Bahraini Newspaper Editor: "Who Appointed You as Guardians of the People?"

Protests against restriction of freedom of expression have recently emerged in Bahrain, following a dance performance titled Majnoun Lilah that was held as part of the country’s annual Spring Cultural Festival. Islamist circles in Bahrain claimed that the dance contained “immoral acts” that they said were against religion, against morality, and against societal custom. As a result, the Bahraini parliament decided by a majority vote to establish a committee to investigate the matter.

Islamic MP Abd Al-Halim Murad explained the reasons for the Islamist opposition to the dance performance: “What happened at some of the activities of the Spring Cultural Festival was not part of [our] culture!… The MPs saw the scenes in which the male and female dancers were in perverted positions. It is absolutely impossible to remain silent about this – especially when the scenes were presented publicly, without shame!… Our country is Bahrain, not France or America! Bahrain is a Muslim country, and its identity is Islamic and Arab; its principles are Islamic, and its character is Islamic…” [1]

The show’s creators, Bahraini poet Qassem Haddad and Lebanese artist Marcel Khalifa, rejected the Islamist criticism. In a joint communiqué, they said that what the Islamist circles were doing was a kind of “terrorism [against] forms of thought and culture, and repression of any creative effort.” Haddad and Khalifa said that the position of the Islamist MPs was “not only an insult to free individuals who seek only knowledge and enjoyment, but also an insult to any civilized country that belongs to the 21st century… Is it appropriate that the people of a civilized country are represented by MPs who fantasize about taking over the regime – which, [if they did, would become] a regime of prohibition, repression, and expropriation?” [2]

With the show’s creators stood some 50 civil organizations, which issued a communiqué condemning the parliament’s decision to set up an investigative committee. They accused political circles in the Bahraini parliament of “strangling the atmosphere of freedom and forcing its dominion on the choices of the citizens.”

Bahrain‘s media joined in the protest against the restriction of freedom of expression and freedom of creativity in the country. In addition, criticism appeared also in the press of other Gulf countries. Newspaper editors and columnists attacked the Islamist circles for their interference in the lives of Bahrain‘s citizens, and called on them to stop the religious coercion and the damage to individual rights.

The following are excerpts from the Bahraini and Gulf press:

In an article titled “Who Appointed You as Guardians of the People?” the editor-in-chief of the Bahraini daily Akhbar Al-Khaleej, Anwar Abd Al-Rahman, criticized the MPs and members of religious groups who were trying to force their view on all Bahraini citizens: “…Since the 1930s, Bahraini society has been a model looked to by all the peoples of the region. [Bahrainis were known as] a respectable people that knows its path from the outset – a path of culture and respect for the other, a path of tolerance and love… Unfortunately, however, we are [currently] witnessing a dangerous turning point, [one that is] counter to the political openness and the era of freedoms of modern Bahrain.

“[This is happening] because of… groups that are insisting on controlling others and on imposing their views on them. Furthermore, [these groups] are aspiring to abolish the views of the citizens [who think differently from them]. Unfortunately, these groups are choosing for all people what they [should] read or what they [should] watch, and even what they [should] eat and wear!

“These groups have forgotten… that Bahrain heads the [Arab] countries in terms of literacy, and has the highest percentage of educated individuals, physicians, engineers, lawyers, computer experts, [university] lecturers, university graduates, and literate people in general – and the attempt to abolish the views of all these [people] is undoubtedly an ignominious crime…

“Honorable MPs: Ask yourselves, and ask all the countries of the world, from East to West, what their parliaments do. The answer will necessarily be the opposite of what you are doing and what you are wasting your time on. Isn’t it your obligation to teach the people how to actualize democracy, instead of being the ones to disparage and destroy it?

