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March 13, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 466

'A Secret, Mysterious Religious Organization' – The Persecution Of Bahrain's Al-Tajdeed Society

March 13, 2023 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Bahrain | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 466

The headlines and narrative at Human Rights Watch (HRW) were typically excitable. A Middle East regime was taking action against "religious dialogue" and against individuals "merely exercising their right to free expression and belief."[1] The country in question is Bahrain and the incident was the February 28, 2023 trial of three members of the Al-Tajdeed (in Arabic "Renewal") Society, described by HRW as "a group that advocates open discussion and questioning about religion and Islamic jurisprudence." The Bahrain government saw it somewhat differently, of course, claiming that the three – Jamal al-Qassab, Redha Rajab, and Mohamed Rajab – "tackled Quranic miracles, stories of the prophets, and the Prophet's biography and exchanged ideas on them in a way that prejudiced the foundations and principles of the Islamic Religion."[2]

Bahrain, like every other country in the Middle East (and many elsewhere), closely monitors religious discourse, a delicate issue in a country where a Sunni Muslim monarchy rules over a mostly Shia Muslim population. Bahrain has also been the victim of attacks and plots by Shia extremists directed by Iran, which openly covets the island nation.

On March 7, Bahrain's public prosecutor demanded "maximum punishment" for the society members under articles 309 and 310 of the country's penal code. The trial is set to resume on March 14. The Al-Tajdeed Society issued a strong response in a public statement released in Arabic and English the same day, rejecting the accusations as a misunderstanding of the group's real positions.[3] Significantly, the thrust of the criticism was not against the government but against "closed and extremist religious parties." They compared these contemporary Muslim critics to "the scourge that gnawed the foundations of the European Church and undermined its structure during the Dark Ages and the time of the Inquisition."[4]  

The statement added that the Al-Tajdeed Cultural and Social Society has been subjected to widespread aggression and rampant campaigns for decades. These campaigns aim to defame and incite the public, encouraging moral and physical violence against the Society and its members, peaking with the commencement of the trial of Al-Tajdeed Society through a malicious lawsuit. These campaigns are administered and financed by extreme and closed religious parties that employ all their influence, domination, and human and material resources to serve said end.[5]

Lost in the Western coverage of government actions against the group is that this is very much an intra-Shia conflict, years in the making, with most of the action having, until now, very little to do with the government authorities in Manama. It has less to do with government politics than with the question of religious authority within the Bahraini Shia community. The government, which is not loath to arrest problematic Shia clerics for the sake of political stability or social peace and has often done so in the past, seems to have been dragged reluctantly into an internecine conflict.

Al-Tajdeed Cultural and Social Society, whose motto is "Towards A New Reformist Method," is legally registered, over 20 years old and has a relatively high profile on social media. The group's Facebook page is modest, with only 248 followers. On Twitter, they have 4,366 followers and over 3,600 tweets.[6] But its YouTube channel, dating back 12 years, has the largest footprint with over 400 videos although most have relatively modest viewership numbers.[7] While some of the videos are quite polished in terms of production value, many are just videotaped lectures. The most popular ones have, respectively 84,000 and 60,000 views.[8] The organization also produces a range of books and pamphlets, available both digitally and in print.[9]

The message is resolutely one of religious reform.[10] The group's mission is summed up in the sentence, "freedom of thought, reason, freedom of expression, and the pen are the gates for the hoped-for renaissance." In many ways the voices of the society resemble that of past Sunni religious reformers who have suffered jail or worse – see Egypt's Islam Al-Behairy or Sudan's Mahmud Muhammad Taha[11] – who have tried to give a liberal or modernist gloss on Islam, particularly in trying to separate what they see as the basic message of the holy book from the hidebound interpretation of sacred writ fiercely guarded by a clerical establishment. This is the essence of Al-Tajdeed Society's battle, with a fierce three-fold campaign being waged against them by "Shia Mosques and ma'atams (local Bahrain term for a hussainiyya or Shia congregation hall) in Bahrain and abroad," "social media campaigns that practice, distortion, spread lies and incitement," and essentially lawfare, using the legal system and courts as a weapon to persecute the group.

The group is not mistaken about the fierce campaign against them. One Arabic-language Facebook page active from 2010 until early 2022 named "To Expose The Misguidance Of The Deviant Ideas Of Al-Tajdeed Society" made wild, seemingly extravagant, charges against the group.[12] The underlying charge is bid'ah (literally "innovation," but meaning religious heresy) with the Facebook page in February 2022 asking "why are the owners of heresy entitled to challenge belief under the pretext of freedom, challenging the tradition of jurists and clerics? When we respond, they hide under the pretext of defending freedoms. Freedom is to respect the sanctities of others. Sickness and infringement on the beliefs of others has nothing to do with freedom of religion. For example, France and Denmark draw cartoons insulting the Prophet under the pretext that it is freedom!"

