between them. Between 2006 and 2011 Islamist MPs made up over half of the parliamentary vote, including the 17-18 Al-Wefaq Islamic Society MPs (Shia), meaning that they could jointly veto any law and force through Islamic legislation.

Since the 2011 boycott by Al-Wefaq, Islamists political societies succeeded in winning only three seats in the 2014 elections; reflecting a drop in public trust with societies that have an ideological agenda. Over the past two years, levels of funding, donations and membership numbers for all these political societies have also dropped sharply.

However, the decline in religious societies has not yet been matched with a growth in prominence for moderate voices. More needs to be done to help empower liberal, progressive and tolerant individuals and entities, so as to fill the void left by the removal of Islamists from politics.

Role of Shura Council

Bahrain’s two chamber Parliament system has meant that even when elected Islamists do force through a particular bill, these are often rejected by the Shura Council which is appointed directly by the King and consequently tends to be more diverse and progressive.

The Shura Council has a far higher proportion of women; representatives of other minorities – including a Jewish MP; and a greater number of professional and technocratic figures. In the current Shura Council there is only one Sunni Islamist figure – Adel al-Moawdeh (Asalah).

It was originally the Shura Council which proposed the legislation banning clerics from politics, as well as other progressive legislation such as a change in the law preventing a rapist escaping punishment by marrying his victim. While most of the elected MPs were opposed to the CEDAW legislation it passed through the Shura Council nearly unanimously.

It was the Shura Council in April 2015 which also blocked legislation drafted by elected Islamist MPs obliging government departments to use Islamic banking. Chairman of the Shura Council, Ali al-Saleh warned that such an amendment could lead to “shutting the conventional banks and destroying everything we have worked towards for decades… According to the Constitution, Islamic Shari’ah is a primary source for legislation. However, there are other sources which can be drawn from”.

Outlawing sectarian hatred

After the escalation in sectarian tensions in 2011 the authorities took a number of measures outlawing sectarian incitement. This meant increasing legal powers monitoring and regulating the language that religious figures used from the pulpit; as well as targeting hate speech in the social media. These measures have seen punitive measures against preachers from both sects, including in some cases a ban from preaching.

There have also been calls on clerics to ensure that their message is tolerant and not directed against any sect, religion or ethnicity; as well as urging supporters to act according to the law and condemning violence, vandalism and terrorism.

Post-2011 period

During 2011, the public domain was dominated by both the Shia Islamist opposition group Al-Wefaq and its Sunni Islamist opponents, with both sides struggling to impose their own vision on Bahrain. Which side won? Neither.

Al-Wefaq succeeded in marginalizing themselves by refusing to rejoin the political process for the 2014 elections and have been ineffectual ever since, with a sharp drop in their active support.

Likewise the support for Sunni Islamist individuals and groups has fallen sharply in recent years, with divisive figures like Jassim Saeedi being strongly defeated in the 2014 elections.

In general, both ideological camps failed to come up with solutions to the challenges failing ordinary Bahrainis in 2015-16; particularly given the sharp fall in oil revenues. As Bahrainis become increasingly concerned about standards of living, quality of government services and revitalizing the economy, the ideological battles of the various Islamist camps have seemed increasingly irrelevant.

Many factors have contributed to the dwindling influence of religious figures upon the political sphere, and the recent legislation consolidates this. However, arguable the overwhelming public rejection of a political role for religious clerics has been the most decisive factor in effecting this secular shift in Bahrain’s politics.

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