“Only dictatorial countries tell their people what to read, what to watch, what to eat, and what to drink. It will be a disgrace to you if you permit our democracy to become a ‘thought dictatorship,’ and to brainwash [the citizens]…

“To the members of the [religious] groups, and to those who purport to protect our religion, [we say]: The peoples who advanced, and who reached high levels of progress, are the peoples who respected the individual’s right to freedom of thought, without interference or coercion by anyone – whether political groups, theocratic elements or even official [elements]. If you insist on being the guardians of the people, and on representing it in every matter, even in freedom of thought and belief, you will undoubtedly cast the people into a state of unconsciousness and coma, from which it will never awaken!” [3]

The Country Must Protect Individual Freedoms

In an article titled “Individual Freedoms Are Not Goods [For Sale],” Bahraini columnist Abdallah Al-Ayyoubi called for protecting individual rights from extremist religious groups:

“…It was most important that the Crown Prince [of Bahrain, who expressed support for the festival participants] made his statements at this time, when the culture is being subjected to a dark reactionary attack – [an attack] whose perpetrators are hiding behind the guise of religion and of [preserving] morality, in order to bury creative freedom and strangle freedom of speech that expresses the problems of the homeland and of the individual, and is committed to them…

“The Crown Prince did well to support the participants in the Spring Cultural [Festival] and to express his concern over behaviors threatening to individual freedoms. Under these circumstances, when the attack on every one of the displays of modernization and civilized [culture] is increasing, we need stands of support like those of the Crown Prince, so that everyone will know that Bahrain is not a Taliban country, nor a country that belongs [exclusively to a certain] group, and that an individual has rights that are anchored in the constitution, and that must be respected…

“These freedoms must be safe, and absolutely protected from religious legal interpretation or fatwas released by this or that sheikh. Without this freedom we cannot talk of the future.

“If the various organizations of civil society stood powerfully alongside the Spring Cultural [Festival] and defended the individual’s right to [artistic] creativity – thereby giving direct and explicit support to these freedoms – then [all the more so] must the state take a clearer position in defending individual and public freedoms… We will continue to oppose all harm to the freedoms of the individual that are anchored in the constitution, and no group has a right to teach us morality or to set itself up as a guardian over others in the name of religion and virtue.

“Anyone who is following the situation in Bahrain sees that there is a regression in the level of public freedoms – [a regression] that negatively affects [the situation] of individual freedoms. The stems not only from the attack being waged by the takeover groups and the extremist religious [groups], but also from the state’s preferential [treatment] of these groups in many areas – until it seemed to these groups that people’s freedoms and interests had become a game in their hands…” [4]

Islam is Life, Love, and Respect for Individual Rights

In an article in the Qatari daily Al-Raya, Bahrain Cultural Dialogue Center Chairman Dhiya Al-Mousawi called to free young Muslims from the bonds of the religious groups, and to permit them to enjoy life:

“I do not know why every time I see a young Muslim man I feel sorrow, because I feel that they [i.e. young Muslim men] have a mistaken understanding of the religion. Islam is not a narrow alley, and it is not a dank, repugnant dungeon.

“Islam is life, love, and respect for individual rights… Islam means love and beauty, humanity and openness to life. It does not mean rage and hatred of the world, misery, and presenting yourself as pitiable…

“We must open up our Muslim youth to the beautiful life, to art that refines the soul, to music that arouses their humanity and that causes their emotions to break forth – [emotions] repressed by the pains of their history and by mental complexes caused by [Islamist] groups and their contradictions… This young man must know that Allah created him so that he may live, rejoice, be energetic, and carry out activities of a beautiful life, without this being against Islam…

“I know that some of the Islamic groups in the Arab world forbid young people aged 20 to go to cafes, to the beach, or to sports stadiums, claiming that they fear that the young people will be exposed to negative influences… Our young people are trapped in the dungeons of political parties; they cannot express their views and they cannot even maintain [normal] personal relationships with relatives and friends, even from childhood, because they are not from the same party… They must not love, they must not make friends with anyone except with [those who are in] the same political party…

“Unfortunately, Islam has wrongly explained to the Muslim that the life of this world is a prison for the believer and Paradise for the non-believer. That is, he must not laugh and amuse himself with friends. He must not wear fancy clothes or cologne, and he is trapped in the formalism [of Muslim religious law]… In fact, the Muslim does not know the value of life, to the extent that he [is incapable of] distinguishing between a kiss and a bomb, a flower and a bullet, the sea and a dungeon, a waterfall and an electric pole.

“I say to our [extremist] groups and their preachers – Have mercy on these young people – after all, Allah spoke of the fires of Hell, but He also spoke of the fruits of Paradise…” [5]

*I. Rapoport is a research fellow at MEMRI.

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