In 2010 the same page attacked the Society for trying to "as much as it can, integrate into a community that has rejected it with all determination. We can only warn our fellow believers against them and their misguided plot, recalling the efforts made by our esteemed scholars in confronting them and their misguided heresy." Both this page and other sites also implied that the group was originally somehow connected with a cult-like heterodox Shia faction believing that the long-awaited Mahdi had arrived, a charge spiced up with vague claims of suspicious foreign and Western contamination.[13]

Online critics are numerous, with one calling the Society "a secret, mysterious religious organization. How do you want us to be safe from you and to hand over our youth to you and to the liar innovator and his arrogant and more lying companion."

But others have boldly come to the Society's defense in recent days. Rabha Al-Zeera, connected with the organization, tweeted on March 9 that "I wondered as I followed the frenzied onslaught against Al-Tajdeed Society what would harm its opponents if they accepted the difference of their brothers in religion and sect and confronted us with ethical, humane, logical, civilized methods that would raise us and them?"[14]

Liberal Kuwaiti media personality and psychiatrist Dr. Suleiman al-Khadhari noted on Twitter on March 3 that "I follow with interest the battle of the Cultural Renewal Society with Shi'ite extremists in Bahrain. The battle reveals to every follower the extent of degradation that the followers of the religious trend may reach in their battle with those who disagree with them. It also reveals that religious extremism is the same, whether Shi'ite or Sunni!"[15] He called on his 46,000 followers to support and follow the Twitter account of the Al-Tajdeed Society.

Given the government's track record, it seems likely that the Al-Tajdeed Society members will be convicted and it is entirely possible that they will face hard time in prison. The Bahraini government may not care much about internal religious Shia-Shia controversy, as long as neither democracy nor Iran are involved, but like other regional regimes, it does care about social peace and managing religious turmoil. Governments in the region broadly see the safeguarding of religious orthodoxy – or at least appearing to do so – as an important tool for burnishing regime legitimacy.[16]

Leaving aside the wilder accusations about the coming of the Mahdi, the Society's Jalal Al-Qassab – one of the accused and the group's most magnetic and eloquent voice – underscored a commitment to religious reform, which is bound to get him in trouble sooner or later. In the Society's second-most-watched video, released a year ago, he muses on the question of the supernatural and on the truth of the miracles associated with the prophets that Muslims are taught to believe from their childhood until now. He wonders about how fact and fiction, stories and reality were mixed in religious tradition and how scripture has been misinterpreted, adding that "the Holy Qur'an has not yet been fully explained."[17]

Such musings have always been controversial and easily misinterpreted themselves, especially when you have ill-intentioned opponents pursuing an ideological vendetta, something which the Society does not seem to lack.

Al-Qassab and Society colleagues like Nader Rajab are certainly not backing down on social media, publicly noting that the same critics who wrap themselves in religious orthodoxy are not above committing sins of lying and defamation. Rajab added on March 8 that "an unprecedented level of hysteria and unbridled religious discourse that incites people to hate and violence against Al-Tajdeed Society and its affiliates has as its goals to bring us back to the priestly house of obedience! The campaign of incitement is so wide that it is difficult for an ordinary observer to detect it. There is a need for wise intervention to preserve civil peace and the security of citizens!"[18] While defending themselves against the charge of heresy, and hoping that the government will be lenient, the Society's leaders are fiercely fighting and striving for their beliefs to the bitter end.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI

 

[1] Hrw.org/news/2023/02/28/bahrain-3-trial-religious-dialogue, February 28, 2023.

[2] Bna.bh/en/news?cms=q8FmFJgiscL2fwIzON1%2BDnS%2FtvV6RGlXGP94QbdVfAY%3D, February 17, 2023.

[3] Tajdeed.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Al-Tajdeed-statement-Concerning-the-fierce-campaigns-of-defamation-eng.pdf, March 6, 2023.

[4] Tajdeed.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Al-Tajdeed-statement-Concerning-the-fierce-campaigns-of-defamation-eng.pdf, March 6, 2023.

[5] Tajdeed.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Al-Tajdeed-statement-Concerning-the-fierce-campaigns-of-defamation-eng.pdf, March 6, 2023.

[6] Twitter.com/Altajdeed_bh, accessed March 13, 2023.

[7] Youtube.com/@TajdeedSociety/videos, accessed March 13, 2023.

[8] Youtube.com/watch?v=6DGjzFOL2Xg, August 10, 2022.

[9] Tajdeed.org/%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%85%d9%83%d8%aa%d8%a8%d8%a9, accessed March 13, 2023.

[10] Tajdeed.org/%d9%85%d9%86-%d9%86%d8%ad%d9%86, accessed March 13, 2023.

[11] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 47 Remembering A Radical Reformer: The Legacy Of Mahmud Muhammad Taha, July 11, 2015.

[12] Facebook.com/bedaatalsafara, July 11, 2015.

[13] M-mahdi.net/sada-almahdi/articles-233, accessed March 13, 2023.

[14] Twitter.com/Rabha_Isa/status/1633855642040410113, March 9, 2023.

[15] Twitter.com/Dralkhadhari/status/1631769434405609473, March 3, 2023.

[16] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 328, A Sword Of Damocles Over Free Thought In Egypt (And Elsewhere), October 20, 2021.

[17] Youtube.com/watch?v=g2tb62Sb1HM, accessed March 13, 2023.

[18] Twitter.com/NaderRajab/status/1633399251467116545, March 8, 2023.

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