Of course, as the opposition has already scheduled rallies across the island today to coincide with the announcement, I suppose that demonstrators will have to be content to protest the postponement of the trial rather than the outcome itself. (NBC News' "Photo Blog" records some scenes from protests earlier this week.) Which is too bad because the February 14 folks had some really nice electronic fliers to mark the occasion:
With no news about the fate of the opposition leaders, then, the real story of the past week in Bahrain is a rather odd series of developments around the issue of religious tolerance. First, following other recent blasphemy cases in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, a Bahraini blogger was sentenced to two years in prison for "insulting a religious icon," namely the prophet's wife Aisha. In fact, it sounds like this "blogger" was actually just a plain old Internet troll. A report in the Gulf News tells that he "often entered specific sites to insult Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) companions and wife." Evidently Bahrain's Internet police have not visited the forums of opposition and pro-government activists lately. That's probably a good thing, as the judicial system already suffers from chronic delays as it is.
One current thread on the main Sunni board asks, "Have the Jews become more merciful than the Shi'a?" Evidently a group of "moderate Jews" in the U.S. has allowed Sunnis to pray in a synagogue when their own mosque was full. By comparison, the author writes, "The Shi'a issue fatwas to kill Sunnis, in revenge for [the martyrdom of] Hussain, as they unjustly claim. So have the Jews really become more merciful than the Shi'a with respect to Sunnis?" So the poster succeeds in insulting at least two different religions--the Shi'a, for being terrorist murderers, and the Jews, for being arguably "less merciful" even than the Shi'a.
So as not to leave out Christians from the discussion, we move on to the next item on the topic of religious tolerance in Bahrain (and indeed in the wider Gulf). A few days ago, the Catholic Church announced that it is relocating its Gulf vicariate from Kuwait to Bahrain, ostensibly because "the country’s location is more accessible for meetings." It might also have to do with the fact that "King [Hamad] and royal family have granted 9,000 square meters of land, which will be used to build a larger church in Awali and to host the vicariate’s apostolic headquarters." For its part, Bahrain can now, as it already did on August 7, point to the vicariate “as a testament to the Kingdom’s religious and cultural openness.”
Moreover, the move might also have something to do with the fact that a Kuwaiti Salafi MP, Usama al-Munawir, announced his intention to submit a bill that would ban non-Muslim places of worship in the country. After facing criticism, he graciously "moderated" his plan to include only a ban on the construction of NEW non-Muslim places of worship. What tolerance!
Not to be outdone, and fresh off his liaison with fellow Salafis in the Free Syrian Army, president of al-Asalah and head of Bahrain's Parliamentary Committee on U.S. Hatred 'Abd al-Halim Murad has expressed his objections to the new church. Posting once again on Twitter--someone seriously needs to tell him to stop using Twitter--he said, inter alia, that "the 'ulama' agree that the building of churches in Muslim countries is haram"; that "the Arabian Peninsula is the domain of Muslims and churches may not be built in it"; and "the Arabian Peninsula is the cradle of Islam, and the sound of church bells cannot drown out the call to prayer." (The Manama Voice has a longer article here.)
Murad insists that al-Asalah will bring up the matter in parliament. Of course, objections of this sort from Bahrain's Sunni societies are not new. It was only recently that they clashed openly in parliament with Minister of Culture Shaikha Mai for her (what they deemed) overly-provocative "summer of culture" festival. Previous initiatives have centered around the banning of alcohol, crackdowns on prostitution, and of course the infamous Arab Big Brother television program that was filmed in Bahrain for only a short time in 2004 before being forced off the air due to public outcry.
In this case, however, the object of criticism would seem to be much more innocuous. In the first place, the location of the new church, 'Awali, is essentially a gated expatriate compound in the far south of the island (or, rather, as far south as you can go before hitting military fences). Absent the announcement, chances are no one would even have known the church was there, especially someone who lives on the opposite end of ANY ENTIRELY DIFFERENT ISLAND (Muharraq), as Murad does. Further, given that Murad just returned from Syria, a country notable for its until-now peaceful coexistence of Jews, Christians, 'Alawis, Sunnis, Druze, etc., it seems that he somehow left with the opposite lesson. Perhaps his friends in the Syrian Free Army wish to ban churches in Syria too?
