Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if sectarianism itself was more dominant in one place than an other, at least online? Are some countries/cities more sectarian than others? Is sectarianism a localised phenomenon, despite what we might see in the news? If we knew this, we could then highlight where to prioritize tackling it.
In order to do this, I conducted an preliminary experiment. Firstly, I would require some way of trying to determine where a piece of sectarian discourse came from. I decided to locate sectarian tweets, as often Twitter accounts come with information about location.
I thought I’d approach ‘anti-Shia’ sectarianism, as the terminology is familiar, and more prevalent (See Alexandra Seigel’s work). I will be doing the same with ‘anti-Sunni’ Tweets too. (I should add, for the record, that I find the terms somewhat grotesque, as the nature of sectarianism cannot be reduced to a binary). Hopefully though, locating the geographic prevalence of specific discourses challenges the problems of essentialising sectarianism as a monolithic and ubiquitous muslim-wide global issue.
Anyway, to test/experiment with this method, I extracted approximately 10,000 tweets that ranged over a four day period (8th – 12th May 2017). These tweets contained at least one of the following, commonly used derogatory terms referring to Shia.
Twitter Search Rule: “ابناء المتعة” OR “روافض” OR “رافضة” OR “اولاد المتعة” OR “مجوسي” OR “المجوسي” OR “صفوي”
The terms largely relate to religious-sectarianism, such as Rafida, Awlad/Ibna al-Muta’, Majusi and Safavid (although this one could be more contested). The archiver, theoretically, takes an ‘almost’ random sample of Tweets from Twitter (see Wang et al for sampling info).
To determine the location of the Tweeter, I did not use the geodata (as this is rarely used by ppl), but information input by the user themselves on their Twitter account. Of course there is no way of knowing if this is accurate or not, but for the sake of this analysis, we must assume a significant amount are true. After filtering out erroneous names, such as people who claim to live in Hogwarts, we were left with around 4500 usable tweets from the original 10,000 tweet sample. I then ran these tweets into Tableau, filtering out duplicate entries (i.e. multiple tweets from the same account). This resulted in about 3,640 unique tweets from unique accounts.
Using Tableau, I first created a cloropeth map that shows the prevalence of sectarian tweets across the region. In the below map, red means a higher prevalence. As you can see, Saudi Arabia and Egypt appear the reddest, and are the places with the highest number of sectarian tweets in this sample.
Yet the above map suggests Egypt and Saudi are alike in terms of tweets. However, the below diagram gives a breakdown of the numbers of tweets, while the surface area of each block represents the proportion of Tweets emanating from each country. As we can see, Saudi Arabia takes the crown with 1,656 Tweets. It is followed by Egypt (420), Kuwait (111), Iraq (71), UAE (56), Yemen (50), Syria (38), Bahrain (36) and Qatar (25) and then Lebanon. (It is worth noting that all countries returned positive hits).
These figures haven’t been controlled for population, or Twitter penetration, the latter of which is difficult to determine (furthermore, figures from the Arab Social Media reports are perhaps distorted by a large number of bots). Nonetheless, if we are to use these figures from the Arab Social Media Report 2017, we can see that in Egypt that for every 3089 Twitter users, there is one sectarian tweet. In Saudi, there is one sectarian Tweet for 1570 Twitter Users. For Kuwait, as another example, there is one sectarian tweet for every 4504 Twitter users. Thus crudely speaking, the results do not balance out when considering Twitter users, meaning that according to this data, the country with the larger amount of tweets are still the ‘more sectarian’.
Where possible, I added latitude and longitude points for location input by users. This allowed me to create a map that shows a more detailed breakdown of Twitter users. As you can see from the below map, Arabic, anti-Shia sectarian Tweets are focused on the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, with the majority occurring in Saudi, specifically Riyadh, Jeddah, and clusters along the Eastern Province. Northern Egypt is also particularly interesting with regards to the amount of discourse.
Indeed, it would appear from this map, that sectarian discourses online radiate outwards from the middle of Saudi. Of course Riyadh and Jeddah are Saudi’s most populace cities, so it may not be significant in this regard, yet it is interesting to see that Saudi appears to be the centre of this discourse. Also, the rhetoric is almost non-existent across the rest of North Africa and Sudan. It is also not very common in Oman.
