Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Free Expression under Attack in Bahrain

The Perian Gulf city state of Bahrain has traditionally been an oasis of relative liberalism, especially compared with neighboring Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, Islamist members of Bahrain's elected parliament are now seeking to change this situation:

Bahraini liberals are scrambling to defend freedom of expression after the Islamist-dominated parliament voted to investigate a cultural festival for alleged breach of Muslim morality.

"This is a dangerous precedent that will take us back to the Middle Ages and the Inquisition," said theater director Khaled Al Roueie. "We're at the point of resorting to the government to protect us from the people's representatives."

Sunni and Shiite Islamists who control three-quarters of the 40 seats in parliament voted last week in favor of a motion to set up a commission of inquiry into the "Spring of Culture" festival, which runs in the small Gulf kingdom until mid-April.

Twenty-nine MPs backed the motion, charging that the festival, which is a joint venture between the government and private firms, violates Islamic morals.

They singled out a musical on a love story written by Bahraini poet Qassem Haddad, with a score from Lebanese composer Marcel Khalifeh.

To their credit, Bahraini writers and intellectuals are speaking out against this thoroughly ridiculous move:

"We have resolved to wage a battle to defend freedom of expression and creativity, and we will mobilize all intellectuals and artists to confront this precedent, which risks undermining our liberties," said Ibrahim Bu Hindi, who heads an authors' association.

The appointed upper house of parliament "must initiate a debate with the government with a view to reaching an agreement on safeguarding freedom of creativity and belief," he said.

Businessman and political activist Adel Fakhro said that parliament's unprecedented move to "put culture on trial" could usher in "a very dangerous situation in which personal freedoms are subject to the approval of parliamentary committees."

The Bahraini press has joined the fray, running editorials and interviews with thinkers and artists describing parliament's move as an attempt to "gag" citizens.

"Sirs, who appointed you guardians of the people?" Akhbar Al Khaleej editor Anwar Abdel Rahman asked Islamist lawmakers in a leader comment Saturday.


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