Whatever the case, Bahrain's Internet tricksters are having a bit of fun with the faux controversy, as seen in the graphic at the top of this post depicting what appear to be Latvian Orthodox incarnations of Al Mahmud, Muhammad Khalid, Jasim al-Sa'idi, and 'Adal al-Ma'wadah.
Neither does King Hamad escape the photoshop treatment. Apparently some citizens predict that Bahrain's "commitment to cultural and religious openness" will soon extend to Tibetan Buddhism as well. This could make for an interesting situation, as it would likely spur criticism from the Chinese, from whose "interference" the Saudis would then need to defend Bahrain. So 2013: the year of the Sino-Saudi-Irano conflict?
The political analyst in me might be tempted to say that al-Asalah's recent expressions of religious intolerance--and threats to bring the matter into parliament--are somehow connected to the country's changing political dynamics. Perhaps the relative empowerment of Sunni groups in the post-February 14 period has afforded Murad and others greater independence from the state. In the end, however, al-Asalah's latest publicity stunt demonstrates only that Bahrain's formal political parties continue to do a poor job of representing ordinary Sunni citizens, the vast majority of whom I am confident have more pressing policy goals than the blocking of new churches--ending corruption, socioeconomic inequality, and unsustainable immigration policy, for starters. Is it any wonder why both al-Asalah and al-Manbar performed so badly in the 2010 elections?
At a time when most Bahrainis are eagerly awaiting King Hamad's annual Ramadan address for some sign of substantive political progress, Salafi MPs are waging political war on "deviant" religions in Bahrain, and physical war in other countries altogether. If such are its priorities, perhaps the group might do Bahrain the favor of recusing itself from any upcoming political dialogue, and leave the difficult task of social and political rebuilding to those sincerely interested in tackling it.
Update: So much for a dramatic announcement in the king's Ramadan/National Day speech (BNA summary). Quite far from it, as the biggest substantive discussions involved the OIC summit in Mecca, the Palestinian issue, which "is the central issue for joint Islamic action," and ending the violence in Syria. Strangely missing from this discussion of political action and crises elsewhere, then, was discussion of political progress in Bahrain apart from vague references to the importance of "dialogue." Video with English subtitles:
Update 2: An interesting story from Computer World oddly related to all this: al-Asalah's Salafi friends in Saudi Arabia are objecting to the creation of a variety of new specialized top-level domains (TLDs) for the Internet, including .gay, .wine, .porn, .sexy, .bar., and, wait for it, .bible. Their objection is quite odd, since it would be FAR easier to block content at the *.gay or *.bible level than to block millions of .com hosts serving up objectionable material.
Update 3: In light of the three-year prison sentence handed BCHR head Nabeel Rajab yesterday, perhaps we now know the reason for the postponement of sentencing for the rest of the opposition leaders. Namely, there is only so much bad news Bahrain wishes to give at one time. This New York Times article offers a fine summary of the case and, more usefully, connects the decision to King Hamad's recent Ramadan address. Unfortunately, Bahrain's "reformist" king is beginning to sound eerily like his uncle:
Mr. Jishi noted that representatives of several foreign governments, including the United States, were in the courtroom when the verdict was read. “They are sending a message,” Mr. Jishi said of the government, adding that a speech given by the country’s king earlier in the week — in which the monarch spoke of a duty to “protect peaceful, good-natured citizens who do not seek to usurp power” — reinforced the message. ...Update 4: Ken Katzman of the U.S. Congressional Research Service writes in Open Democracy on (the distinct lack of) "Security Sector Reform in Bahrain."
In his address to the nation two days ago, the king again suggested that the protests in Bahrain were part of a foreign plot. "The kingdom of Bahrain has always remained throughout the ages a coveted place for the greedy, however, our people knew how to persistently tackle the enemy and to unite their ranks, consolidate their discourse and allegiance to the ruler and crush the ambitions of foes," he said.
The monarch added: "We have had to endure this year through challenging conditions due to hostile ambitions and foreign intervention which are yet to cease. We stood as united front in the face of strife mongers. We faced them with determination and persistent willpower as our duty and responsibility makes it imperative to defend this homeland, we will maintain our national unity and protect Bahraini people."