The data then, could suggest a number of things:
Online anti-Shia sectarianism are most prevalent in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Such discourses originated in the Gulf and have traveled abroad
Such discourses are much less common outside the Arabian Peninsula, where there are mixed populations with different histories of national struggle
Of course some potential caveats:
Lexically speaking, the terms used for this study may just be a preferred choice used by those Arabic speakers in the peninsula. Sectarianism in other languages other than Arabic would be interesting to explore in a similar way. Similarly, Arabs in others parts of the ME may use different terms, although I am not sure this is the case.
As yet it’s not sure whether long term analysis would yield similar results. Short term, similar sized samples I have done on individual words or phrases leading up to this blog have returned identical results. Inevitably, a longer sample would mostly likely return more and more sectarian tweets from every country outside the Gulf. As these would also likely increase across every country, the proportionality of sectarian tweets would still likely stay the same.
Similar ways of finding other platforms to analyse would be useful, e.g. Instagram and FB. (Although not sure if people would be inclined to be less or more sectarian on different platforms).
To be clear this is not stating sectarianism does not occur everywhere, just maybe that it is more common in some places than others.
In the middle of the night, on January 15 2017, three citizens of Bahrain were executed by firing squad. Abbas al-Samea, 27, Ali al-Singace, 21, and Sami Mushaima 42, had all been found guilty of planting a bomb which killed three policemen – but their convictions were widely seen as unsafe.
Rumours of their 3am deaths had been circulating on the social media of those with links to the government. Once the state news agency confirmed the news, many Bahrainis took to the streets in protest, confronting riot police, who used tear gas and birdshot in response. Human rights organisations condemned the killings, not simply because they oppose the death penalty, but because these executions were viewed as being political and extrajudicial.
The UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial executions tweeted:
#Bahrain executed Abbas al-Samea, Ali al-Singace, Sami Mushaima. Torture, unfair trial + flimsy evidence: these are extrajudicial killings
— Dr Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) January 15, 2017
Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch added on social media: “These men’s convictions were based on retracted confessions and mired in allegations of serious torture.” It was a sentiment reflected poignantly by many Bahrainis, who formed huge queues to pay their respects to the executed men’s families.
The national controversy surrounding the executions is the latest demonstration of the political turmoil in Bahrain, and popular opposition to what is a democracy in name only. Since 2011, when widespread pro-democracy protests broke out, over a hundred civilians have been killed – many by teargas and torture. An independent report (the BICI report) documenting the events of that year revealed systematic torture, arbitrary detentions, and extra judicial killing in the streets
But things are actually getting worse. Amid the token reforms, the January executions show that Bahrain is regressing with regards to political development and human rights. The country’s only remotely critical newspaper, Al Wasat, which was shut down in 2011, has now been ordered by the government to close its online paper, too. The official reason given was that it was “jeapordising national unity and disrupting public peace”. In fact, it had been slighty critical of the executions.
Earlier this year, the government of Bahrain announced that it was reversing one of the BICI reforms which stipulated that Bahrain’s National Security Agency (NSA) have its powers of arrest removed. The power separation was considered important in controlling torture. Other laws enacted which have clamped down on freedom of expression, alongside the arrest of activists, have prompted accusations not of reform, but of de-democratisation. The fact that these are the first official executions to have occurred since 2010 suggest Bahrain is becoming more, not less authoritarian.
Bahrain’s small size and its reliance on foreign countries has also resulted in anger at the perceived complicity of numerous governments. Saudi troops, along with officers from states including the UAE, assisted in dealing with the unrest in 2011. Many of Bahrain’s military officers are from other Arab or Muslim countries, and many have received training by the British (including from John Yates, ex-assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard).
