It is now the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. The tenth day of Muharram is called Ashura, and is celebrated by Shia because it marks the martydom of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussain at the Battle of Kerbala. The martydom of Hussain is thought by many to be an important symbol of the struggle against tyranny and oppression. Such connotations are naturally problematic for authoritarian regimes such as the Bahraini government, for it is virtually impossible, especially given current circumstances, for a religious occasion signifying a fight against oppression to remain apolitical.
For this reason, and given the recent crackdown in Bahrain, the authorities are eager for Ashura to be as muted as possible. Not only was the ‘temporary’ ban on public gatherings issued about 3 weeks before Ashura, but the regime have been targeting clerics and religious figures. Al Wefaq have reported that cleric Sayed Kamil al Hashimi has been arrested, and Sheikh Hassan al-Ali and Elias al Marzooq referred to the public prosecution. Religious singer Abather al-Halwachi has also been summoned. The Ministry of the Interior state that these people ‘delivered politicized sermons and chanted in a way that negatively provoked the crowd.’
In addition to these arrests, the Ministry of the Interior have been emphasizing the idea that religious places and occasions should not be exploited for political ends. The MOI stated:
The Assistant Undersecretary stressed the importance of maintaining the integrity of religious ceremonies and places of worship. The use of such sites and activities as tools to divisively politicize the participants must stop. While freedom of religion is celebrated in Bahrain, it is not an iron curtain behind which politically explosive activities can be used to incite people toward violence.
Considering the fact that the pro-government group National Unity Assembly were given tacit approval to hold a protest on the premises of Al-Fateh Mosque, it seems somewhat capricious that the MOI are saying that religious places and occasions should not be used for political purposes. Also, loyalist MP Jassim al Saeedi was spared referral to the public prosecution after making sectarian and anti-semitic remarks. He was reported to have said: ‘Stupid people realise the reality of those individuals, they are Jews, infidels and sons of temporary marriages – basically they are sons out of wedlock.’ As usual, it is one rule for loyalists, and another for those who are not.
In line with their clampdown on Ashura, the MOI have also warned the owners of the Matams where these allegedy ‘hateful’ sermons took place. I’m not sure what these warnings involved, though al-Wefaq state that some Matams were threatened with closure. There is also evidence that security forces are taking down banners, flags, and slogans commemorating Ashura. This video shows security forces taking down black flags in the village of Karzakan.
This photo allegedly shows security forces vandalizing Ashura posters and banners in A’ali yesterday morning. Al Wefaq also report the same happening in Tubli, and Jurdab. The following video also reportedly shows security forces removing a statue of Iman Hussein in A’ali.
The Ministry of the Interior’s commitment to removing such religious iconography is quite interesting, especially considering how busy they must be at the moment. It is also slightly ridiculous that they should commit so many resources to removing such banners when they were happy to do nothing last year as some groups erected posters depicting nooses or swords next to slogans calling for the maximum punishment of those spreading ‘fitna’.
Although the MOI were active in destroying religious symbols last year, it is telling that they are still doing so, even after some claim that the the uprising ‘is over’. Whether or not the fear generated by the government’s constant scaremongering about a Shia-Iranian theocratic plot has created a corollary fear of Shia religious expression is hard to discern, though it would not be surprising. It was also ironic that Sameera Rajab had to describe reports of an imminent terror attack ‘baseless‘, months after the government have been trying to instill a sense of fear and panic among citizens. While such fear is a useful divide and conquer tool among Bahrainis, it is not so useful for flighty expats, who may up and leave when confronted with the possibility of such danger.
Whatever one’s views are on religious and politics, it would be unreasonable for an occasion symbolizing resistance to oppression to not take on political overtones. If calls to end oppression are not disingenuous, and ultimately seek to challenge an authoritarian state, then they cannot be dismissed on the grounds that they are religious. Nor is it fair to assume that such calls denote an inherent marriage of religious and politics, and an inevitable precursor to a religious order that will simply continue its oppressive practices, albeit in a slightly different manner. While I do worry about the involvement of religious figures in politics, the regime and its supporters exploit this idea of a ‘Shia theocracy’ to make people doubtful that Bahrain is ready for democracy.It is also unreasonable to expect that some aspects of religion should not permeate into the political sphere, especially where oppression is concerned. The idea, for example, that Isa Qassim is interfering in political affairs when calling for an independent investigation into the bomb attacks in Bahrain is absurd.
Given last year’s destruction of mosques, and the recent revoking of citizenships from 31 Shia Bahrainis, this clampdown on Ashura denotes another sectarian aspect of the uprising. That’s not to say the motivation for such measures comes from sectarian animosity per se, but rather that a combination of centuries long Shia marginalisation combined with ritualistic and space-centric forms of religious practice. As the political situation stagnates in Bahrain, it is no surprise that people will seek inspiration from a belief system that they see as free from the stain of compromise and futility. If people truly want to keep religion out of politics, then the political sphere has to been as an effective means of allowing people to improve their lives.
At the moment, and despite the Gulf Daily News bi-weekly insistence that ‘DOORS ARE OPEN FOR DIALOGUE‘, hopes of a political solution seem bleak. The only ray of hopes comes from an announcement that the government have
‘confirmed its intention to establish a committee to re-consider the distribution of electoral constituencies ahead of the next elections and preserved and consolidated the bicameral parliamentary system’
Though until the government actually draw fair electoral boundaries, the above paragraph is not worth the bandwidth it is written on.