Bad faith over desecrated mosques, and the poverty of the Bassiouni report

The allegedly ‘inadvertent’ burning of copies of the Qur’an by American military personnel at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan has led to widespread protest across the world, with lives being lost in violent demonstrations.

However, anger has been less widespread over the Bahrain regime’s demolition of mosques and other Islamic religious buildings used by Bahrain’s Shia community.

This orgy of destruction and sacrilege took place between the Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain on 17th March 2011, and the 20th May. In the course of this rampage, multiple copies of the Qur’an and other religious books were variously burnt, ground into the dust, or thrown away as garbage:

The spin put out by the regime’s PR companies is that the regime has learned from its mistakes through the BICI report, and is acting on the Commission’s recommendation that the destroyed ‘religious structures’ should be rebuilt.

Consider, then, this February 8th 2012 photo showing a ‘violation’ notice slapped on the walls of the Imam Al Sadeq Mosque in Salmabad, which local people are attempting to rebuild:

According to the BICI report, this mosque was destroyed by men of the Bahrain Ministry of Interior’s Department of General Security (page 323), stating “Commission investigators were informed that General Security and/or Riot Police forbade the locals from removing the Qurans and other religious artefacts from the places of worship prior to their demolition” (325).

The report publishes the reasons cited by the regime for these demolitions, including absence of a royal deed (a Bahrain document certifying ownership of land), absence of an ownership deed, absence of a survey certificate, and absence of a building permit (325). Certain justifications were given for the destruction of other mosques, including obstruction of highways, and allegations that the buildings were used to store molotovs and organize attacks on the security forces (325-6).

Quite rightly, Bassiouni admonishes the manner and timing of the destruction of these ‘religious structures’, suggesting that the demolitions ‘could be perceived’ as ‘a collective punishment’ of the Shia community:

The Government should have realised that under the circumstances, in particular the timing, the manner in which demolitions were conducted and the fact that these were primarily Shia religious structures, the demolitions would be perceived as a collective punishment and would therefore inflame
the tension between the [Government of Bahrain] and the Shia population (329).

The style is typical of the BICI report. Weasel words “could be perceived” are used to construct a rhetoric of legal objectivity and impartiality. But, given the timings of the demolitions, how could a reasonable person “perceive” other than that these attacks were of a vindictive and collective nature?

Bassiouni raises the issue himself, saying that:

. . .legal issues in connection with the determination of whether the demolition carried out by the Government constituted abusive or vindictive acts in reliance upon legal technicalities such as domestic laws governing public land ownership, violations of administrative regulations concerning construction on public or private lands and other violations of administrative law applicable to buildings and structures (327).

Yet he shies away from bringing the full implications of these “issues” to bear on the Bahrain regime. This follows the general pattern found throughout the BICI report, wherein its marshaling of evidence is meticulous and hard-hitting, but it’s Findings, Conclusions and Recommendations are weak.

Prior to the publication of the BICI report, many commentators anticipated a whitewash, and were surprised by the extent to which the report embarrassed the regime by publishing detailed accounts of human rights and other abuses that contradicted the ‘official’ version of events pumped out by the regime during the spring and summer of 2011.

Perhaps surprise as to how “hard-hitting” the BICI report is has blinded commentators to the puny and half-hearted nature of its findings and recommendations, for it is these that reveal the extent to which the Commission was compromised by its being established by royal decree.

More disturbing still is the extent to which the report itself is hung up on “legal technicalities” while being blind to the cultural, social and political contexts in which the laws of Bahrain are made, applied and enforced.

As Professor Charles Tripp pointed out at a recent talk on resistance and the Arab Spring at the London School of Economics, regimes across the Arabic-speaking Middle East, monarchies and republics, are distinguished by a systematic appropriation of public and social resources and the systematic application of coercive power. An important part of this is the way dictatorships use “the arbitrary as a systematic way of exercising power”.

This means that laws and regulations, for example planning regulations, are deliberately applied in an uneven manner as a strategy for maintaining power. Bureaucratic obstacles are placed in the way of individuals or organizations engaged in activities that the regime might not approve but are not actually illegal.

Shia communities wishing to build or extend a mosque in Bahrain perhaps provide a good example of this arbitrary use of power. A “blind eye” is turned (sometimes with, sometimes without the expectation that a bribe will be paid) to the “legal technicalities” as a form of favour, and the activity is allowed to go ahead.

However, this “favour” can be revoked at any given time should those to whom the favour has been done transgress the favour-giver’s expectations of their behaviour, by, for instance, having the temerity to engage in demonstrations demanding equality of opportunity and civil rights.