As a result, many Bahrainis feel increasingly isolated from the global community, who they believe are the only ones able to put pressure on the Bahrain government to reform, democratise, and implement human rights reform. Activist Maryam Al Khawaja accused the UK, Bahrain’s former protector, of abetting this authoritarian excess and allowing the executions to go ahead. She wrote on Twitter:
— Maryam Alkhawaja (@MARYAMALKHAWAJA) January 15, 2017
Protests in London outside the embassy also reflected this anger. And it is an anger founded not simply on the fact that the British response to the executions was considered “woefully inadequate”, but because the UK has been training the Bahrain police since 2011. The charity Reprieve noted that the UK also taught the Bahrainis how to “whitewash custody deaths” and provided training to the police without conducting proper human rights assessments.
As a result of the executions, frustration in Bahrain will inevitably increase. Scenes of people chanting “Down with [King] Hamad” at the police are becoming more common again. The regression back to more authoritarian ways is enabled by a lack of pressure from traditional international allies.
For the UK, this apparent “complicity” is unlikely to change. Jane Kinninmont of Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, notes that Brexit will likely diminish attempts to support human rights. With traditional allies like the UK less choosy about trade, less choosy about allies, and less choosy about human rights, Bahrain is set to see more instability and unrest.
(Cartoon added by me)
To quote from Bahrain Watch’s own page.
On Tuesday 10th March 2015, the Information Rights Tribunal in London is considering whether to order the Foreign Office to reveal secret communications between Foreign Office officials which are nearly 40 years old. In June 2013, Marc Jones, a Durham university PhD student and member of the NGO, Bahrain Watch made a Freedom of Information Request to the FCO asking for a secret file entitled “Bahrain: Internal Political situation 1977”. The FCO refused to disclose the full file arguing to reveal the information would damage international relations. He complained to the Information Commissioner who rejected his complaint on the basis that prejudice would be caused to the UK’s relations with Bahrain if it was made public. See the outline of the case here.
A Positive Verdict: We were not optimistic of a win. In fact, we were alerted to the fact that Tribunals often side with the government. However, when the verdict came, the judge said that it would be reserved for a later date. Essentially, this meant that they could not reach a decision on the day. For us, this was good, and highlighted that the FCO’s case was not watertight, and that the information they were hiding may actually be in the public interest to know. In other words, the information is not trivial.
A Peculiar Trial. The Trial did not begin as anticipated. Although we were expecting to give evidence first, the FCO were quite insistent that Edward Oakden, a senior diplomat and witness, should go first. This was because he had appointments in the evening. Naturally, I had cancelled my appointments because we were told the court case would last all day – a sensible and not unreasonable course of action. Oakden’s evidence was brief, and mostly consisted him of evading questions by saying ‘I shall refer to that in the secret portion of the trial’. (I should perhaps add that the FCO and the judges had a private session in which the redacted contents could be revealed – of course neither we nor the public were entitled to attend). After the secret session the FCO and their barrister were quite clear on one thing, that whatever was in the document would not address my general and specific concerns about British complicity in Human Rights abuses in Bahrain, nor would it shed light on Henderson’s actions in Kenya’. However, they also stressed that release of the information would DEFINITELY damage the relationship between Britain and Bahrain.
When our turn to give evidence came, we focused essentially on why the information would not be revelatory. I.e. we already know so much of the egregious acts committed by the British and the Al Khalifa that new information would not be significantly new. We were careful to stress that the current Prime Minister and King were implicated in illegal activities during 1977, including the deporting of Shia to Iran. So as Rodney Trotter once said, you’d “have to get done for chicken molesting to bring a slur on this family’s name”. We also emphasised that complicity was a broad term, and could include a wide variety of things (The FCO did not really specify in what manner they meant it). We also highlighted that the FCO’s argument about the piece not containing information about British complicity did not speak of Al Khalifa or security forces’ role in HR abuses. Either way, given the continuous human rights abuses in Bahrain, and the fact 17 British officers were in the Bahrain police at the time, and that both the intelligence and general divisions of policing were led by British men, we argued that any information about the state of the security forces was in the public interest as it is was almost always the security services engaged in human rights abuses.
