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Religious Freedom in Bahrain

أن حرية الرأي والبحث العلمي والصحافة والطباعة والنشر وتكوين الجمعيات والنقابات لا يجوز أن تتضمن مساسا بأسس العقيدة الإسلامية، فالالتزام بأحكام الشريعة الإسلامية والأسس التي يقوم عليها الدين الإسلامي الحنيف هو القيد الأساسي على ممارسة هذه الحريات والحقوق جميعها

It is not permissible for freedom — of opinion, scientific research, press, printing and publishing, and the association of groups and trade unions — to undermine the foundations of Islamic doctrine. Commitment to the provisions of Islamic law, and those foundations upon which the natural religion of Islam (are built), are the primary constraints on the exercise of these freedoms and rights.

Bahrain Shura Council, 2002

This post represents an effort to explore the state of religious freedom in the Kingdom of Bahrain.

While ample information exists concerning freedom of worship and the peaceful coexistence enjoyed by Bahrain’s immigrant and expatriate communities — for instance freedom of assembly at approved churches, and other houses of worship, in contradistinction to neighboring Saudi Arabia — little information seems to exist concerning the degree of religious freedom allowed to native Bahraini citizens. Specifically, the State’s legal posture towards Bahrainis of Muslim background who wish to convert to another religion, or leave religion altogether.

Does Bahraini law punish “apostasy?” Can Bahrainis who leave Islam voice their opinions in the public domain without fear of legal repercussion? Do Bahraini converts from Islam face imminent danger from local law, or their communities, justifying asylum in Western countries?

Cases

Given the dearth of information concerning cases of apostasy, the above questions seem difficult to answer. The sole exception I could find is the case of Maryam Yusuf, who eloped and married an Indian nearly 20 years ago (#2). According to the Times of India story, the Bahraini embassy confiscated her passport (effectively considering her an apostate for marrying a non-Muslim), leaving her in legal limbo in India. However, given the time that has passed since the alleged incident, and although worrying, it is difficult to know if this case represents how a Muslim apostate would be treated under Bahraini law.

Bahraini Constitution (2002)

While the Bahraini Constitution does have strong language supporting freedom of conscience, it is also infused with religious sentiments. While Article 2 stipulates that Islam is the religion of the State, the preamble goes beyond to assert, “The noble people of Bahrain believe that Islam brings salvation in this world and the next.”

Moreover, while freedom of speech is protected, it is under the condition that, “The foundations of Islamic doctrine and the unity of the people are not infringed, and schism or sectarianism are not aroused” (Article 23). Unfortunately, these overtures to religious discord and national unity usually point to possible restrictions on true religious freedom.

مقدمة دستور مملكة البحرين
ولقد انبثقت تعديلات الدستور من أن شعب البحرين العريق مؤمن بأن الإسلام فيه صلاح الدنيا والآخرة، وأنه لا يعني الجمود ولا التعصب، وإنما يقرر في صراحة تامة أن الحكمة ضالة المؤمن أينما وجدها أخذها، وأن القرآن الكريم لم يفرط في شيء

Preamble: The amendments to the Constitution proceed from the premise that the noble people of Bahrain believe that Islam brings salvation in this world and the next, and that Islam means neither inertness nor fanaticism but explicitly states that wisdom is the goal of the believer, wherever he finds it he should take it, and that the Qur’an has been remiss in nothing.

مادة 1
مملكة البحرين عربية إسلامية مستقلة ذات سيادة تامة، شعبها جزء من الأمة العربية، وإقليمها جزء من الوطن العربي الكبير، ولا يجوز التنازل عن سيادتها أو التخلي عن شيء من إقليمها

Article 1: The Kingdom of Bahrain is a fully sovereign, independent Arab, Islamic State whose population is part of the Arab nation and whose territory is part of the greater Arab homeland. Its sovereignty may not be assigned or any of its territory abandoned.

مادة 2
دين الدولة الإسلام، والشريعة الإسلامية مصدر رئيسي للتشريع، ولغتها الرسمية هي اللغة العربية

Article 2: The religion of the State is Islam. The Islamic Shari’a is the primary source of law. The official language is Arabic.

