Bahrain's Little Known Democratic Move
A court in Bahrain issued a verdict last month that was little-noticed outside of the country. But that action and others suggest that some nations in the Middle East and Gulf region are turning their backs, slowly but steadily, on extremism.
The Bahraini court shut down the al-Wefaq Islamic Society. Some have characterized al-Wefaq as an “opposition” party in Bahrain. This is not the whole truth. Since its inception in 2001 when Bahrain was taking its first steps toward democracy, al-Wefaq has opposed the creation of a Bahrain based on the pillars of pluralism, tolerance and respect for fundamental rights and freedoms.
Al-Wefaq, in fact, is a proxy for Iran in Bahrain. It is a radical Shiite religious organization masquerading as a political party. It petulantly boycotts elections and walks out of parliament rather than engaging in the sometimes-messy process of democracy. Al-Wefaq supported the Iranian-backed sectarian uprising in Bahrain in 2011. It has been accused by the government of committing terrorist acts and spreading extremism. It answers to the Ayatollah in Iran, not the laws of Bahrain’s civil society.
As such, al-Wefaq is outside of Bahraini politics. The Bahraini ruling is comparable to the well known European Court of Human Rights judgment in Refah Partisi v. Turkey, when the human rights tribunal found that the existence of a comprehensive Islamist party was inconsistent with the foundation and sustainability of a democratic society.
Bahrain is not the only nation in the region to lose tolerance for groups that will not play by the rules of established democratic governance and instead derive their moral conception of what is good from centuries-old historic events.
The recently suspended Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had theocratic aspirations. In his brief stint in office, former President Morsi enacted several autocratic measures, which, for example, exempted his decisions from judicial supervision. The Brotherhood wanted to establish a Caliph State based on the teachings of prominent ideologues Hasan al-Banna and Sayyed Qutb. But when the army ousted Morsi, the intolerant nightmare was over.
Years earlier, the Algerian armed forces in northern Africa staged a coup against the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), after FIS’s landslide victory in the country’s 1992 general election. The group had used the elections to abolish the democratic system. It also had an open agenda to limit the rights of women and minority groups, imposing a strict moral code. But that did not stand.
These were important and illustrative steps.
For many years, Europe has enjoyed and practiced a human rights convention that is the ultimate guarantee for the maintenance of democratic governance.
But the Middle East and neighboring countries do not have a similar human rights system, complemented by a tradition of political accountability and electoral ethics. In order for countries in the Middle East to move away from extremism and bigotry and toward an inclusive form of pluralistic democracy, courts such as the one in Bahrain must take proactive steps. These actions would exclude intolerant actors who do not adhere to democratic principles.
The real decision makers in Wefaq and similar organizations are not accountable to anyone within or beyond their own organizations. The aspiration to theocracy is evident in their ideology and practice. The rhetoric and attitude of Wefaq in particular clearly makes use of democracy only as a means to advocate abolishing the democratic system. A democratic society cannot be established in Bahrain if religious clerics dominate and subvert the will of the Shiite electorate.
Bahrain has real problems. The road to democracy in the small island nation requires the exclusion of intolerant actors who would work to obstruct the social contract. The dissolution of Wefaq and its neo-medievalist agenda will lead to the rebirth of democracy in Bahrain, just as the steps taken by other countries will aid their slow turn away from extremism and toward democracy.
Future U.S. administrations need to understand this. Democracy is a value and a means to achieve further fundamental rights and freedoms. Bahrain has been a strategic ally of the U.S. for many decades. Such a relationship requires a commitment to the elimination of intolerance and support from both sides in the common fight against Islamist fundamentalism, whether it comes from a Shiite or Sunni background.
Khalifa Ali Alfadhel (LLB, LLM, PhD) is an assistant professor of international law in the University of Bahrain. He is also a board member in the Bahrain Institute for Political Development.