UN Special Rapporteurs: Government of Bahrain Persecutes “Baharna” & “Ajam”, Erases their Traces from National Heritage & History

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SHAFAQNA – Three UN Special Rapporteurs addressed in a letter to the Bahraini Government “concerning” information about alleged patterns of continuous discrimination against Shia citizens (mainly Baharna and Ajam), which have been taking place since 2011, and which are “undermining their rights to freedoms of religion, expression and culture;” in addition to the effect of the whole situation on the human rights of Shiites in the country.

The address published recently on the website of the commissioner was officially sent to the Government of Bahrain at the end of October 2015 to enquire about the reports which the UN rapporteurs deemed concerning. The Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Fareeda Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, and Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief pursuant to Human Rights Council Heiner Bielefeldt signed the letter.

“Such discrimination takes the form of destruction of places of worship and other signs of the presence of Shia citizens in the country, their marginalization in the historical narratives of the country, misinformation regarding their religious and cultural identity through the educational system and the media, as well as violence,” said the rapporteurs said in their communication.

This communication follows previous communications concerning the situation of Shia in the country and, in particular, the communications and report on the destruction of Shia mosques sent by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief on 5 May 2011 and on withdrawal of citizenship, sent by the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of religion and belief and human Rights defenders on 29 November 2011.

The rapporteurs indicated in the report that according to the information they received, there are several measures that directly targeted, Baharna and Ajam in particular, calling on the Government of Bahrain to submit legal and technical explanations regarding these information, motives and reasons and the measures taken to put an end to these practices.

Violence against Shia

In their communication, the rapporteurs spoke of “excessive use of force and abuses targeting Baharna protesters and Shia clerics” noting that “between 2012 and 2015, in numerous incidents, there were reports of inappropriate use by government forces of tear gas against Shia Bahrainis, causing at least 38 deaths.” Non-lethal shotguns and security forces vehicles were misused in many instances, causing permanent injuries and death of protesters. Reportedly, at least 18 people have died as a result of shotguns-related injuries, all of whom were Shia, and there is footage from protests where vehicles were used as weapons against Shia protestors.

Revoking Shia Citizenships

Furthermore, the rapporteurs highlighted that a number of Shia Bahrainis had their citizenships revoked, including some who remain stateless. The revocation of citizenships has been used to target political dissidents, criminalizing the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. It is alleged that more than 250 individuals have been denaturalized since 2012, including a majority of Shia citizens.

It is also alleged that the majority of stateless people and of those who are denied citizenship belong to the Ajam ethnic group. This discriminatory practice in granting citizenship based on ethnicity and religion prevents many Shia and Ajam citizens from benefiting from social welfare programs that are offered by the Government.

Persecution of Shia Clerics

The UN rapporteurs stressed that Shia clerics were persecuted for their political statements or religious affiliation. Since 2011, at least 31 Bahraini Shia clerics were persecuted for their political statements or religious affiliation. More than half of them are still in prison today. It is also reported that some clerics have been forced into exile, as in the case of Sheikh Hussein Najati.

Destruction of Places Linked to Shia

The rapporteurs tackled the destruction of mosques and marginalization in public space, stating that the violence against Shia Bahrainis also took the form of destruction of mosques and targeting other signs bearing witness of Shia presence in public space. Many buildings were culturally as well as religiously significant.

Certain places and areas traditionally inhabited by Shia have been renamed, erasing traces of their Shia heritage. Places of cross-cultural significance have also been interpreted with a sectarian spin, destroyed and/or renamed. It is the case of the Pearl Roundabout, associated with the pro-democracy uprising in February 2011, which has been destroyed, closed to public access and actively erased from public space and public memory. The new name chosen for the site, recalls an early Sunni figure considered as having played an important role in the schism between Sunni and Shia communities.

They further noted that the Government of Bahrain has taken several actions contrary to this promise in rebuilding the demolished mosques.