مادة 5
تكفل الدولة التوفيق بين واجبات المرأة نحو الأسرة وعملها في المجتمع، ومساواتها بالرجال في ميادين الحياة السياسية والاجتماعية والثقافية والاقتصادية دون إخلال بأحكام الشريعة الإسلامية

Article 5: The State guarantees reconciling the duties of women towards the family with their work in society, and their equality with men in political, social, cultural, and economic spheres without breaching the provisions of Islamic law (Shari’a).

مادة 6
تصون الدولة التراث العربي والإسلامي، وتسهم في ركب الحضارة الإنسانية، وتعمل على تقوية الروابط بين البلاد الإسلامية، وتحقيق آمال الأمة العربية في الوحدة والتقدم

Article 6: The State safeguards the Arab and Islamic heritage. It contributes to the advancement of human civilization and strives to strengthen the bonds between the Islamic countries, and to achieve the aspirations of the Arab nation for unity and progress.

مادة 18
الناس سواسية في الكرامة الإنسانية، ويتساوى المواطنون لدى القانون في الحقوق والواجبات العامة، لا تمييز بينهم في ذلك بسبب الجنس أو الأصل أو اللغة أو الدين أو العقيدة

Article 18: People are equal in human dignity, and citizens are equal before the law in public rights and duties. There shall be no discrimination among them on the basis of sex, origin, language, religion or creed.

مادة 22
حرية الضمير مطلقة، وتكفل الدولة حرمة دُور العبادة، وحرية القيام بشعائر الأديان والمواكب والاجتماعات الدينية طبقا للعادات المرعية في البلد

Article 22: Freedom of conscience is absolute. The State guarantees the inviolability of worship, and the freedom to perform religious rites and hold religious parades and meetings in accordance with the customs observed in the country.

مادة 23
حرية الرأي والبحث العلمي مكفولة، ولكل إنسان حق التعبير عن رأيه ونشره بالقول أو الكتابة أو غيرهما، وذلك وفقا للشروط والأوضاع التي يبينها القانون، مع عدم المساس بأسس العقيدة الإسلامية ووحدة الشعب، وبما لا يثير الفرقة أو الطائفية

Article 23: Freedom of opinion and scientific research is guaranteed. Every person has the right to express his opinion and publish it by word of mouth, in writing or otherwise under the rules and conditions laid down by law, provided that the foundations of Islamic doctrine and the unity of the people are not infringed, and schism or sectarianism are not aroused.

After the 2002 update of the original 1973 constitution, the Shura Council — which drafted and ratified the articles — issued an “explanatory note” concerning amendments made, and the “rationale that led to them.” This memo of sorts paints in stark terms the fact that freedom of belief and speech is limited only to those things that do not contravene or undermine religion:

أن حرية الرأي والبحث العلمي والصحافة والطباعة والنشر وتكوين الجمعيات والنقابات لا يجوز أن تتضمن مساسا بأسس العقيدة الإسلامية، فالالتزام بأحكام الشريعة الإسلامية والأسس التي يقوم عليها الدين الإسلامي الحنيف هو القيد الأساسي على ممارسة هذه الحريات والحقوق جميعها

It is not permissible for freedom — of opinion, scientific research, press, printing and publishing, and the association of trade unions — to undermine the foundations of Islamic doctrine. Commitment to the provisions of Islamic law, and those foundations upon which the natural religion of Islam (are built), are the primary constraints on the exercise of these freedoms and rights.

Bahraini Penal Code (1976)

Bahrain’s penal code does not overtly punish apostasy from Islam. However, it does punish the ridicule of religion, or the harming of religious sentiments. Both being broad categories which could encompass free expression by Bahrainis who have left Islam. Article 310 has been used in sentencing Shia youth or clerics who have insulted Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad.

Moreover, Article 112 provides that “capital punishment be inflicted upon” anybody who commits an act threatening the country’s “unity” — another broad, catch-all concept that could be interpreted to include religious dissent, and was moreover centrally featured in the constitution.

مادة 112
يعاقب بالإعدام من ارتكب عمدا فعلا يؤدي إلى المساس باستقلال البلاد أو وحدتها أو سلامة أراضيها

Article 112: Capital punishment shall be inflicted upon any person who deliberately commits an act having the consequence of affecting the country’s independence, unity or territorial integrity.

مادة 309
يعاقب بالحبس مدة لا تزيد على سنة أو بالغرامة التي لا تجاوز مائة دينار من تعدى بإحدى طرق العلانية على إحدى الملل المعترف بها أو حقر من شعائرها

Article 309: A punishment for a period not exceeding one year or a fine not exceeding BD 100 shall be inflicted upon any person who commits an offence by any method of expression against one of the recognized religious communities or ridicules the rituals thereof.