Their barrister’s cross-examination of our evidence seemed somewhat lackluster. It centered on a number of superficial arguments. The most salient one seemed to be saying that I was in no position to comment on how a revelation would harm relations between Bahrain and Britain as I was not, nor ever had been, a diplomat. I did, of course, remind them that I had spent a good part of the past few years studying diplomatic cables. Our legal team also stressed that the threshold for information that counts as warranting a diplomatic response is so low that it made the process somewhat unfair. For example, if releasing the information forced the British to explain to the Bahrainis why they had done this – this counts as a diplomatic response. Importantly, the FCO admitted that disclosing the information would not harm the new base deal. Whatever happened, the FCO’s caginess simply has increased anticipation about what the withheld information could contain.
What could the information be?
Well, despite their barrister’s protestations that I was simply guessing the contents of the cable, I reminded him that at least it was an educated guess. I also reminded him that when they were refusing to give us any inkling of what the documents contained, which they ought to have done. However, I think the biggest clue as to what the information might be was alluded to by one of the judges. I was asked when the following paragraph, was released to the public:
Selman bin Hamad has all the worst qualities of the Al Khalifa family. He is totally uneducated, vain, lazy, and inclined to oppress and tyrannize over anyone who is powerless to resist. Selman is absolutely unfit to succeed is father as ruler.
The comment, which was made in 1923 by a British official, was probably released because Selman bin Hamad is dead. But why would the judge be so concerned about when it was released, especially after she had seen the censored document in the private hearing? The most logical explanation is that contains information that was probably critical of a member of the Ruling Family who is still alive. This theory is confirmed by the bits of information which you can actually read from the heavily redacted document. In particular the following:
What surprised me in our conversation was the gloomy view he took of the ability of the Al Khalifa to survive. [Redacted]. They were moving into lucrative areas of business and squeezing out established merchants.
If this is the case, then surely the FCO could have said that the redacted information contains information critical of certain individuals? However, they did not reveal a thing. Instead, their barrister asked me whether the information would be in the public interest if it, for example, it was about the police having ‘yellow uniforms’. Obviously this is absurd, as they would not be fighting so hard to keep it secret if it was about yellow uniforms…
A final note…
If there’s ever a misnomer, it’s the ‘Freedom of Information Act’ . I say so because if you want to get anything, potentially of value to the public, it’s going to cost you – both in terms of money and time. What happened on Tuesday was the culmination of months of work, and considerable legal cost. This bureaucratic control is essentially a process of attrition, a series of obstacles designed to discourage people from breaching the government’s asymmetry of information. Indeed, the FCO have denied at least two thirds of the information requests I have sent them the earliest being from 1956 (a year when British troops were used to help put down a populist uprising in Bahrain). For those who want more information on the case, you can read my witness statement > 819867 Witness statement of Appellant & exhibit sheet 28 11 14 (4). Oakden’s heavily redacted statement can be read here> 885992 01 Response of FCO 13 02 15 (pages 1.48 to 1.51)_ 05 Witness statement of Edward Oakden (unsigned undated) 13 02 15 (page… . To see the heavily redacted version of the contested document, go here >
Article in Bahrain Al Youm [Arabic]
Short interview [Arabic]
Over the past few years, countless people, both friends and trolls alike, have asked me about my religious views. The accusations that I am a shill on the payroll of the Iranian government have made some believe I desire a Shia Islamic theocratic state in Bahrain. Yet what with Charlie Hebdo and the Islamic State being such an important part of the past year, I can’t help but talk about my own religious beliefs, or lack thereof. This is a work in progress, but I wanted to get my ideas out there, and have people share their own.
I was brought up Christian, Church of England I think. I say ‘I think’ because frankly, I have no idea. I went to Sunday School briefly, and my mum would read the bible to us and ensure we said our prayers before we went to bed. As with most things of this kind, I did not enjoy them (I quit the Cubs after about three weeks, and never made it to the Boy Scouts). Sure I believed it all for a while, even to the point of OCD, where I’d say short prayers in my head asking for forgiveness every time I did something wrong – like swore, or had raunchy thoughts. I guess God seemed so badass and the idea of hell was so scary that I did not take my chances. I even remember wondering how people could not believe in a God. After all, the universe must have come from something. Of course it did not take long to realise, ala Bertrand Russell, that that argument is problematic; by asking that question, I was also asking – how can God come from nothing? I realised I was using the law of the conservation of energy to justify a metaphysical being, and using it badly.
