Bahrain’s Shura Council on 6 December approved draft amendments to the Political Societies Law, banning active religious clerics from membership of political societies and involvement in political activity.

This is an important step in the process of separating religion from politics and ensuring that the religious platform is not exploited for political purposes. Indeed, the comments of numerous Shura Council MPs demonstrates that there is wide consensus on the benefits of keeping the domains of politics and faith separate in Bahrain.

The amended law states that any member of a religious political society cannot simultaneously be preaching in mosques or involved in religious activities, even on a voluntary basis.

The Shura Council Legal Committee has urged the authorities to go even further with legislation separating religion from politics “especially as many men of religion become involved in politics, forgetting their primary mission of preaching and religious guidance”.

The Ministry of Justice also strongly supported the proposed amendments and urged parliamentarians to support them.

Experience has demonstrated that when religion and politics are mixed, it is to the detriment of both. The experience of the Islamic Republic of Iran clearly demonstrates this, resulting in political decisions which are made on an unsound basis and allowing power to corrupt the religious authorities.

In recent rounds of elections in Bahrain, religious political societies have performed badly because many citizens see these societies as pursuing ideological agendas and not giving sufficient attention to the issues which matter to them, like housing, education, health and standards of living.

We therefore see that the majority of the Bahrain public is also concerned about the conflict of interest between religion and politics. Although most Bahrainis are devout Muslims, they are not comfortable seeing religion being exploited, or places of worship being used to propagate political messages.

Several Shura Council members expressed concern about the failure to fully implement such legislation. They noted a ban on political societies operating along sectarian lines, yet there are several political societies which operate along a clear sectarian orientation with obvious sectarian objectives.

Action should be taken against these societies – either to correct their status or for them to cease operating. In these politically-sensitive times we should heed the dangers of organizations with dangerous sectarian agendas.

The Shia cleric, MP Jawad Abbas supported the proposal and voiced his concerns about “exploitation of religious platforms”. The only MP who strongly spoke out against the proposal was Adel Al-Moawdeh from the Salafist society Al-Asalah, who criticized the way that “men of religion” was defined and said that clerics should not all be banned because of the abuses of a minority. He said that if being a preacher was a conflict of interest, then weren’t also lawyers, businessmen and others subject to the same conflict – shouldn’t everyone be banned from politics?

However, the problem is that while lawyers, teachers and doctors only speak with their own authority, preachers claim to speak with the authority of a higher power and so often are disproportionately influential with a devout public.

Religious figures in Parliament have also tended to be the most vigourous in clamping down on rights and freedoms, such as the rights of women, minorities and those who choose alternative lifestyles. For example, in recent days, religious figures have used their influence within the Council of Representatives to lobby against full implementation of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Approval of this proposal is an important step in Bahrain’s democratization process and contributes to the political system being free of undue influence from those with a sectarian and ideological agenda. 

We hope that these measures will see rapid ratification and full implementation, to ensure that the vision of those drafting this legislation is fully realized.

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