Confronting Sectarianism to Protect Tolerance

Tolerance as a concept, value and virtue is but a link in a broader chain of greater human concepts and values. As such it represents a gateway to the creation of cooperative and harmonious societies regardless of cultural, religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity.

Tolerance is especially important to Bahrain as it is a country where Sunnis, Shias, Ismailis, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs and Baha’is have all co-existed for a long time. This was not a coincidence; because if that was the case , you would wonder how come that there exist no such diversity in any other GCC country.

Bahrain has long embraced this diversity, thanks to the religious tolerance among its people. The Government has long realised that there is a social susceptibility to host such diversity in the existence of churches, temples, graveyards, religious groups and practices, civil society organizations, private schools, festivities and special holidays etc etc.

It is important to sustain this state of affairs in Bahrain in order to emphasise the prevailing human values and partnership in land and in benefits as well as to impress upon the new generations the fact that cultural diversity is a great asset , and that rather than constitutes barriers or ghettos , it does offer an opportunity for openness, dialogue and enrichment.

With sectarianism showing its ugly face, we are supposed to be looking for projects that would help bring people together, prevent the creation of boundaries and barriers, and make it difficult for extremists to be influenced by extremist ideas from abroad. Projects that would eliminate the prospect of social and political polarizations along ideological, ethnic, sectarian or stereotypical lines .

Without tolerance, the rule of law, and a margin of freedom, the country’s diversity could turn into a curse rather than a blessing, rendering the country less immune and more vulnerable to the viruses of militancy and hatred , and more exposed to those twisted ideologies that claim monopoly on the truth in order to wreak havoc on the country and its people .

In order to maintain a tolerant society and make our country immune against extremism and hatred, we should look for new programmes and policies that promote tolerance and educate new generations through schools and religious platforms. We should also treat all citizens and residents equally without discrimination or denial of their rights. This will promote tolerance on the ground and prevent the emergence of stereotyping and arrogant attitudes towards others.

The Danger of Sectarianism

Tolerance in Bahrain is now threatened by the increasing level of sectarianism that endangers the social fabric, shakes stability and contradicts the basic principles of Human Rights. Sectarianism contradicts the basic principles of Human Rights as well as the reforms and the efforts to instil them .There can be no real reforms project or respect for human rights in any country where sectarianism is deeply rooted in its political, and social structure, and prevalent among its cultural and religious elites. Sectarianism also contradicts the notion of citizenship and equality as it legitimizes discrimination between citizens, whereby the religion or sect you belong to determines whether you are a first or second class citizen. This contravenes with justice and the instinctive human spirit .Sectarian practices constitute an impediment to the enjoyment by citizens of their rights as established by the Constitution and relevant international conventions.

Sectarianism denies the simple fact that people whatever their background are born free and have equal rights and dignity. It also ignores the concept that cultural and sectarian diversity – as in Bahrain- is a source of enrichment, progress and prosperity for societies in general, and therefore such sectarian diversity should not only be recognised and appreciated, but also protected and defended. Diversity should not be seen as a source of schism, danger and instability. Moreover sectarianism violates all human rights principles stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which encourages the respect of basic rights for all and without discrimination on the basis of race, colour, gender, language, religion, political opinion and national or social origin.

It is in the nature of sectarianism to incite blind hatred, encourage schisms, insults and abuse, and dehumanize the ‘other’. It does not only prevent the establishment of good, cordial and peaceful relations between citizens, but also causes many local disagreements. Sectarianism is an effective tool in destroying social peace and threatening the security of citizens, reflecting negatively on political stability and on people’s daily lives.

Sectarianism contradicts the sacred values preached by all religious beliefs including Islam and endorsed by humanity in the form of Human Rights’ charters, such as justice, forgiveness, freedom, brotherhood, moderation and equality. We cannot accept the notion that any particular sect possesses a superiority based on racial pretensions or monopoly of the religious truth and that only its followers are the ‘saved group’. Such a notion is scientifically unacceptable , ethically condemned and does not do justice to the followers of that particular sect or to the others , not to mention its detrimental effects as it could lead to social schisms , disputes , militancy and eventual instability .

It is obvious that the increase in the level of sectarianism in political rhetoric and religious platforms or in the public conduct of individuals and institutions is extremely dangerous and is indicative of narrow mindedness. Succumbing to irrational sectarian feelings that do not abide by the discipline of the Islamic principles, the Constitution and the law, is an insult to the country and to the people. It also indicates that the available margin of freedom has been abused as has the authority enjoyed by some individuals.

Joint Responsibility

The elimination of sectarianism is an impossible task and is beyond the capacity of any country. However, it is possible to reduce its intensity and manage sectarian differences if the Government and all other political and social parties work together.

The Government bears the responsibility of managing the sectarian disputes in order to prevent them escalating into a social conflict. In other words, it is the Government’s duty to intervene when necessary to prevent society slipping into schisms and conflicts with dire consequences. This means that the Government is required to adopt legislations that criminalize sectarian activities and introduce deterring measures. It should also contain religious and media platforms within appropriate legislations to prevent incitement and provocations. In addition, the Government is required to ensure the impartiality of its own agencies during sectarian conflicts; otherwise it will become part of the conflict itself and loses its credibility as an impartial guardian and judge. It should keep state institutions away from sectarian practices and warn Government officials and employees against sectarian bias. At the same time, nevertheless, the Government is required to continue respecting religious freedom of expression and legislations concerning human rights. It should ensure that no violations of the general principles outlined in the Charter and the reform project take place during the process of containing sectarianism. Freedom provides an effective mean for controlling sectarianism, its discourse and advocates, as extreme measures yield opposite results and will only inflame sectarian troubles.

Finally, the Government should provide programs that could bring together dissonant views and put into place anti-sectarian national projects which promote stability and social and political integration.

The society’s elite also bear a responsibility. Sectarianism is an elitist concept and it feeds the public with an over perceived sectarian concerns. The elites have failed to find joint social, political, religious and environmental institutions. It is saddening that in a period characterized by pluralism, openness and freedom; issues like segregated housing and neighbourhoods are increasing whilst the number of inter-sects marriages is decreasing. It is also saddening that charitable organization limit their services to certain communities without any religious or humanitarian justification.

Sectarianism is contagious and has the tendency to spread in interlinked circles. For example, sectarian discourse in Parliament is reflected on the media and on the street. Likewise, sectarianism in civil society and charitable institutions weakens the humanitarian spirit and sectarian religious discourse affects political discourse.

Civil society institutions are usually perceived as free from sectarian and ethnic divisions and are assumed to be driven by humanitarian and national causes. However, there are some national societies that adopt sectarian discourses as a consolidated ongoing pattern in their statements, literature and strategies.

Abandoning sectarian discourse is an indication of the maturity of individuals, society, the state, civil organizations and the media. It is the minimum requirement at this stage that would hopefully be followed by further steps, such as the formation of joint projects and institutions. We aspire to the day when political societies represent citizens of all different sects and when charitable organizations provide their humanitarian services to all citizens. We also look forward to civil society organizations that would serve and are open to everyone.