Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bahrain, Islam, and Life in the Gulf - one man's view

I wish to record here over the next few posts some thoughts about my last nearly two months living in the Kingdom of Bahrain, life in a Muslim country, and life in the Persian (or, as is vogue now on the west side, "Arabian") Gulf. Please excuse the stream-of-conciousness form . . . if I have time I will clean things up and try to focus them, but I worry about the perishability of my observations.

It is very difficult for a non-muslim to interpenetrate Islam as a community, a way of life, a basis for government, and a religion sufficient to make any definitive judgments about its character and effects. Much as I could perhaps, as a Protestant (aside: which I once was - now I am spending time in my own spiritual wilderness awaiting the promised land), characterize Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism by observations about external actions and observance of ritual, yet not really grasp the heart of ancient Christianity, I fear to make the same mistake with Islam, and its adherents and subjects.

Moreover, it is manifest that the historical and cultural makeup of Bahrain, when melded with its relationship to Islam, creates a particular millieu that cannot be addressed universally to Islam - certainly not fully to the expression of Islam in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Indonesia, nor even with the expression of Islam within the much stricter, though closely akin society of nearby Saudi Arabia although one could make better generalizations in this arena. I can only speak to what I have observed in Bahrain. With these cautionary concerns in mind, let me begin to share these thoughts.

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Bahrain, like the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman) is essentially an Islamic monarchy (with allowances that the UAE are a confederation of Emirs' holdings; Qatar is ruled by a Sheik, etc. - i.e., these are essentially monarchial in type if not actual name). Bahrain is basically quite conservative when compared to the Levantine Arab nations (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon) and Egypt. While Shari'a law does not fully prevail in Bahrain (although Shari'a courts do operate in a sphere of legitimacy), other religious adherents are basically free to practice their faiths (but not prosyletize), and there are nods toward parliamentary processes, the land is firmly under the rule of the Al-Khalifa family, as represented by King Hamad, his son the Crown Prince, and His Highness the Prime Minister, and it is fundamentally an Islamic state.

Firmly - but not unkindly - under the rule of the Al-Khalifa's. I would venture to argue that it is a benevolent rule, all-in-all. Bahrain would be very much worse off without King Hamad.

The Al-Khalifa's share some tribal connections with the Al-Thani family that rules Qatar, and they are staunchly Sunni Muslim. In the late 1700's, the Al-Khalifa's succeeded in pushing the Persians and the Al-Thani out of Bahrain and setting up their own Sheikdom which has lasted to this day (the use of the term 'King' was adopted by the current ruler). 75% of the citizen-population of Bahrain is said to be Shi'a Muslim, and these generally have less power in the political sphere. In the mid-90's, an Iranian sponsored Shi'a coup attempt was put down, but King Hamad launched upon some reforms and measures designed to appease his people and there has been a basic peace since then.

Among the Shi'a are many who are staunch supporters of Hizb Allah. Al-Manar TV, the Hizb Allah station (banned in the U.S. and the station itself branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. and other nations) is a readily available broadcast in Bahrain. Certain villages are heavily marked by Hizb Allah flags, and as a U.S. citizen, it is not advisable to visit (nor are you generally welcome in some of them). One might drive down the road and see a Lexus with a baby sun screen picture of Nasrallah, or other Hizb Allah messages and pictures on the car or in the windows. Nevertheless, it's probably more dangerous to be the wrong sort of person in East L.A. or parts of Washington D.C. than anywhere in Bahrain. Again, the firm but benevolent ruler's hand may be seen in this, as well as the generally ordered behavior of the Islamic society where private theft and murder and the like are sins against community.

Although much is sometimes made of Sunni and Shi'a religous differences, in Bahrain these differences are probably overrated no matter what the political differences between the Sunni political elite and the Shi'a political minority [political, NOT numerical]. When we, as westerners, view the apparent sectarian violence in Iraq, we might want to believe that these conflicts are about religious differences, but I suspect they are more about power and political differences [additionally it becomes hard to sort out simple clan blood feud from other actions in some cases, I suspect].

Bernard Lewis has suggested that the important test of Islam is not so much in a person's orthodoxy but his orthopraxy. With no clearly defined ecclesiatical structure Islam is far more latitudinarian in these matters than Christianity - the real measure is thus loyalty to community as exhibited by orthopraxy, and sometimes sectarian differences become a proxy measure for disloyalty to state (if disloyalty is exhibited) rather than a matter of religious difference per se. I will leave you, my reader, to ponder the implications of this idea when it comes to dhimmi communities and other 'polytheists' living in Islamic countries. My point here is that, in Bahrain, the purely religious aspects of Shi'a/Sunni differences are not a major source of friction.

