Can Bahrain Lead the Arab World in Religious Tolerance and Democratic Reform?

Bahraini Minister of Justice and Islamic affairs Khalid Bin Ali Bin Abdulla Al Khalifa

Bahraini Minister of Justice and Islamic affairs Khalid Bin Ali Bin Abdulla Al Khalifa

Speaking with the Bahraini Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs His Excellency Sheikh  Khalid Bin Ali Bin Abdulla Al Khalifa in Manama recently during the conference on “Dialogue between Civilizations and Cultures” was to say the least full of surprises.

For one thing, one would not expect a high-level Arab official to be so candid and vibrantly open-minded to discuss his country’s problems, the future of freedom and democracy in his country, and to address charges of  human rights abuses without reservation or verbal gymnastics typical of Arab politicians.

This was in itself a major development and a breath of fresh air in the region and indeed for the future of freedom of press. According to Mr. Al Khalifa, a forty-four-year-old British educated former prosecutor and judge, Bahrain already has an open and vibrant society and it is working to develop system of government accountability which would eventually evolve to an open democracy.

Bahrain is the smallest Arab Island country and is roughly three times the size of Washington D.C. It has a highly urbanized and developed population of about 1.5 million people and is the only Arab Gulf state that has a post-oil economy that depends on the financial sector and tourism.

The four-day conference intends to foster more dialogue between all major religious groups and develop a humanitarian bond among nations that transcends political and economic interests. Attendants included Arab Jewish Rabbis, Orthodox and Catholic bishops, Indian Hindu and Christian religious leaders, and Muslim Shia and Sunni religious leaders.

Mr. Al Khalifa told me in between slowly sipping his hot cappuccino and talking about his two bright young children ages 9 and 11 that “Bahrain is on the right road to democracy.” As to what kind of democracy, he insisted that he does not want to see a ready-made imported democracy or a “democracy that comes through violent revolutions” a reference to the violent upheavals that took place in Arab countries including Bahrain in 2011. “What we want,” he added “is a democracy that evolves from our own experiences.”

But for the critics of his government especially its behavior against streets protests which came mainly from the Shia citizens, Mr. Al Khalifa’s sunny outlook on the future does not correspond with their own. Some leaders within the Shia community allege that their community is marginalized and discriminated against by the government.

Bahrain was the only Arab Gulf state to face streets protests during the so-called “Arab Spring,” which many thought would usher in a new dawn of freedom and democracy.  The Bahraini government, thus, stood accused in the eyes of many in the international community and human rights organizations of using excessive force, torture and human rights violations.

Mr. Al Khalifa pointed out two major developments in the country that ushered its new modern era. One is when King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa succeeded his late father to the throne in 1999 and the second was when the King decided in 2001 to bring the  country to  constitutional rule with a National Action Charter. That brought the country the rule of law and opened it to local political parties to represent its diverse religious and ethnic communities.

Mr. Al Khalifa, who spoke perfect English with a slight British accent, said his country faced political problems because, in his view, the opposition wanted not just fair participation within the political process and political representation in the Parliament, which they already had through parliamentary elections, but rather thinking that they can ride the wave of the “Arab Spring” and perhaps topple the monarchy altogether.

Al Khalifa pointed out that Bahrain already has an open society. Christians, Jews, Shia and Sunni Muslims can worship freely and have political and constitutional rights.  This is especially true after reforming the penal code and changing the definition of torture thus making government actions more accountable to inquiry and lifting many of the legal restrictions that faced the opposition and the public  that were present during the 1990s.

So, the violent demonstrations that took place in 2011 were unjustified from the point of view of the government and might have been the work of agitators who also have been supported by Iran according to many Arab and Bahraini analysts and politicians.

International human rights organizations, however, reported that repression, human rights violations and tortures were endemic throughout the nineties. But since 1999, Amnesty international noted that such abuses decreased markedly ever since King Hamad took over the throne in 1999.

But from the perspective of Mr. Al Khalifa, the international human rights groups are not fully taking into account the government side of the story which undermined the balance and fairness of their reports.

He pointed out that the government, in accordance with the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry ( BICI),which was established to address the allegations of human rights violations and offer recommendations to the government to implement, established political and legal reform to address those charges and opened up its legal system to victims of government abuses to file legal claims against the government to be compensated for those abuses. He said, “The government compensated the families of the dead or wounded victims and encouraged others to come forward address their claims against the government. “We also have established an accountability system for the police force to keep it from abusing any citizen or using un-necessary or excessive force.”

He also added, “We don’t have a repressive system of government, our citizens don’t have to pay taxes, the government subsidizes their health care, education, residence, electricity and they can express their opinions and criticize the actions of the government within the framework of the law.”

That said, however, he added that “we will not allow for cracks in our society to spread and get bigger and thus undermine the stability of our country and its citizens. Therefore, we will take actions against those who try to undermine the rule of law and use violence to achieve their goals.”

Pro-Iranian Arabic language media accused Bahrain of bringing Saudi Arabian and Jordanian police armed forces into the Kingdom which amounted to an “occupation of the country.” In 2011, about one thousand Saudi and other Gulf States soldiers and police officers entered Bahrain to secure its borders. Although the opposition as well as Iran saw it as an “occupation,” Mr. Al Khalifa said the Bahraini government was within its legal boundaries because, under the mutual defense treaty between the Gulf Cooperation Council, Bahrain or any other member state can call other states for its defense if it comes under threat.” He also said to me that there are no Jordanian troops or police in Bahrain that perform police duties in the country.  “What we have is Jordanian police trainers, and this has always been the case for decades with Jordan.”

Ali Younes is the Editor of the Arab Daily News. He can be reached at: