by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M. , Natalie Pugh
October 3, 2017
Earlier this month, religious leaders of various faiths met at the Beverley Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles to celebrate the newly signed Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration—a notable document because it is a proclamation supporting some degree of religious freedom sponsored and backed by a majority Muslim country.
While the majority of Bahrain’s population is Shia Muslim, most of its government positions are held by Sunni Muslims. In addition, there are small numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Jews all living in the country. Against this multi-religious backdrop, the religious freedom declaration was backed and signed by the King of Bahrain.
What did the declaration get right?
This document makes a lot of statements worth celebrating. First of all, it declares that “religious faith and expression are inalienable rights” which provides the foundation for promoting religious freedom. In Part II, it rejects forced observance of a religion and claims that every person has the right to practice their religion as long as they do not harm any others in the process. Part III focuses more on the harm that has been done in the name of religion and condemns all terrorist activities such as “the sowing of terror, the encouragement of extremism and radicalization, suicide bombing, promotion of sexual slavery, and the abuse of women and children.” The religious rights and responsibilities established in Part IV state that individuals have a right to practice their religion and the government has a responsibility to protect citizens of all religions. Overall, these are all commendable statements that seem to show a genuine interest in protecting religious freedom.
Where did it fall short?
While the document expressly states that it does not condone compelled religion, it still does not allow Muslims the freedom to convert away from their religion, as it is illegal to proselytize Muslims in Bahrain. While Part II recognizes the freedom to choose one’s faith, this is conditioned on submitting to the laws of the land. What happens when the laws of the land prohibit conversion, such as in the case of Bahrain and many other nations with Islamic teaching reflected in their laws? These Muslims still don’t have religious freedom in spite of this declaration, and neither do non-Muslims have the freedom to share their faith with Muslims.
Other portions of the declaration are meandering and vague. For instance, while the goal of Section III is admirable and the specific activities listed are reprehensible, this section’s condemnation of certain activities does not have a fixed and clear target. Instead, the list is prefixed with the statement: “Any act that is found morally repugnant by the vast majority of mankind and is insulting to our collective moral conscience cannot be part of God’s revealed will.” Yet religious expression should not be censored by the fickle morality of the majority.
Another statement of concern is the admonition that the clergy teach that “extremism is not holier than moderation.” Extremism and radicalism have become synonymous with terrorism and therefore are evil words in modern rhetoric. But the words themselves need some context to have any meaning. In some ways, being “extreme” is good. For example, before he gathered many supporters, William Wilberforce was quite “extreme” in his campaign to abolish slavery. He might have been termed “extreme,” but it it was a noble cause motivated by his Christian faith. It didn’t matter that not many were on his side. Spiritually speaking, being extreme is a fundamental part of being a Christian. We are called to be on fire for Christ; being lukewarm or moderate is not enough (Revelations 3:15-16). What is extreme to one is moderate to another, and vice versa. “Extreme” may not always correspond to “evil,” and the declaration needs more context to make sense of this point.
The Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration is only a statement of intent. Even though it was signed by the king, it is not a legally binding document. Yet it is a good start. Later this year, a team of lawyers will meet to work on turning the declaration into actual laws. Hopefully, the laws they write will fix some of the ambiguity and flaws in the original declaration. If that happens, we may see a platform which could serve as a source for some reform on religious freedom within the Islamic world. Until then, all we can do is hope and pray.
Travis Weber is the Director of FRC’s Center for Religious Liberty. Natalie Pugh is an intern at FRC.