What else is Bassiouni describing in the following passage other than the use of the arbitrary as a tool in the systematic use of coercive power?:

“The action by the GoB with respect to 28 of the 30 places of worship was undertaken after the issuance of Council of Ministers’ Decree No. 2105-05 of 2011. All the orders issued by municipalities in connection with the demolition of the religious structures described in this Chapter were issued for Art 24: if the concerned parties do not adhere to the decision calling for the rectification, completion or demolition of the Building Regulation Law violation within the required time limit by the municipality, the municipality may remove the cause of the violation at their expense. No distinction was made by the [Planning Ministry] between structures constructed on private as opposed to public land, and demolition was conducted without regard to authorisations for construction by the Jaafari Waqf. In accordance with applicable administrative law, notice should have been given requesting that cause be shown why the given structure should not be demolished, followed by an administrative hearing to allow a defence to be presented. This procedure was not followed. Instead, the order was deemed applicable immediately without providing an opportunity for those who opposed the demolition to be heard before an administrative body and eventually before the judiciary (328-329).

One could perhaps argue from an anthropological point of view that such arbitrariness provides an example of a pre-modern system of exchange based on patronage and favours functioning under the veneer of a modern legal system. One could just as easily argue that this is an example of a dictatorship or near-dictatorship using the country’s legal system to facilitate and kind of extortion racket.

Either way, Bassiouni seems surprisingly blind to the importance of the cultural, social and political context of the laws he seeks to interpret. Moreover, he is blind to the crisis of legitimacy that lies at the heart of the Bahrain crisis: a very substantial percentage of the population of Bahrain are all too aware of how the use of the arbitrary constitutes an abuse of the law and an abuse of power; this is a prime example of what Bahrainis are protesting about, but blind to the significance of this context, Bassiouni, supposedly an international rights lawyer of the first rank, plods through the “Applicable Law” like a moonlighting third-rate law student.

He further compounds his blinkeredness by saying that the Government of Bahrain “relied on the National Safety Law” (328) and “has acted pursuant to National Safety Laws”, pretending that legitimacy of these laws is not in dispute when a very substantial part of the population of Bahrain has taken to the streets to contest their legitimacy and the legitimacy of the government that imposed them.

But the willful blindness to context doesn’t stop here. What about the burning of Qur’ans and the Shia Muslim communities’ feelings of outrage at this desecration and the culture of impunity behind it? What about the historical status of some of the buildings that were destroyed? What about the community and emotional attachment to these buildings, and people’s feelings of hurt and humiliation at their destruction?

A half-decent lawyer would relate these contextual factors to the “Applicable Law” in his Findings, Conclusions, and Recommendations, yet as we find throughout the BICI report, little attempt has been made to do so. A leading lawyer, Bassiouni is obviously capable of doing this, but it’s not what his paymaster ordered. Instead we have plodding, dry pedantry.

Such is the intellectual poverty of the BICI report: only a commission appointed by royal decree could be so willing blind to context. An truly independent, internationally-supervised commission would have looked at things very differently, but this is precisely what King Hamad didn’t want. So much for his “unprecedented bravery” (Iain Lindsay) in commissioning the Commission.

Which brings us back to the “violation” notice slapped on the Al Imam Al Sadeq Mosque as the community attempt to rebuild it. Bassiouni’s Recommendations are as follows:

1335. On 22 May 2011, HM King Hamad announced that new Shia places of worship would be built. The statement was made shortly after several religious structures were demolished by the GoB.

1336. The Commission recommends a follow up on the King’s statement to the effect that the GoB will consider rebuilding, at its expense, some of the demolished religious structures in accordance with administrative regulations. The Commission welcomes the GoB addressing this question at the earliest
possible time (330)

Regarding 1335, I’m not sure how King Hamad’s announcement constitutes a “recommendation”, as for 1336, just look at all those weasel words “consider”, “some”, “in accordance with regulations”, regulations which, as we have seen, are deliberately applied in an arbitrary manner as a means of forcing the subject population into obedience. Hence the “violation notice”.

Three days before the “violation” notice was served, a photograph circulated on the social media of an “Asian” woman who had donated to the rebuilding of the mosque helping with its reconstruction. Going against the regime’s “Asian expats victimised by Shia extremists” narrative, this couldn’t go unpunished. The “violation” notice was the predictable response to this unauthorized behaviour.

The regime’s PR advocates would have the world believe that Hamad is a man of courage who in an unprecendented move hired a world class human rights lawyer to show him where his government went wrong and is acting to correct past mistakes.

The “violation” notice shows what bunk this is. The same old practices are taking place with no hint of real reform, and the BICI report is a flawed document of deep intellectual poverty.

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