Nonetheless, I was not particularly superstitious. I was actually the annoying person who told others that the idea of Santa Claus was ludicrous. How could one guy visit all the world’s children in one night, and know if they’d been naughty or nice? (nowadays of course, Mr. Claus would probably fall under suspicion in operation Yewtree, but that’s beside the point…) Like many people I simultaneously harboured rational and irrational beliefs, yet the religious upbringing was not a myth knowingly concocted by my mum, it was something even she believed! But God did not come up too much in day-to-day conversation. If it did, then my memory is poor. However, one chat remains in my head. When I was about 11, a friend told me that he stopped believing in God when he prayed for his favourite football team to win and they lost. I simply said, ‘what about all the other people who prayed for the other team to win’?
At the age of 12, during my own ‘enlightenment’, or periods of critical reflection, I realized it was the principle of fairness that undid my idea of God. I am not sure where this principle came from, but my reasoning was fairly simple. According to the bible, the earth was only about 4,000 years old, yet I knew from biology that creatures had been around for billions of years, and humans hundreds of thousands. I also believed that humans had evolved, as did most of my cohort, religious or not. I then began to wonder whether humans, who had existed before the existence of Abrahamic Gods, went to heaven or hell. I mean, if they didn’t know about God from the prophets, it was surely not their fault, so it would be unfair for them to go to hell? If they did go to hell because of their ‘ignorance’, then surely that’s not fair! Similarly, if they went to heaven because of their ‘ignorance’, then knowledge of God is surely just a burden. Ignorance was bliss, as they say!
With this newfound revelation, I more or less decided religion was hokum. Yet due to my upbringing, I always found it hard to say I was an an atheist. I guess I had that ‘residual fear’ of damnation. It was silly of course, but fear is a powerful thing. Harbouring my cynicism, I still found religion interesting. Often I explored it indirectly through relationships. I dated a Baha’i girl for a while. When we first met I thought she said ‘I’m bi’, which I thought remarkably forward. Joking aside, I loved the Baha’i community. They were kind, welcoming, and tolerant. However, I found out like most Abrahamic religions there were undercurrents of misogyny and homophobia, so I discarded it (admittedly, this was more in doctrine than the hearts of my friends). Yet I still have fond memories of that time. I was never compelled to believe, or encouraged to convert, and people did not throw it in my face. Indeed, most of our socialising was done through food. Maybe someone told God that the way to an agnostic’s heart was through his stomach?
I have also dated Muslim women. On one occasion, a father said ‘I don’t care who you marry, as long as he’s not Shi’a’. Another girl to whom I had become very close and who told me she loved me said that we could not marry as I was not a muslim, and I refused to convert. To me, conversion just meant succumbing to intolerance and bigotry. After all I did not expect her to convert, so why should I? And also, I objected to the argument that religion derived from the father; it was generally acceptable for muslim men to marry non-muslim women, and not the other way around. Again, I thought this a patriarchal anachronism. For me, converting, even in name, was to appease a judgemental family by succumbing to their perception of religious or communal superiority. I would certainly ignore my own parents advice if they did not want me to marry someone on account of their religion, race, or skin colour. I understood the pressure, but for me, principle transcended love.
On top of these experiences I have read a lot of religious texts. I personally find most a collection of relatively incoherent parables, stories, and fables. The Old Testament in particular is full of the most virulent and cruel passages, as is the bible in general. As for role models, Abraham’s conspiracy with God to murder his son Isaac did not endear me to religion.To me, God can only be defined by the interpretation of the holy texts in which he exists. Therefore, if most old testament books are to be believed, God is a bizarre paradox. Simultaneously merciful and ruthless, kind and cruel, just and unjust, open-minded and petty. In short, God seemed like a bit of a dick. Indeed, if there was a greater testament that such a god was man-made, it is surely these contradictions. God was man-made, a human construct.