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It is quite easy, theoretically, to be a Muslim - one need only recite the Shihada - the witness - and begin practicing the prayers after the required ablutions. I was plied with materials on a tour of the Al-Fateh Mosque, have a couple of copies of the Qur'an, and have found nowhere in any of these things the suggestion that there is more required to converst than is required of your average non-denom Christian - believe and you are saved, so to speak. In Islam, recognizing that Allah will judge the hearts of men, it is the external act which is important to entering the community, and the external act is quite straightforward. The external adherence to the cultural norm exhibits the loyalty to community and societal structure. One might see here the parallels to the mass conversions to Christianity in the Roman Christian era and the concerns of some that these were insincere - more to exhibit cultural loyalty to the societal norm rather than a true Christian conversion.

Islam is a highly practical religion and, within the sphere of its own logic, provides for fairly stable social structures centered around marriage and children. Prayers are fairly formal - but need not be done at the mosque. As the French convert giving the tour of the (Sunni) mosque informed us, prayers usually only take 10 minutes or less at each time (Friday prayers often have a sermon attached which can make the whole thing last a bit longer).

It was evident in Bahrain that the social cohesion provided by Islam is pervasive and supportive of robust family and social structures. As I ruminated with a friend, it is easy to see why we in the West are found to speak past 'typical' Muslims in the Middle East when talking about women's rights, misogyny, and the like. Such Muslims will look at the West and our pervasive selling of women's and children's sex, and the constant encouragement to tolerate all sorts of licentiousness as the true death knell of society and that ours is the true misogynistic culture. They may have something in this . . . although I have no desire to have my wife take the veil.

And here we come to the crux of the problem. The real war in the heart of Islam is neither a war on terror, nor a war between Christianity and Islam, nor Judaism and Islam, nor even between the West, per se, and Islam. The present war is a war of Islam with secularism. The West succumbed by the 1700s to this war. Sorry my Orthodox friends, and my Catholic and Protestant friends. Societally, the West has fundamentally succumbed. The Far East has succumbed. Islam is still fighting this war within their society. We are on the sidelines of that war, but find ourselves engaged because we are economically tied to the region where the war is being fought.

Unfortunately we can neither abandon the Middle East (if we do, or the oil runs out, shall we morally justify to ourselves creating through neglect another Somalia, or Yemen, or equally impoverished place??); nor can we solve Islam's battle with secularism by intervention.

This battle can be witnessed in simple images: young men in the Gold Souq drinking soda, wearing ball caps reminiscent of rural Idaho or rural North Carolina fashion (hunter camoflage, or simple red and white nylon with the plastic adjustment band in back) whilst wearing the traditional thobe (long white robe) and sandals. Or, the positioning of a Hizb Allah poster on of an expensive Mercedes, decrying the polluting influence of the West.

Will Islam disintegrate into the chaos of secularism? Will it retreat into a mythical past? Will it overcome and redefine the modern life and impose a new social order? I think these are all possible.

Hopefully in the next installment, I will cover some thoughts about Christianity in Bahrain in relation to Islam and life in the Gulf.

3 Comments:

Blogger John said...

Hilarius,

This is great writing--thoughtful and insightful. You note early on an important truth; that the Islamic world is not monolithic. What is true of Bahrain may differ from Iran, which may differ from Indonesia, which may differ from Turkey, etc. We in the West sometimes lose sight of that.

You remark that “other religious adherents are basically free to practice their faiths.” I did not realize that, assuming that the situation in the Gulf emirates was much the same as in Saudi Arabia, where such is not the case. So, Christians are allowed to openly worship in Bahrain? Are there any restrictions, other than no proselytizing?

Your observation that “Bahrain would be very much worse off without King Hamad” is prescient. We are being painfully cured of our hubris that American-style democracy is always, and in all places, the desired vehicle of government.

Your statement that “it's probably more dangerous to be the wrong sort of person in East L.A. or parts of Washington D.C. than anywhere in Bahrain....the generally ordered behavior of the Islamic society where private theft and murder and the like are sins against community” addresses a common misconception. I found this to be true in Turkey, as well. You are safe, just about anywhere, and I mean this in a sense that we Americans may no longer understand. Theft (pickpocketing of tourists, etc.) and violent crime are so rare as to be nearly unheard of. Again, I believe Islamic society sees this behavior (rightly), and as you note, a crime against the community at large.

I am intrigued by your depiction of the Shi’a/Sunni relationship in Bahrain. I agree that the orthopraxy is much the same, and the disturbances that erupt are not necessarily a matter of religious difference. Turkey is overwhelmingly Sunni. I encountered prejudice against Shi’as, but it wasn’t prejudice based on any actual experience, as there was no interaction. Primarily directed towards Iran, I could never pinpoint whether the animosity was because they were Shi’a or because the Persians were the traditional adversary of the Ottomans.

I remember thinking, in Turkey, the same thing you wrote: "It is quite easy...to be a Muslim.”

I like this observation:

“The external adherence to the cultural norm exhibits the loyalty to community and societal structure. One might see here the parallels to the mass conversions to Christianity in the Roman Christian era and the concerns of some that these were insincere - more to exhibit cultural loyalty to the societal norm rather than a true Christian conversion.”