Security forces erected a fence around the site of the Barbaghi mosque and, in December 2013, individuals who attempted to pray at the location were prosecuted. It is also alleged that Bahraini security forces significantly damaged the Sa’sa’a bin Suhan Mosque in Askar, one of the oldest mosques in the country, leaving graffiti and hate messages on the walls against Shia.

They indicated that the Ministry of Culture announced its plans to transform the Al Khamis Mosque into a museum. The Al Khamis Mosque is the earliest surviving mosque in Bahrain, one of the oldest in the peninsula. This will deny Shia religious use of the building. As part of the project, it is alleged that certain engravings linking the mosque to Baharna population and Shia Islam are intentionally being removed.

Removing Baharna from Official Historical Narratives

It is also alleged that the status and legitimacy of the Baharna in the country has been further challenged in official historical narratives. Although Baharna have lived the region for centuries, giving the island its name, State-sponsored history, featured inter alia in textbooks and promotional material, reportedly marginalizes this past, focusing mainly on recent developments under Al Khalifa rule “since 1783”.

This can also be observed in the tourism industry, where no Shia historical or heritage sites are promoted to visitors.

In parallel, the Shia political opposition is presented in state controlled media as being associated with a Safavid loyalist movement. This presents the Bahraini Shia as traitors and a foreign-lead threat for the country and displaces them from shared national history.

Excluding the Shia Sect from Educational Curricula

The rapporteurs added that there is discrimination in the educational system. It was reported that public and private school and university curricula are based on the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence. The Shia Jafari tradition, followed by the majority of the Baharna population, is excluded by the Government from the curricula.

Some of the examples in the educational curricula present Shia practices as blasphemous, such as placing one’s forehead on a piece of clay during prayer, praying at mosques built around graves of highly respected figures, or participating in a temporary marriage or “Mutah”.

Past efforts to end discrimination against Shia in the education system – a motion to the parliament in 2005 and request to the Ministry of Islamic affairs from the Islamic Ulamaa Scholars Council in 2007 – have been rejected by the Government. In January 2014, the Government filed suit against the Islamic Ulamaa Scholars Council, who advocated for educational reform to include the 5 Jaafari tradition in teaching. On 29 January 2014, a Bahraini court found the Council guilty of exercising unmonitored political activities and dissolved it.

Targeting Shia in the Media

The communication highlighted targeting Shia in the media, stressing that “the Government is in a situation of monopoly of the information”. Dissenting journalist and activists have been intimidated, arrested and prosecuted; independent media outlets have been fined and forced to close for providing coverage of the Shia community or civil unrest.

Following the unrest of 2011, the media and state information services have been reportedly used to target the Shia majority. The major news outlets and state television broadcasts omit coverage of Shia news, mock Shia beliefs and engage in hate speech. Broadcasters accuse the Baharna of disloyalty, express doubts of their origins, and slander prominent Shia scholars.

The Shia religious expressions being interpreted as incitement to sectarianism. Besides, the State information services have blocked access in Bahrain to numerous websites expressing views about the Shia belief. Bahraini television dramas mainly portray Baharna characters as terrorists, villains, naïves, bad or minor characters or feature no Baharna characters at all. These practices perpetuate stereotyped images of Baharna as second-class citizens.

Discrimination against Shia in Employment and Housing

As for discrimination in employment policies and public housing, the rapporteurs highlighted that “the Shia Bahraini suffers from employment discrimination in public structures. Discrimination is especially prevalent in the Government security services, where Baharna are excluded from positions of responsibility and limited to low-ranking administrative jobs. This is reportedly the case for the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF), the National Security Apparatus (NSA) and the police forces.”

Baharna employed in these agencies typically work in low level administrative positions or as informants. Another critical sector is education: many Shia graduates qualified to work as teachers cannot find positions, while the Government has hired a large number of teachers from other countries, such as Egypt and Jordan.

Inadequate access to housing remains one of the most prominent complaints of the Shia majority. This is particularly critical in the Northern governorate, mainly inhabited by Shia citizens.

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