For me, attempting to derive peace and serenity from these contradictions evoked the most crippling cognitive dissonance. I am not saying there is no good to be found in it. Far from it. Just a lot of bad too. Same is true of the Koran, which, to me, seems like it is plagiarized from the old and new testament. It condones slavery, places women beneath men, and advocate grisly punishments. Coupled with the hadiths (depending which you see as valid), scholars can justify all manner of things. Muhammad too, also struck me as a bit of a bad egg. How a prophet set an example by marrying a six year old, killing people, and conveniently having revelations when it suited me just seem like a total confidence trick. Some say not to take it out of context, and that it was an ‘improvement’ at the time (though try telling that to the ‘pagans’ and Jews in Arabia), but if that’s the case, then why is it still relevant now? Also, any ‘good’ is also being taken out of context. Yet picking and choosing from religions is bizarre, especially in the case of the Koran, which is seen as the literal word of God.
Indeed, people seem to distill what they want from religion, whether it be calls for a peaceful existence or a violent campaign against an ‘other’. For this reason, religion cannot = peace. Peace is a convergence of every human endeavour throughout history that advocates peaceful and communal living. To say Islam, Judaism, or Christianity is peace, is to give in them undue credit. Peace = peace, and that’s it. Without a central authority or arbiter of religion, then who is able to define who is a true christian for example? Is it the pope? Does he only speak for Catholics. He is infallible after all…As for Muslims, who is the authority? Is it Al Azhar in Cairo, is it Fadlallah in Lebanon, or the Indonesian Ulema Council for example? If this is not the case then surely defining faith becomes about consensus among Muslims as a whole? Yet how do you gauge this? If belief becomes a democracy, and the tenets of religion as a ‘truth’ are undermined by the fact it is simply a book of advice that’s meaning derives only in its interpretation. If it is about truth, then defining who is a Muslim should be left to God, and not the vote. ‘ In this respect, if those who committed the acts in Paris define themselves as Muslims, who are we to say that they are not?
I realise I am focusing on Abrahamic religions, but that is just because of my own upbringing and current events. I posed on Twitter the question, ‘I take issue with all religions in the Abrahamic tradition – Does that make me an Abrahamophobe?I do not reserve any special dislike for any Abrhamic religion, although I am against ambiguity. And to me, Abrahamic religions leave so much scope for interpretation, that they can justify almost everything, from wondrous good, to complete evil. Personally, I believe social justice is unambiguous. Where is the ambiguity in equality? Where are the clerics or vicars attempting to rationalise a verse about allowing slavery, or dashing babies against rocks? They do not exist. I also dismiss cultural relativism, as it can justify all manner of what I perceive to be evil. Of course, I do acknowledge that my beliefs are constructed. I mean, we are all just animals, but that does not mean I do not believe in a value system. That value system is fundamentally about social justice; about equality, fairness, compassion, and empathy. It is constructed of course, but I like to believe it does not discriminate. Maybe some of my values derive from religious teachings, but not just one, and there is no exclusivity there.
‘Each to their own’
To those who say ‘each to their own’. There is much merit in this, yet one’s ‘own’ is already problematic as it emphasizes exclusivity of communities, and separation. It is also a complete aphorism, as our belief systems, especially religious, are constructed from birth. People are often, as I was, indoctrinated with religious beliefs. To actually realize this ‘each to their own mentality’, people should practice it, and explore WHY this saying is relevant. For example – if I was to apply that mantra to bringing up my offspring, I would have to justify; ‘we say each to their own because their are multiple religions in the world, and no one of them can be said to be better than another because that would lead to friction, and maybe violence, and violence is bad’. At least then we can assume that people who say ‘each to their own’ believe violence is bad. For damn sure many prophets did not believe ‘each to their own’, as they are, by definition, prophets who ‘propheteer’ from proselyting.
Thus saying ‘each to their own’ is an implicit assumption that religions are not universal, but that many people accept the sanctity of peace. For me, to criticise religion or a belief system is incumbent on all humans. If we did not, we would simply believe everything we are told, and the only way that such indoctrination is acceptable is if it conforms to generally acceptable means of socialisation in the immediate cultural context. Raising someone with beliefs that encourage hatred or violence towards a certain group will lead to strife, unless everyone in that community is of that disposition. This issue becomes more acute in multicultural societies, where people of different beliefs, genders, or sexualities, rub up against one another. But the world is a multicultural place, by definition, and the identities of states and their esoteric laws cannot hide that.
