June 9, 2011
Shrine Destruction in Bahrain
— Michael Sells
Governments and non-government forces destroy houses of worship in order to marginalize, silence, or eliminate peoples associated with the shrines and to efface visual and tangible reminders of the targeted traditions. Although shrine destruction is meant to silence the people associated with the targeted shrines, the destruction itself can also witness to the repressive activities even after arrests, secret courts, disappearances, and killings have muted human testimonies. It is relatively easy—at least in the short term—to mask the extent of human repression or to justify politically-motivated arrests or killings as a response to violent attacks; but shrines do not carry out violent acts and their destruction leaves a gaping hole in the landscape that is difficult to conceal. The absent presence of houses of worship discredits the denials by responsible authorities regarding other aspects of repression. In Tibet, the Balkans, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Gujarat province of India—to mention a few notorious examples of the past half century—brutality against houses of worship was accompanied by equal brutality against human beings associated with them.
In recent weeks, dozens of Shi`ite mosques have fallen to a shrine-destruction campaign in the Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain. The Bahraini government and its supporters in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have some explaining to do.
Bahrain experienced a premature end to its “Arab Spring” democracy movement. After witnesses sustained protests on behalf of electoral transparency, fairer parliamentary and government participation, and the inclusion of Bahrain’s majority-Shi`ite population within the political process, Bahrain’s government cracked down hard.
On March 14, the Gulf Cooperation Council—made up of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—responded to Bahrain’s request for military and police reinforcements by sending more than a thousand Saudi troops and several hundred UAE police. The next day, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa declared a state of emergency in the island kingdom.
Roy Gutman, whose groundbreaking reports on human-rights violations in Bosnia and North Alliance-controlled Afghanistan were subsequently vindicated, has reported from the Bahraini capital of Manama on what took place in the aftermath of the March 14 GCC intervention.
“Authorities have held secret trials where protesters have been sentenced to death,” Gutman writes, “arrested prominent mainstream opposition politicians, jailed nurses and doctors who treated injured protesters, seized the health care system that had been run primarily by Shiites, fired 1,000 Shiite professionals and canceled their pensions, detained students and teachers who took part in the protests, beat and arrested journalists, and forced the closure of the only opposition newspaper.”
Gutman’s report also details some of the Shi`ite mosques that were targeted. They include the four-centuries-old Amir Mohammed Barbaghi mosque, and the Momen mosque in the town of Nwaidrat, which appears in photos as a “a handsome, square building neatly painted in ochre, with white and green trim, and a short portico in dark gray forming the main entrance.”
Bahraini officials have denied charges of human rights violations; and they also deny targeting Shi`ite mosques for destruction. “These are not mosques. These are illegal buildings,” the justice and Islamic affairs minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ali bin Abdulla Al Khalifa, stated. “The mosques that have been demolished, most of them are not mosques. Very few numbers of mosques, which are illegally built, have been demolished,” added Adel Al-Moawda, deputy chairman of the Bahraini parliament.
The Bahrain destruction carries some disturbingly regional traits. For several decades, authorities in Saudi Arabia, the Bahraini government’s powerful supporter, have worked to obliterate Shi`ite heritage, particularly in the area around Medina. Mosques, cemeteries, and other sites held dear by Shi`ite citizens of Saudi Arabia or by Shi`ite pilgrims have been effaced or radically altered, and in many cases even the local street names have been changed to erase all signs that the shrines had once existed.
The elimination of monuments associated with Shi`ite piety ties into a wider, long-range policy in Saudi Arabia that has seen the elimination of all religious structures (or structures that might become places of veneration) viewed as unauthorized or forbidden by Islamic tradition or law as it has been interpreted by Saudi religious scholars. The program of shrine and potential shrine elimination has been ongoing throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth century within areas on the Arabian peninsula under Saudi control, and—through Saudi aid agencies and through dawa (religious propagation) programs—other areas from the Balkans to Central Asia.
The Al Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain apparently felt itself in position to act with impunity. Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. 5th Fleet, occupies a strategic place within the decades-long and ruinous proxy conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran and between the United States and Iran, conflicts that have stoked violence across the Middle East. The NATO nations, already committed to a war in Libya and to economic support for Tunisia and Egypt are not likely to exert public pressure on Bahrain. And the turmoil in the larger nations of Yemen and Syria drove Bahrain out of mainstream media coverage. For weeks, the pro-government Gulf Daily News has been content to complain that accusations of misconduct by Bahrain’s authorities were unfair and to call for a major public relations campaign to improve Bahrain’s image abroad, to assure the international business community that Bahrain remained a good investment, and even to persuade Formula 1 racing officials to allow Bahrain to host future events.
In his May 19 State Department address on the Middle East, Barack Obama apparently surprised Bahrain officials by condemning the mass arrests and mosque destructions they had authorized. Bahraini leaders quickly promised to rebuild the mosques they had insisted had never been destroyed in the first place.
The credibility of Bahrain’s government will depend on whether and how they fulfill that promise and upon a transparent investigation into the charges of human rights abuses within the kingdom. The credibility of those who claim to support freedom of religion, expression, and public participation in the Arab world will rest in part on whether or not they return to business as usual in a Bahrain that, in the words of one columnist, has “toppled its own people.” The viability of United States policy in the Middle East remains in part hostage, as it has for five decades, to its energy and security dependence upon the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia whose role in supporting the Bahraini government crackdown was not mentioned in Obama’s address.
Roy Gutman, “While Bahrain Demolishes Mosques, U.S. Stays Silent,” McClatchy Newspapers, 02 May 2011.
Jeffrey Fleishman, “Bahrain is Accused of Targeting Shiites,” Los Angeles Times, 12 May 2011.
Before-and-after pictures of destroyed or damaged mosques in Bahrain can be found at Jafariya News, a Shia website.
“Bahrain Targets Shi`ite Religious Sites: ” Al-Jazeera English, 14 May 2011.
“After Obama Criticism, Bahrain to Rebuild Demolished Shiite Mosques,” Deutsche Press-Agentur, Saudi News Today, 22 May 2011. For the full text of Obama’s speech, see http://english.aljazeera.net/news/americas/2011/05/2011519174053886277.html
Pepe Escobar, “Bahrain Topples Its Own People,” Asia Times, 11 May 2011.
Michael Sells is the John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature at the Divinity School.