While the country lacks basic freedoms, there are elements of religious tolerance that afford opportunities to build bridges
The tiny Sunni Arab Gulf nation of Bahrain made front-page news in, of all places, the tiny Jewish nation this week, amid revelations that monarch Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa condemned the Arab boycott of Israel and made clear that his citizens could visit Jerusalem during a speech to a delegation of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.
While more “open” than many other Muslim countries, Bahrain remains far from “free” in the western sense of the word, as the Shiite-majority Kingdom is ruled by Sunni royals who by no means hesitate to crack down on civil society and impinge on basic human and civil rights when they feel threatened. Manama has thus repeatedly been condemned by watchdog groups for stifling political dissent, imprisoning activists and essentially creating an atmosphere of fear among those who oppose the leadership’s policies.
And though the monarchy regularly targets both Shiite clerics and radical Sunni preachers generally tied to either the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood or other jihadist groups, there is, in fact, a modicum of religious liberty in the nation uncommon in the greater Islamic world.
In Bahrain, one can find a Jew praying in a synagogue, located near to a Hindu temple, located adjacent to a mosque.
To this end, Bahraini Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa on September 14 attended an interfaith conference co-hosted by the Wiesenthal Center where he signed The Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance and announced the Kingdom would be building a museum dedicated to this cause.
“This is not a one-time shot,” according to Rabbi Marvin Hier, Founder & Dean of the Wiesenthal Center, but rather “it is a big thing that the king of Bahrain did this. He is small enough to be the first. The larger the country, the more difficult and the more people you answer too.
“The king is bright, with it, attuned to American culture—he is a big fan of Frank Sinatra—[and] determined to get out of the malaise of the Middle East,” he explained to The Media Line.
As per the event itself, Rabbi Hier highlighted that Israel’s national anthem was sung along with those of Arab nations, thereby reinforcing the validity of al-Kalifa’s declarations. “There were representatives from the UAE, the ambassador to Kuwait, a strong contingent of Muslims, some Arabs from Europe. The hardliners of the region need to realize this is the beginning of a new revolution,” he predicted.
In fact, the contention that any degree of moderation is to be cultivated as a potential gateway towards greater co-existence is a poignant one. After all, Jews, for example, are not even allowed to step foot in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, and were for the most part expelled through edict or displaced by violence from regional Muslim countries following Israel’s creation in 1948.
Today, religious minorities from Copts to Zoroastrians are repressed from Egypt to Iran, while thousands of Yazidis were slaughtered just a few short years ago by the Islamic State in Iraq. It is within this context that some advocate that religious freedom be viewed as being relative and along a continuum in a fundamentally intolerant the Middle East.
The prevailing question, then, is whether Bahrain should be held up, or even cautiously celebrated, as a potential model for the Muslim world; and, if so, how to go about infusing the ultra-conservative masses with same sense of acceptance demonstrated by al-Khalifa?
The difficulties were perfectly exemplified when The Media Line contacted a prominent Bahraini journalist, who refused even to comment off-the-record due to the “sensitivity” of the matter. In this vein, Israel’s Foreign Ministry initially wrote on its Arabic Twitter account that, “Bahrain’s king Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa denounced the Arab boycott against Israel and has confirmed that Bahraini citizens are now free to visit #Israel”—before quickly deleting it.
In fact, the task at hand is a monumental one when it comes to the Jewish people and its state as multiple surveys conducted over the past decade show that an astounding portion of Middle Eastern Muslims harbor anti-Semitic views.
A seminal 2014 study of 53,000 people worldwide conducted by a U.S.-based Jewish organization showed that 92 percent of Iraqis hold negative attitudes towards Jews, whereas 81% does in Jordan, 80% in the United Arab Emirates and 74% in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps most disconcerting is that the highest rate of anti-Semitic views of any regional population was found in the Palestinian territories, with a full 93% of inhabitants in the West Bank and Gaza maintaining animus towards Jews.
As for Bahrain, according to the survey more than four-fifths of its citizens harbor anti-Semitic sentiments, presumably meaning that some one million Bahrainis are unlikely to take al-Khalifa up on his offer to travel to Israel. Consequently, the Bahraini monarch’s statements, while positive, constitute but a mere baby step in the right direction.
Alternatively, the foundation for widespread religious tolerance in the Middle East will likely only, if ever, be achieved when such comments start being directed by Muslim leaders to their own publics; in effect, instilling within them the principles requisite to achieving lasting peace.