مادة 310
:يعاقب بالعقوبة المنصوص عليها في المادة السابقة
من أهان علنا رمزا أو شخصا يكون موضع تمجيد أو تقديس لدى أهل ملة
من قلد علنا نسكا أو حفلا دينيا بقصد السخرية منه

Article 310: The punishment provided for in the preceding Article shall be inflicted upon any person who commits in public an insult against a symbol or a person being glorified or considered sacred to members of a particular sect; (or) upon any person who imitates in public a religious ritual or ceremony with the intention of ridiculing it.

Worryingly, in June 2010 the Council of Representatives and Shura Council passed an amendment to Article 310, criminalizing the practice of “witchcraft, sorcery, and divination.” While the text of the new provision states that it was enacted on both “scientific and religious” grounds — and, according to local media, belief in the power of magic is widespread in Bahrain, leading to abuse by fake “healers,” among other professions — the provision still represents a capitulation to religious hardliners, who view “sorcery” as disbelief in Islam. Worryingly, the wording of the new provision specifies a punishment of imprisonment, but does not specify a possible length. It is also not certain whether the wording of the law accedes to belief in such forces (as Islam does, viewing sorcery and magic as real phenomenon, but being forbidden), or if it dismissive towards the phenomenon as a whole.

يعاقب بالحبس والغرامة أو بإحدى هاتين العقوبتين كل من زاول على سبيل الاحتراف والتكسب أياً من أعمال السحر أو الشعوذة أو العرافة، ويُعد من هذه الأعمال الإتيان بأفعال أو التلفظ بأقوال أو استخدام وسائل القصد منها إيهام المجني عليه بالقدرة على إخباره عن المغيبات أو إخباره عما في الضمير أو تحقيق حاجة أو رغبة أو نفع أو ضرر بالمخالفة للثوابت العلمية والشرعية

It is punishable by imprisonment, or a fine — or both — anyone who professionally practices and earns a livelihood by any means from witchcraft, sorcery, or divination. And, through these acts or utterances, uses them as a means to delude the victim to inform him about the “unseen,” or to achieve a need or desire for benefit or harm, in violation of scientific and religious fundamentals.

Bahraini Press Code (Legal Decree 47, 2002)

Given the lack of clear laws concerning apostasy or religious dissent, press laws can be a good way to judge the degree to which intellectual dissent is allowed in a society. As with Article 23 of the Bahraini Constitution, the Press Code affirms the right to express opinion, through writing or other means, “provided that the foundations of Islamic doctrine and the unity of the people are not infringed, and schism or sectarianism are not aroused.”

Moreover, the government has the ability to prevent the dissemination of books, other publications, and films that are regarded as harmful to the public order, or religious sentiment.

مادة 1
لكل إنسان حق التعبير عن رأيه و نشره بالقول أو الكتابة أو غيرهما وفقا للشروط و الأوضاع المبينة في هذا القانون ، وذلك كله دون المساس بأسس العقيدة الإسلامية ووحدة الشعب ، وبما لا يثير الفرقة أو الطائفية

Article 1: Every person has the right to express his opinion and publish it by word of mouth, in writing or otherwise under the rules and conditions laid down by law, provided that the foundations of Islamic doctrine and the unity of the people are not infringed, and schism or sectarianism are not aroused.

مادة 19
يجوز بقرار من الوزير منع تداول المطبوعات التي تتضمن المساس بنظام الحكم في الدولة أو دينها الرسمي أو الإخلال بالآداب أو التعرض للأديان تعرضا من شأنه تكدير السلم العام ،أو التي تتضمن الأمور المحظور نشرها طبقا لأحكام هذا القانون

Article 19: It is permissible for the Minister to prohibit the circulation of publications that include prejudice towards the system of rule in the government, or its official religion; breach of decency; or presentation of religion (in a way) that would disturb public order; or which contain things outlawed, in accordance with the provisions of this law.

مادة 20
يجوز بقرار من الوزير منع أية مطبوعات صادرة في الخارج من الدخول و التداول في المملكة وذلك محافظة على النظام العام أو الآداب أو الأديان أو لاعتبارات أخرى تتعلق بالصالح العام

Article 20: It is permissible for the Minister to prohibit any publications issued abroad from entering and circulating in the Kingdom, in order to maintain the (normal state) of public affairs, morals, religion, or other considerations of public interest.