Some might criticise my values as ‘Westernised’. To me, this is an ad hominem attack based on assumptions derived from post colonial arguments. It also attempts to undermine arguments by dismissing them based on assumptions that such principles of egality and humanity are confined to a singular region, and thus inherently prejudiced. Many people across the globe have such ideas, and to say they are simple ‘Western’ is to dismiss the fact that such ideas are universal, and have been evidenced in Buddhism, Janism, and many other belief systems.
Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo
As for my thoughts on Charlie Hebdo. I am, of course, appalled, by the act itself and the consequences. Richard Seymour yesterday said in the Jacobin that we must fear an Islamophobic backlash as a result of the Charlie Hebdo killing. He is right of course, as most attacks of this nature result in a backlash. There are already reports of grenades being thrown into a mosque in Paris, an abhorrent act that I hope the authorities are quick to condemn. However, my issue is the term Islamophobia itself. It should not be used as a term to undermine valid criticism of a religion. All ideologies should be exposed to criticism, whether Marxist, socialist, capitalism, christian, Muslim etc. A hate crime is a hate crime, and of course there will be those who use what happened as an opportunity to attack those who they perceive to be Muslim, but they should not be confused with those who choose to criticise Islam, the prophet, or its tenets. However, while the gunmen definitely do not represent all Muslims, it does not make them less Muslim. But criticism can be a release. Read ‘Why I am not a Christian’, for example, or ‘Why I am not a Muslim’ by Ibn Warraq. I also think humour is a valid form of criticism, whether directed at a prophet or not.
Ultimately, I have utmost respect all those saying ‘Je suis Charlie’. It represents not bowing to intimidation, and I think politicians and public figures alike should stand by and defend satire, even though much of it is directed at them. Sure, humour can make us feel uncomfortable, but sometimes that is good. It prompts soul searching and exposes truths. As far as I am concerned, religious figures, from Ron L. Hubbard, to Abraham, are fair game for criticism, parody, and satire. To single out one for special treatment, is to exhibit religious discrimination. To not criticize them, is to give them special sanctity deserved by no ideology.
*An addendum for my Bahrain readers
So where does this leave me with regards to Islam and democracy in Bahrain, particularly within the opposition. I think it is understandable for people to be cautious of Al Wifaq – a mostly Shia political society who defer to religious teachings and clerics for much of their ‘policy’. You cannot simply dismiss the fact that most of their gatherings are segregated, or that Isa Qassim has a special influence in Al Wifaq. For this reason, many people believe that a real democracy in Bahrain would result in the domination of one political party – an assured victory for one group (at least in the near future). For those who don’t believe in an Al Wifaq Shia conspiracy, then it is more valid to believe that the quest for democracy for them is also the quest of an assured parliamentary victory for a single, religiously exclusive, society. Unfortunately then, opposition supporters are often seen as de facto Al Wifaq supporters, whether they want to or not.
Of course, as I have said before, I do have sympathy with Al Wifaq and Bahrain’s Shia. That cannot change. They have been discriminated against, and the rise of a Shi’a political party reflects centuries of government persecution, as well as gerrymandering. The presence of a Shia political society is very much the result of government maneuvering and repression, a manifestation of group solidarity in the face of gross oppression. Yet frankly, if Bahrain is to move forward, Al Wifaq need to give all Bahrainis more reason to believe that democracy will not be the swan song of Bahrain’s plurality. Indeed, many believe they should dissolve if their democratic demands are met. I think this would be an act of good faith in any transitional government. Such moves would also help undermine the government’s divide and rule tactics, by removing the presence of Al Wifaq’s alleged ulterior motive.
Anyway, as I have said, religion is not universal. It is also dynamic, as evidenced by sectarianism, schism, multiple religions, and personal interpretation. Why should one religion be over represented in one country? I mean I have no voting rights in Bahrain, but I am of the opinion that even a constitution, like Bahrain’s current one, should not have its roots in religion, Islam or otherwise. Bahrain, like the world, is full of people of all different religions, and if people look to the past, they should see religions change and evolve. To tie one’s constitution to one religion is short sighted, arrogant, and a little absurd. Of course I know I am being idealistic, but there is nothing wrong with that. It is, after all, the 21st century, why not acknowledge that their are thousands of religions. If you believe that, why not just allow people to worship as they please, and derive constitution from a secular template that allows people to practice their own religion. If this were to happen, I imagine Bahrain would be at the vanguard of democratic and humanitarian change, rather than trailing behind.
