“Ignorance is the enemy of peace. It is, therefore, our duty to learn, to share, and to live together, by the tenets of faith in the spirit of mutual respect and love.” – His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
The article appearing in the Washington Times, written by the King of Bahrain, sets out a fresh and new vision which we are not accustomed to hearing in today’s Middle East.
From the outset, the King of Bahrain states: “Our noble ancestors began this Bahraini tradition of churches, synagogues and temples being built next to our mosques, so there is no ignorance about others’ religious rites or practices. We all live together in peaceful coexistence in the spirit of mutual respect and love, and we believe it is our duty to share this with the world. We believe ‘ignorance is the enemy of peace,’ and that true faith illuminates our path to peace.”
The King stressed the importance of the recent “Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration”. This Declaration is a remarkable document, affirming the importance of a tolerant, diverse and multicultural society. This vision was drafted in consultation with Jewish and Christian scholars, along with Shia and Sunni clerics.
At the heart of this Declaration is the affirmation of freedom of religion: “God instructs us to exercise the divine gift of freedom of choice, and therefore we declare that compelled religion cannot bring a person into a meaningful relationship with God”.
The Western world was always a beacon for coexistence, religious tolerance and democracy. This is more than ever being called into question as new varieties of intolerance, religious hatred and bigotry are in the ascendant.
We live today in a less tolerant world with fewer certainties and a more fragile international system which fails to offer the guarantees and protections to vulnerable minorities and fragile nations which it sought to provide in the past. The Arab world likewise is witnessing renewed waves of sectarian hatred and senseless violence.
We are thus in need of a new progressive social model for how sects, ethnicities and minorities can coexist in peace and harmony.
None of this is radically new for Bahrain. A visitor to Manama will come across diverse places of worship – synagogues, churches, mosques, Hindu temples and other religious centres for all the substantive communities found in the Kingdom.
Having had Jewish ambassadors and parliamentary deputies, for most Bahrainis it is normal to live shoulder-to-shoulder with other faiths. Over the last couple of years, when Daesh targeted Shia mosques in other GCC states, Bahraini Sunnis and Shia responded by holding joint prayers in each other’s mosques.
This is not to claim that sectarian tensions don’t exist, but King Hamad and his senior officials have always taken the lead in setting the example that all forms of discrimination and intolerance are unacceptable. As a result, examples of sectarian hate speech in the social media and from the pulpit (against both Shia and Sunnis) have been dealt with firmly and decisively.
As the Bahrain Declaration affirms: “It is the responsibility of governments to respect and protect equally, both religious minorities and majorities. Neither should be subjected to threats, shame or incitement nor should they be discriminated against as a result of their faith.”
Along with this respect for diversity in religion, there is an emphasis on the need to separate the domains of religion and politics. This is in order to protect religion from the corrupting effect of politics, and to protect politics from the undue influence of theologians. This principle was most recently manifested in 2016 laws preventing the participation of serving clerics in the political process.
In conclusion, we have much to learn from the sentiments of Bahrain’s King about how our societies are enriched by diversity and peaceful coexistence:
“The Kingdom of Bahrain is stronger because of our diversity, and I believe our world will be more secure and more prosperous when we learn to recognize the beauty of these differences and how they can teach us many lessons, including the lesson of religious tolerance. Religious freedom should not be viewed as a problem but rather a very real solution to many of our world’s biggest challenges and especially terrorism, which knows no religion and threatens all peace-loving people. We firmly believe this evil can only be eradicated by the power of true faith and love.”