Bahrain Shia pray at the site of a demolished mosque, 24 December 2011
An event in Paris today, raising awareness and support for the universal right of religious freedom, has chosen an unexpected guest of honour: the King of Bahrain's wife.
La Palme De La Liberte, "The Palm of Freedom", is organised by a the French branch of a Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need. Attendees and passersby in Notre-Dame Square will see an oasis constructed from fifty palm trees, each three metres tall. Senior Catholic clerics from Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan and Hong Kong will be at the ceremony.
The choice of Princess Sabika bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa as guest of honour at an event calling for religious tolerance has concerned many human rights activists, given the Bahraini regime's record of discrimination against Shia citizens. Her presence at the event appears to be less a recognition of reality and more the outcome of an emerging public relations campaign, where the focus is placed on Bahrain's positive approach to religious minorities to distract from its treatment, claimed as oppression by many, of the religious majority.
It is unclear if the charity is fully aware of the accusations of religious discrimination against the Bahrain regime --- EA attempted to contact them yesterday, but there was no response --- from prominent institutions across a spectrum of issues. On Thursday, for example, the US State Department observed in its 2011 human rights report on Bahrain :
Discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, nationality, and sect persisted, especially against the Shia population. The government demolished multiple Shia religious sites and structures during the year.In a separate report on religious freedom, the State Department highlighted structural discrimination against Shia citizens, particularly in employment and government roles.
These reports echo the findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and those of Amnesty International in their summary of April 2012. Amnesty argues that the Bahrain "orchestrated a collective punishment policy against the Shi’a community", adding, "The government has not taken any steps to tackle discrimination or incitement to hatred, or work towards real reconciliation between the ruling family and the Shia population."
Observations by NGOs who have visited Bahrain point to the continuing discrimination against Shia citizens. Physicians for Human Rights argues that "over the past 14 months...the Government of Bahrain has denied a largely Shia segment of its population" the right to safe medical treatment, "resulting in widespread fear among many who seek [it]". Human Rights First's report cites testimony of Shia citizens who were subject to religious harassment by police during recent arbitrary arrests (where they were also subject to beatings). Such anti-Shia religious harassment was found by the BICI report to be one of "the most common techniques used on detainees," suggesting that there has been little by way of reform.
None of this, however, has stopped the Bahrain regime from claiming the exact opposite. And they have seized upon the public platform given them by the Catholic charity to push this propaganda to an overseas audience.
On Thursday, Sameera Rajab, Bahrain's new Minister of State for Information, spoke at a press conference in France supporting today's Palm of Freedom event. Rajab praised "religious freedoms" in Bahrain and claimed that " public and private jobs are accessible by all", according to Gulf News Daily, who copied almost word-for-word the report of the press conference by the regime's Bahrain News Agency.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post published an interview with Bahrain's Ambassador to the US, Houda Nonoo. Ambassador Nonoo took issue with accounts of 2011, including some of the findings of the BICI report, "All these problems are not reality", and asserted, "The Shiites are treated the same way as everyone else." The week before, Ambassador Nonoo was in Europe where, in her own words, she "[took the opportunity] to share Bahrain’s unique story of religious tolerance and religious freedom".
Certainly, Ambassador Nonoo is a far more appropriate person to claim that Bahrain is a beacon of religious tolerance than Sameera Rajab. In 2007, the US Ambassador to Bahrain, William Monroe, raised concerns about "Rajab's role in pushing a sectarian agenda" at a conference in Iraq which was strongly anti-Shia. And, as noted by Marc Owen Jones, Rajab publicly promoted anti-Shia conspiracy theories during the events of 2011.
Bahrain's alleged "religious tolerance" carries personal overtones for Ambassador Nonoo. As a member of Bahrain's tiny Jewish community --- numbering around 30 citizens --- Nonoo is doubly symbolic: she is not just from a religious minority, but is also a Jewish representative for a predominately Arab state. Accordingly, she is an ideal figure to spearhead a propaganda offensive, particularly given her closeness to PR firm Qorvis (indeed, she insisted that a representative from Qorvis was present during The Washington Post interview).
It is precisely this --- positive treatment of religious minorities in an Arab state --- Ambassador Nonoo, Sameera Rajab and Princess Sabika al-Khalifa (three women, no less) are currently selling to the West. This serves to project Bahrain as a novel place of tolerance and thus clearly not in need of significant change.
In late February, a Qorvis issued press release reported on a talk Nonoo gave to Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church, where she is "highlighted the Kingdom's superlative record in preserving religious freedom". The press release cites the following passage from her speech:
Bahrain is a free and open society. Women are fully empowered members of society. Although Bahrain is a Muslim country, religious minorities – including Christians, Jews, Hindus and Baha'i – enjoy full freedom of worship.
Today, next to mosques, Bahrain is home to 19 registered Churches, a synagogue, Hindu temples and many other places of worship.
EA readers may remember a similar line being fed to a New York Times reporter by three Western expatriate women in Bahrain:
All three said one reason they had stayed in Bahrain was its openness — a Gulf state with Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, synagogues, Hindu and Baha’i temples.
At her press conference in Paris, Rajab emphasised, "Religious minorities enjoy their full status....The recent incidents in Bahrain have in no way affected exercising religious rituals by the minorities."
Positive treatment of religious minorities should be applauded, of course. The point here is that its current promotion has another motive: diversion from the regime's mistreatment of the Shia majority.
The historic and continued discrimination against Shia citizens in Bahrain is regarded by many as institutionalised sectarianism, an opinion buttressed by the Al-Bandar report. Serious accusations have been leveled at the regime by NGOs, foreign governments, and the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, but little to nothing has been done by the regime to address political, institutional, and structural causes, enabling the views which guided such policy and practice to remain intact.
There is often a notable disconnect between the Bahrain regime's rhetoric and the reality of its actions. Indeed, it is the role of the public relations firms paid millions to market a fantasy version of the island Kingdom to cover up this disconnect. However, this latest attempt for a vision of Bahrain as a modern, reforming state is remarkable in its audacity, and --- given the events at home, rather the presentation abroad --- more than a little chilling in what it perhaps purports to achieve.