مادة 24
تشكل في الوزارة لجنة تسمى ” لجنة مراقبة الأفلام السينمائية و المطبوعات المسجلة ” برئاسة مدير إدارة المطبوعات و النشر وعضوية ممثلين عن عدد من الوزارات ذات العلاقة يرشحهم الوزراء المختصون
وتختص هذه اللجنة بمراقبة الأفلام السينمائية وما في حكمها المعدة للعرض في دور السينما وكذلك المطبوعات المسجلة التي تحال إليها من الإدارة من النواحي السياسة و الاجتماعية و الصحية و الأخلاقية و الدينية

Article 24: Within the Ministry is constituted a committee named, “The Committee for Monitoring Registered Films and Publications,” headed by Director of the Department of Press and Publication, whose membership includes representatives from a number of relevant ministries nominated by the ministers concerned.

This committee shall monitor films, and the like intended for display in movie theaters, as well as publications in respect to politics, society, health, morals, and religion.

مادة 25
اللجنة المشار إليها في المادة السابقة أن تحذف من الفيلم المشاهد التي ترى فيها إخلالا بمقومات الدولة أو المجتمع أو الدين أو الأخلاق أو الآداب
و للوزارة أن تصدر إلى أصحاب دور السينما أو المسئولين عن إدارتها التعليمات و التوجيهات التي تستهدف الحفاظ على مستوى البرامج السينمائية ، دينيا وقوميا وخلقيا وفنيا ، ورعاية الآداب العامة في هذه الدور

Article 25: The committee referred to in the previous article (has the ability to) delete scenes from films which sees it as a breach of the components of the state, society, religion, ethics, or morals.

The ministry can issue to the cinema owners, or those responsible for management, instructions and directives aimed at maintaining the level of film programs — religiously, nationally, morally, and artistically — in order to care for public morals.

مادة 38
يلتزم الصحفي بالامتناع عن الانحياز إلى الدعوات العنصرية أو التي تنطوي على ازدراء الأديان أو الدعوة إلى كراهيتها أو الطعن في إيمان الآخرين أو ترويج التمييز أو الاحتقار لرأي طائفة م، طوائف المجتمع

Article 38: A journalist must be committed to refraining from propagating racism; the denigration of religions; from advocating hatred or challenging the faith of others; or promoting discrimination or contempt towards the spectrum of community groups.

Beyond the Law: Safety From Society

Outside of retribution through State apparatuses, converts from Islam must deal with two equally as powerful forces: Culture and religion. Culture, in terms of the general, unthinking social attitudes that favor conformity and non-questioning, rather than debate and critical thinking. A culture that values honor, pride, and reputation above all else, and is accompanied by a mindset that has shown it does not fear killing in order to maintain them.

However, in terms of religion, Bahrain presents particular challenges as well, which can threaten the health, safety, and well-being of religious dissidents in unique ways. Twelver Shia Islam — adhered to by a majority of Bahrainis — sanctions the extrajudicial killing of blasphemers, and in some cases, apostates. Given the posture of some segments of the Bahraini Shia community towards Iran and the Shia clerical apparatus, it would not be remiss to consider this a real concern for those who leave Islam from the Shia community. The threat of religiously sanctioned extrajudicial killing is real, and has been advocated by numerous Shia religious authorities, both past and present, who Shia communities worldwide, including that in Bahrain, look to for religious guidance.

Therefore, those who leave Islam from within the Shia community, on top of the scrutiny that might come from the State and local culture, face a profound threat from the religious apparatus that functions within their community, which could be an additional argument for the granting of asylum requests.

Conclusion

The state of religious freedom in Bahrain for those who choose to leave Islam remains unclear. Cases of apostasy tried by courts remain elusive to find.

However, it is clear that Bahraini law allows little room for social dissent, which in the eyes of judges and prosecutors will necessarily include expression of sentiments towards religion. Converts from Islam face not only an uncertain future in Bahrain, but also untested legal waters. Without freedom of belief, there is a limit to the dynamism and innovation that a society can display. By limiting their own citizens’ freedom of expression and religious association, Bahrain is limiting its future, and the potentials of many.

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