Last week, religious celebrations were met with violence and repression in several countries across the Middle East and North Africa.1 ACLED-Religion currently covers seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa: Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and Yemen. In Bahrain and Iraq, Shiite citizens commemorated the death of Imam al Kadhim, while in Palestine Muslim worshippers celebrated Isra and Miraj. In Yemen, pro-Houthi authorities only allowed events around International Women’s Day on 8 March if they were accompanied by celebrations of Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah. In Egypt, a judicial decision reinstated restrictions on the printing of religious material based on reported security concerns. In Iran, the targeting of religious minorities — and in particular that of Baha’is — continues. Morality-related repression also took place in response to a music video by a US-based Iranian singer. In both Iraq and Israel, people were targeted for not adhering to the religious standards of their communities.
In Bahrain and Iraq, worshippers were targeted for commemorating the death of Imam Musa al Kadhim, who is recognized by a number of Shiite believers — most notably Twelver Shiites — as the seventh Imam and successor of Prophet Muhammad. In Bahrain, between 15 and 35 citizens were summoned on 10 March by government authorities. Bahraini authorities often systematically targets the Shiite population during religious events (USCIRF, 17 December 2020). In Iraq, worshippers faced violent attacks. Unknown militants, suspected to be from the Islamic State (IS), targeted Shiite pilgrims with a grenade on 8 March as they were on their way to the Imam al Kadhim shrine in northern Baghdad. One woman was reportedly killed, and between 10 and 30 other pilgrims injured. If IS were to claim the attack, this would represent the latest IS attack in Baghdad since the twin suicide bombings that killed more than 30 civilians last January (France 24, 22 January 2021).
In Palestine, Muslim worshippers gathered at Al Aqsa Mosque throughout the week in large numbers to celebrate the Isra and Miraj — the two parts of Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey during which he ascended to Heaven from Al Aqsa. Israeli police forces reacted to this increased access to the site, which supposedly reached tens of thousands of worshippers, according to some sources (Dunia Al Watan, 11 March 2021). Police attacked worshippers on both 11 and 12 March, beating some of them and using tear gas and stun grenades.
Prior to these incidents, a number of activists and religious leaders had called on Muslim worshippers to increase their access to Al Aqsa on the occasion of Isra and Miraj to reclaim the site. This led to the arrest of former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and current Al Aqsa preacher Sheikh Ikrima Sabri. It also led to Jewish Temple Mount groups making an appeal of their own and calling for mobilization on 14 March. These escalating tensions around religious claims to Al Aqsa also impact international politics. The Crown Prince of Jordan canceled his visit for Isra and Miraj over security arrangements with the Israeli government. The Foreign Minister of Jordan explained that Al Aqsa “in its entirety is a place of worship for Muslims and Jordan won’t allow any interference in its affairs and Israel has no sovereignty over it” (Reuters, 11 March 2021).
In Yemen, the pro-Houthi Supreme Council for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs prevented women’s organizations, including the General Union of Yemeni Women, from holding celebrations for International Women’s Day on 8 March in Sanaa. Sources report that the Council did not allow such celebrations as they were considered to represent “Western culture” (Yemen Window, 8 March 2021). As such, an event planned by the Ministry of Industry and Trade for International Women’s Day was reportedly turned into an event celebrating the birth of Fatimah al Zahra (Yemen Window, 8 March 2021). Fatimah, daughter of Prophet Muhammad, holds a special place in Shiite Islam and is often referred to as ‘the model woman’ (Shia Waves, 29 December 2020).
In Egypt, the Supreme Constitutional Court reinstated Article 2 of Law 102. The article stipulates that the state can sanction individuals who print copies of the Quran or of Hadiths without the permission of recognized Islamic institutions. Rejecting a previous decision made by the Cairo Criminal Court, the Supreme Constitutional Court explained that this article can help the state combat “terrorist organizations” who “manipulate Quranic verses to justify their actions” (Al Dostor, 6 March 2021). This is reminiscent of the presidential directive that was revealed last February. That directive restricts the teaching of religious texts in schools, with a stated goal of preventing unqualified teachers from spreading extremist thought (Al Shorouk, 14 February 2021). Regardless of whether security concerns are legitimate, this signals the continued desire of the Egyptian government to take control of the religious narrative (Al Monitor, 24 July 2020)
In Iran, the minutes of a confidential meeting held between Iranian security organizations and Mazandaran provincial authorities in September 2020 was leaked by the International Federation for Human Rights. The outcome of the meeting was an agreement to increase repression of religious minorities, and notably “to rigorously control the movements of the subversive Baha’i sect and the [Sufi] Dervishes” (Iran Press Watch, 9 March 2021; Iran Press Watch, 11 March 2021). The seizure of all Baha’i residences in the village of Ivel in Mazandaran in October 2020 was most likely a direct consequence of this meeting (Baha’i Community of Canada, 13 March 2021). During the week, 16 Baha’i citizens were either arrested or sentenced throughout the country.
As well, a music video by US-based Iranian singer Sasy Mankan that features a pornographic actress stirred significant public debate in Iran. On 10 March, the Moral Security branch of the Public Prosecution announced that it would prosecute anyone who had collaborated on the video and anyone who publishes anything related to it (Radio Farda, 10 March 2021). This was followed by a wave of arrests throughout the country, including music video producers in Tehran, musicians in Shiraz, and other citizens in Tehran and Yazd.
In Iraq, Sheikh Ali Ilays, the current religious leader of the Yazidi community (Baba Sheikh), excommunicated nine Yazidi women and their children who were born to IS militants when the mothers were enslaved. When IS overtook the Iraqi district of Sinjar in August 2014, sexual slavery became a common practice against enslaved Yazidi women (The Guardian, 25 July 2017). In a 2016 report presented to the UN Human Rights Council, sexual slavery was described as a means to “destroy the Yazidis” (UN, 15 June 2016). The excommunication of the nine Yazidi women last week took place after the children were transferred from Al Hol refugee camp in Syria to their mothers in Iraq following a deal between the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD) and the Kurdish Regional Government (The Guardian, 12 March 2021).
In Israel, the Jerusalem Magistrate Court expelled a woman from the Baytar Illit Haredi settlement after residents filed a lawsuit against her for “violating the religious character of the place” (Kikar HaShabbat, 9 March 2021). In a similar event, the Rabbinical Court of Israel summoned another resident of the settlement and called him a “Torah refuser”. This came after he filed a lawsuit against Hasidic residents for constructing housing units for rent (Kikar HaShabbat, 7 March 2021). Following his lawsuit, a civil court ordered the demolition of the units. This prompted Hasidic Jews to protest in front of the man’s house and the Rabbinical Court to ask him to adhere to the religious nature of the city and to respect its rabbis.
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