For those of you have been following the case, I recently asked the Information Commission to review the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) decision to withhold a conversation that took place in between Ian Henderson and David Tatham, an employee of the FCO. Disappointingly, the Commissioner has decided that the information is exempt from disclosure based on the fact the balance of ‘public interest’ lies in maintaining the exemption. Given that the late Ian Henderson (sometimes called the Butcher of Bahrain) has been accused of torture, and was involved in the suppression of the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, it is very disappointing that the Commissioner has made this decision. However, recent evidence has tended to point that Ian Henderson might have tried to temper the excesses of the Al Khalifa regime, a particularly interesting insight given today’s announcement that the King’s Son, Prince Nasser, could be prosecuted for torture if he comes to Britain.
Interestingly, “The FCO argued that disclosing the redacted information would (rather than simply being likely to) damage its relations with Bahrain.” In summary, the FCO uses Bahrain’s announced reform plan (which has been critiqued for its complete lack of substance) as an excuse for not harming Britain’s relationship with Bahrain. Essentially, both government are avoiding embarrassment by using potential human rights developments in the country as an incentive. The review makes it sound like Bahraini citizens will be punished if the FCO decide to embarrass themselves and the Bahraini government. Britain are also concerned that such a disclosure might harm Britain’s defense interests in Bahrain.
Although the IC imply that the withheld documents would not address the concerns I had about Henderson, I am curious as to why such information ‘would’ (and not ‘could’) damage Britain’s relationship with Bahrain. To read the full exchange with the FCO, go here. To read the full response by the Information Commission, go here> FS50538474 (1).
Either way, the next stop forward is to try and take this to the First-Tier Tribunal. As with all litigious repression, this would almost certainly involve a cost. Stay tuned for updates.
The chances of a Bahrain policeman being held accountable are about as remote as England’s chances of winning the world cup. So the other day, no one really took the Ministry of the Interior seriously when they said they were investigating a case of a policeman throwing a Molotov cocktail at someone’s house. The MOI’s tweet came after a video circulated showing a policeman throwing two firebombs at a house in ‘one of the areas of Bahrain’.
The video, which began circulating on 7th June, is actually from at least 2012. The original apparently occured on 27th January 2012 in Salmabad. The MOI tweet simply refers to a fire bomb attack in ‘one of the areas of Bahrain’. Although the MOI does not provide a link to the video (why would it?), there appear to be no other recent video posted of a policeman throwing a Molotov cocktail at a house.
The MOI’s 2 year delay in investigating this case, as well as its subsequent failure to acknowledge that the video is actually 2 years old, is alarming. It highlights the fact that they are either wholly ignorant, or willfully blind to what’s going on in Bahrain. Of course I am betting it’s the latter. I have raised this point before though; given the volume of evidence showing police violence in Bahrain, why do they not have someone appointed to screen social media for such abuses? Clearly the MOI are aware of the problem yet choose to ignore it to protect their reputation. The bizarre alternative is that they are aware of all the cases but only tweet about a few – weird given their new commitment to transparency. Anyway, if the MOI are reading this, I compiled a blog a long time ago showing policemen throwing Molotov cocktails. As far as I am aware, they only launched an investigation into one of these cases.
For the unfamiliar, the song ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams has gone viral, spawning many memes and derivatives on YouTube. People from Nablus to Japan have made their own versions. It is not surprising then, that Bahrain saw its own version of the Meme. Directed by JEO Productions, the clip shows many Bahraini residents looking happy and dancing to Williams’s song. It’s a fun, upbeat video, yet it tends to paint Bahrain in rather a rosy, and not entirely accurate light. In order that the video not be used to gloss over, or indeed whitewash ongoing state violence in Bahrain, I created the ‘Not Happy in Bahrain’ video. Take a look for yourself.