Bahrain - an islamic democratic laboratory...

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Bahrain - an islamic democratic laboratory...

When you read this article its amazing to think that this IS a democracy, there is still a lot of power in the hands of very few. The islamist religion also rules despite democracy. maybe in Islamic states democracy can only be a veneer over their religion.

In the Arab world borders are still borders. Crossing them can mean freedom. Siham drives across a long bridge in the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. The opened route changes her life. `In Bahrain I can do what I want' says the Saudi woman. Drive for example, something strictly forbidden for women in her homeland. `I speak with whomever I want, even with men who aren't my relatives. Not as a woman but as a person.

Siham lives with her daughter in the capital Manama. Her husband and son visit her frequently from Saudi Arabia, but her home is Bahrain. She works in an English language university, not in the black Abaya, the Islamic full body dress, but in a jacket and trousers. Half the female students at the University come from Saudi Arabia and talk about their return to their homeland from Bahrain - they'll have an affect believes Siham `more will come.'

The small oil-poor island nation in the Gulf lies between the two big authoritarian oil giants Saudi Arabia and Iran. The majority of the 700,000 Bahrainis are Shiites - like in Iran. The Sunnis are a minority but the royal family is Sunni - like in Saudi Arabia.

In 2001 the King broke with the country's authoritarian tradition and created democratic institutions. The citizenry approved the changes in a referendum.

Now Bahrain has a freely elected parliament, a free press, a peaceful stable society - and survives without any secret police: an enlightened parliamentary monarchy.

The Iraqis who are voting on Jan 30 seem to be living in a different age. Same for the Saudis that will in February will vote in local elections for the first time and the Egyptians who in 2005 will have the right to give their president another term to add to his 23 years in office. Bahrain has left these countries behind and turned itself into a laboratory of Arab democracy. Its political experiments show how Arabs shape their lives and country when they have the freedom to do so.

First attempt: The parliament. Between the towering glittering banking skyscrapers of Manama lies the Parliament building - simple, white and low. Some Bahrainis feel it is an appropriate building for the lower house whose 40 elected members have no more rights than the 40 members of the upper house that the King nominates - the Shura Council. Many parties boycotted the 2002 elections for that reason.

The big limousines in the parliamentary parking lot show however, that the parliamentarians are accorded significant weight by the state. That is true of all that sit in the building. Adel al-Maauda, leader of the influential islamist Asaleh party has decorated his desk with a miniature S-class Mercedes. He loves the parliament and doesn't understand the 2002 election boycott. "Nobody can create a perfect democracy overnight. The King wants to keep control over the changes."

Slowly does it in other words. In its first two years the Parliament passed fewer laws than one could have expected, especially ones written by its members. On the other hand there's been a lot of talk - open, loud, controversial. A recent session on the issue of defense provides an example: Does it strengthen the fighting strength of the Bahraini army when all soldiers are ordered to have full beards? Of course say the Islamist and conservative parties. Ridiculous! say the secular parties, including the young MP Abdulnabi Salman. Although the religious parties have a narrow majority now decision is reached.

Adel al Maauda isn't ready to accept defeat and pursues the burning clothing question with a passion. Women for example are of course allowed to drive, but they are forbidden to cover their faces while doing so: Safety over tradition. "An unacceptable limitation on women's freedom" says Adel al-Maauda. With like minded MP's he initiated a parliamentary debate on the question of whether fully covered women should be allowed to sit behind the wheel. An all-male debate btw. since all female candidates lost in the elections. In the end the King allowed the head covering in cars by decree.

Second Attempt: Free Speech "In the parliament there's a lot of talk" says journalist Mansur al Dshamri "and so far freely" A few years ago that would still have been completely unthinkable. Mansur was in exile as a member of the Bahraini liberation movement. Only when the police-state disarmed itself did he return.

His newspaper, al-Wasat would have been equally unimaginable back then. Today he runs it with two cell phones. "We have good profits, that increases our independence" says Mansur al-Dshamri.

The fresh plastered walls are decorated with a poster with the news motto: Who? What? Where? Why? The editors are young. They sit among women with headscarves, women without headscarves, men with beards, men without beards. In neighbouring countries that would be impossible, in Bahrain it is completely normal.

They don't worry about the question `What can I not?"
That's the chief editor's problem "We can write almost everything we want" says Mansur. Almost everything? The King and his uncle who happens to be the Prime Minister are off limits. Instead they criticize the government, the ministers who are replaceable. However anyone who goes after the Prime Minister can end up having problems.

The human rights activist Abdelhadi al-Chauadsha did exactly that. He openly cursed the Prime Minister and added that he prayed for his death. He ended up in jail. "Some see him as a political prisoner" says Mansur. The first since the end of the dictatorship. All the newspapers wrote about the case, there were demonstrations, protests, street blockades. "Chauadsha was expressing hate speech" says an unworried Mansur. "His arrest was appropriate." But others worry about the freedom of the young democracy. The state's reaction was simultaneously harsh and calm - separation of powers in action: The judge handed down a one year jail term, the King pardoned Chauadsha on the same day.

"A Bahraini resolution" says Mansur "Passionately lukewarm, always looking for a compromise."

Third Attempt: Women's rights. Munira al Fahroo sends her servant back to the kitchen with the tea kettle. "Tea must be burning hot" says the sociology professor. Such categorical certainty only exists in her home. In Politics things are a lot more muddy. Munira was a longtime member in the High Council for Women, that advised the King and the Parliament. A new family law was discussed.

... Quote:
"With or without democracy - we have the same problems as many Arab states. There is no minimum age for marriage, conservative parents use this to marry off their under-age daughters. Women can't pass on their citizenship to their children. As a result young divorced couples are often stateless. After a divorce a woman has no right to alimony says Munira. "We want to change all that."

Others don't. Adel al-Maauda and his religious allies in parliament are sabotaging the new family law wherever they can. The extra-parliamentary opposition is doing its part as well: A Shiite mullah is gathering signatures against the law.

"Women can't express their point of view in parliament since they aren't there. Female candidates didn't manage to get past men in the 2002 elections, others, including Munira, joined the boycott. A mistake? "Perhaps." Next time she plans to take part but she'll have to deal with competition. The Islamists also want to put up female candidates - to gather women's votes.

"They'd have a good chance of getting them" says Munira. "When I discuss Islamic societies with my students, for example Turkey, many say `They don't have a proper Islam there' Younger students are especially prone to wearing a headscarf of even the Abaya. "The reject what I teach them, they prefer to believe what the Imam says at Friday prayers. There they hear that coeducation in Bahraini schools is evil; even worse is the alcohol sold at every corner in Bahrain. The worst are the dance clubs. Our Democracy is making progress, but with it is coming Islamicization."

That's the final experiment in the Bahraini laboratory. If the citizens of other Arab countries had freedom, they would immediately stand in front of the same question: Should a modern King take power away from a conservative parliament if the Parliament stands in the path of modernization? A former student of Munira's expressed it more bluntly "So you want to stifle democracy just because you are afraid that the Islamists will strangle it?"

The answer comes from the parliament, in typical contrasting form. The Islamist Adel al-Maauda complains about modernization by decree: "That would be the end of democracy." An opponent, the secular Abdulnabi Salman understands Munira's desire. But, he says, the breakthrough into modernity can also be achieved through circuitous paths. "Let the Islamists write their laws, all they can speak of is clothing and lifestyle. They have no clue about economy and finance. The people notice that quickly and vote them out" says Abdulnabi Salman. He's got the courage for experimentation that Arab democrats very much need.
By netchicken: posted on 26-1-2005

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