Undoubtedly, one of the ways in which Bahrain has changed in recent years is that we risk becoming a less tolerant and progressive society.
In the Bahrain we grew up in Sunnis and Shia intermarried; people of different political backgrounds socialized together and respected each other’s viewpoint. Sunnis and Shia attended each other’s religious festivals and we were brought up to believe that our differences enriched our society.
Bahrainis in 2001 voted in large numbers for King Hamad’s National Action Charter because they agreed with his vision for a nation which protected and celebrated diversity, enshrined civil rights and empowered women.
However, since 2011 many of the voices which have become most audible represent hardline and inflexible views that are unrepresentative of the Bahraini society which we grew up with.
If we look at the opposition, it becomes more difficult by the day to notice moderate and conciliatory voices. It is the hardliners and extremists who seem to be driving the agenda, edging towards greater militancy.
When we look at those groupings opposing the opposition, we also notice an increasingly hardline stance; figures whose ideology doesn’t resemble the tolerant, liberal and Bahrain we know and love.
From within both these groupings, the ugly phenomenon of sectarianism has raised its head: It is one thing to attack your political opponents; it is another to brand all Shia or Sunnis as “traitors”.
A recent Incitement Speech Study conducted in Bahrain traced the increasing abuses of the pulpit to spread hate speech, unacceptable political views and extremist ideologies. It is welcome to see the authorities taking a stand against sectarian incitement in a balanced and proportionate manner.
One reason for the emergence of hardline voices is that mainstream figures were silenced during the unrest. Those calling for reconciliation and dialogue were frequently attacked by figures on both sides; and it became very difficult to express an opinion without being forced to take sides.
However, this polarization of society has allowed hardliners to control the agenda. Within the opposition, it seems that those who want to boycott Parliament and shun Dialogue are dominant; and when Bahrain’s political leadership took the initiative in trying to revive the National Dialogue earlier in the year, many loyalist voices attacked them, under the slogan “no dialogue with terrorists”.
With the parliamentary elections coming up, we hope that moderate and non-sectarian voices can once again reassert themselves to ensure that our coming Parliament has a progressive and tolerant face.
From the 2002 through to the 2010 elections the Sunni Islamist groupings gradually lost a significant share of the vote. This was interpreted by many to mean that Bahrain’s Sunnis were turning towards independent figures advocating policies for improving public well-being and that people were moving away from sectarian affiliations as the political process developed.
With Islamic parties having been very visible and assertive in attacking the opposition, we may see a swing back in Sunni support for those groups which have been outspoken. However, these Islamic parties will also bring with them Islamic social agendas which may impact on Bahrain’s cultural diversity.
Many women candidates have announced that they will be standing for the parliamentary elections. This reflects the forward-looking and inclusive society that we should encourage; with many women already holding key positions in politics, society and business.
In a country where there are already around 20 churches and there are plans in place for building the largest church in Arabia; religious diversity is enshrined in law. In many ways Bahrain enjoys one of the most open, progressive and family-friendly societies in the Gulf region, which is why Bahrain is a popular tourist destination and so many non-Bahrainis choose to take up residency with their families.
Bahrain’s Spring of Culture displays the best aspects of local and global culture and this event has thrived despite the efforts of a minority of hardliners who consider any such events to be “un-Islamic”.
Bahrain has much to be proud of and we should fight to preserve this. The last four years have been a difficult period but mainstream and moderate Bahrainis should stand up and be counted for helping reunite our society and protecting our tolerant heritage.