A good point. In Turkey, the average Turk does not know/understand Arabic. And yet the prayers must be in Arabic. I pressed my friend about this, asking how he prayed. He laughed and said, “we pray,” but didn’t really answer the question. Prayers are scraps of remembered Arabic from their youth, but with no knowledge of their meaning.

I agree absolutely that "Islam is a highly practical religion and ... provides for fairly stable social structures centered around marriage and children." I found this to be true in Turkish society.

"It is easy to see why we in the West are found to speak past 'typical' Muslims in the Middle East when talking about women's rights, misogyny, and the like. Such Muslims will look at the West and our pervasive selling of women's and children's sex, and the constant encouragement to tolerate all sorts of licentiousness as the true death knell of society and that ours is the true misogynistic culture."

They want our "stuff," even in some ways to dabble in the lifestyle (i.e. alcohol, sexual licentiousness, etc. in Turkey), but in no way want this to become normative for their society.


"the crux of the problem. The real war in the heart of Islam is neither a war on terror, nor a war between Christianity and Islam, nor Judaism and Islam, nor even between the West, per se, and Islam. The present war is a war of Islam with secularism."

This is indeed what is going on, across the Islamic world. You might say it is a war within Islam. The only reason it even tangentally concerns us is our dependence on their oil and our related interference in their part of the world, and our being joined at the hip to Israel.

"The West succumbed by the 1700s to this war."

Yes, the oh-so-wondrous "Enlightenment."

"The Far East has succumbed."

Even faster than we.

"Islam is still fighting this war within their society."

This struggle will be the most spectacular of all due to the rigidity and all-encompassing nature of Islam.

"Unfortunately we can neither abandon the Middle East...nor can we solve Islam's battle with secularism by intervention."

Well put.

"This battle can be witnessed in simple images"

--In Midyat, near the Syrian border with Turkey, I watched young Kurdish boys in backward baseball caps, sneakers and baggy jeans that could have been lifted from their dusty streets and placed in whatever part of America you choose without much notice.

"Will Islam disintegrate into the chaos of secularism? Will it retreat into a mythical past? Will it overcome and redefine the modern life and impose a new social order? I think these are all possible."

Everything is up for grabs. And it will be playing itself out over the course of this century, for better, or as I am afraid, for worse.

6:47 PM  
Blogger The Scrivener said...

Hilarius,

So good to read something from you, to know you're alive and well. This is an excellent, insightful piece of reporting. I look forward to your future posts.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Hilarius said...

Thanks guys . . . it means a lot coming from two such thinkers as you, although I'm afraid my little thoughts are only those that others, in ways more elegant and eloquent, have expressed.

John:

The current question I am wrestling with, and have no tentative conclusion on yet is this: if Prof. Lewis is correct about religious affilitation being a proxy for individual loyalty to the community/state, then arguably this was once also quite true of Christianity, despite the countervailing strain, coming out of the teaching of our Lord, to render to Caesar what is his and to God what is God's - a sort of separation of Church and State (although decidedly NOT secularism as we see it post-Enlightenment).

So - in the Imperial East Roman Christian Era, we see that (Orthodox) Christianity is a proxy for loyalty to Imperial Rome (at Constantinople) and other religious leanings as at least presumptively suspect. Only when conquest (cultural or military) occurs (e.g., with the coming of Islam) is an alternative really going to be effective because now there is a new dominant religion in town.

In the West, this same model held for, and arguably informed the Wars of Religion in the 17th Century. Arguably, the adherence to Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Protestant Reformed/Lutheran religious ties were often by proxy measures of loyalty to the State at hand.

I do not mean to cast stones at the many virtuous and pious persons who were willing to give up lives, fortunes, and homelands in order to keep their faith in the face of State persecution, but rather to recognize and think about how much our North American Christian ideas about 'evangelism' and 'mission' are informed by a very different model, one founded on the ability to choose religion largely without political impact in a secular society (although JFK perhaps, in our lifetime, might be seen as one who was politically 'suspect' by some simply due to his Catholicism in a largely Protestant dominated U.S. political structure).

What does this mean for us? What does it mean for Christianity and Islam, or for the penetration of Christianity into any system where the 'old rules' hold (China?)?

I am NOT advocating conversions on the point of sword, or anything like . . . rather, thinking only about how these notions may effect the ways we think about missions and evangelism. As I said, I have no tentative conclusions, but it's on my mind after my trip.

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As to crime - I should note that petty crime DOES sometimes occur in Bahrain, although I posit it is strikingly less likely to be a victim than many places of private criminal activity.

As to political issues, you might be interested in visiting Mahmood's Den for an interesting (Shi'a, I believe) refreshing insider's look at life in Bahrain.

http://mahmood.tv

It is rated as a Forbes.com Best of the Web site:

http://www.forbes.com/bow/b2c/review.jhtml?id=7799

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As to Christianity in the Gulf, I am trying to tackle that a bit in the next post.

Pax

-H

7:34 PM  

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