Last month in the Middle East and North Africa, religious repression was reported across the region, mainly driven by religious celebrations, morality enforcement, and the prevention of religious practice. In Bahrain, authorities cracked down on Shiite religious practice during the Islamic lunar month of Muharram which commenced on 10 August — a period with many Shiite holy days and commemorations, including the holiest day in the Shiite calendar, Ashura, on 20 August. In Iraq, the government announced restrictions on religious practice in response to a rise in coronavirus cases. In Iran, the imposition of Islamic morals prompted various instances of harassment against women. In Palestine, Muslim worshippers clashed with Israeli police and settlers in response to a planned development project at a shared religious site in Hebron. In Egypt, President Abdul Fattah Al Sisi ratified a new amendment to the ‘dismissal of government employees’ law, prompting the dismissal of hundreds of government employees affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In Yemen, pro-Houthi forces continued to target wedding singers, as well as Salafi centers and mosques. Also, a prominent Shiite pro-Houthi religious leader was arrested by pro-Hadi forces after returning from a trip to Iran.
In Bahrain, authorities cracked down on Shiite practices and expressions of faith associated with Muharram and Ashura last month, usually under the pretext of enforcing coronavirus restrictions. On Ashura, the Bahraini Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Religious Endowments imposed stricter safety restrictions inside houses of worship, limiting the number of worshippers attending rituals to 30 people. Opposition groups claim that authorities removed red, green, and black Shiite banners and flags, usually hung up by Shiites during Muharram, in at least 10 cities (LuaLua TV, 12 August 2021). The Bahraini government also summoned and arrested Shiite citizens across the country for holding religious gatherings to commemorate Muharram. Among them were Shiite preachers, administrators of hussainiyas — Shiite congregation halls used for the performance of religious ceremonies — and religious chanters (raddud). Security forces also reportedly harassed Bahraini Shiites returning home from pilgrimage to Shiite holy places in Iraq.
Meanwhile, prison administrators imposed unspecified restrictions at Jaw Prison to prevent Shiite political prisoners from practicing their religious rites during Muharram and Ashura. Administrators also placed a number of prisoners, including Shiite cleric Zohair Ashur, in solitary confinement after they protested against the restrictions (Twitter @YusufAlJamri, 6 August 2021).
In Iraq, Muharram celebrations were more muted than usual due to an increase in coronavirus cases across the country. Provincial authorities in four governorates announced various restrictions on religious practices, including Muharram-related ones, to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The Iraqi government also announced that all worshippers must be fully vaccinated in order to attend the upcoming Arbaeen pilgrimage — the culmination of the Ashura and Muharram religious season. It also capped the number of foreigners allowed to attend the pilgrimage at 80,000 people. Meanwhile, the increasing number of coronavirus cases in Iraq prompted prominent Shiite cleric and leader of the Sadrist Movement, Muqtada Al Sadr, to suspend communal Friday prayers in affiliated mosques (Al Ahad TV, 5 August 2021).
Last month, the Supreme Judicial Council of Iraq announced the formation of a special committee to monitor Iraqi social media for content that “violates public morals, encourages degeneracy and amorality, goes against religious commitments, and encourages sectarianism” (NRT News, 12 August 2021). According to the announcement, the committee will have the authority to refer those suspected of posting such content to judicial authorities for investigation. In another morality-related event, unidentified assailants detonated an IED targeting a liquor store in Baghdad last week (National Iraqi News Agency, 6 September 2021).
In Iran, two Islamic morality enforcement events involving the principle of ‘enjoining good and forbidding evil’ turned violent last month, and the repression of religious minorities largely continued unabated. ‘Enjoining good and forbidding evil,’ as espoused by the Iranian government, is a principle by which regular Muslims are encouraged to impose standards of Islamic morality on others. In two events, women were verbally harassed, and in another, women were attacked for their ‘un-Islamic’ outfits. Meanwhile, the Iranian government continued its campaign of harassing dissident religious minorities. In Mazandaran province, Iranian authorities tore down three Baha’i residences in the village of Rowshan Kuh without warning (HRANA, 3 August 2021). According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), leaked government documents from last year reveal that provincial authorities in Mazandaran have significantly increased their suppression of religious minorities unrecognized by the Iranian constitution, in particular Baha’is and Sufi Muslims (HRANA, 3 August 2021).
In Palestine, Hebron was once again a flashpoint for political violence last month, following the announcement of a new Israeli project at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs on 10 August. Palestinian Muslim worshippers repeatedly clashed with Israeli military and settlers at the site, which is an important religious site for both Muslims and Jews. The proposed project involves the confiscation of 300 square meters from the mosque area for the construction of an elevator, as well as corridors and courtyards, which Palestinians believe will facilitate further access for settlers (Al Monitor, 16 August 2021). Israeli authorities claim that the project aims to make the site accessible for people with disabilities (TRT World, 17 August 2021). Palestinian sources also claim that the project violates the Hebron Protocol, signed by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel in 1997, which conferred planning authority in the city to the PA (Al Monitor, 16 August 2021). In response to the proposed project, the Palestinian Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs announced the closure of all the mosques in Hebron city on 12 August. Instead, it urged worshippers to perform Friday prayers at Ibrahimi Mosque as a form of counter-protest (Al Jazeera,13 August 2021). Meanwhile, Israeli authorities shut down the mosque on 7 September, banning Muslim worshippers from entry under the pretext of celebrations of Jewish Rosh Hashanah (New Year).
Meanwhile, both Jewish and Muslim leaders issued statements in support of coronavirus vaccines last month. The Mufti of Gaza issued a fatwa stating that “whoever delays taking the vaccination is considered a sinner… and whoever causes the transmission of infection from himself to others could be considered for wrongful murder” (Al Watan Voice, 18 August 2021). While, in Israel, a leading rabbi of the religious Zionist community issued a statement against opponents of the vaccines, denying access to synagogues for unvaccinated worshippers, and stating that vaccine refusal is a violation of the Halakhah (Kikar HaShabbat, 16 August 2021).
Also in Israel, recurring acts of discrimination against young girls attending schools in Haredi communities were reported last month. In one case, parents from the Mizrahi religious community filed complaints to the Ministry of Education and Israeli courts, accusing Ashkenazi Haredi schools in Elad city of discriminating against their daughters. They claim that the schools forced their daughters to sit admission exams, which Ashkenazi Haredi girls are not required to take (Haaretz, 20 August 2021). In another event, a Haredi Yeshiva in the Jerusalem area de-registered a female student and expelled her from the school. One source claims that the girl was expelled due to her mother’s job as an anchor at a local TV channel (Kikar HaShabbat, 26 August 2020).
In Egypt, President Al Sisi ratified a new amendment to the ‘dismissal without disciplinary action’ law on 1 August, granting authorities the right to dismiss any public employee for ‘harming national security and safety’ without prior disciplinary action (Masrawy, 1 August 2021). Among the grounds for dismissal, the amendment identifies membership to an organization on the ‘terrorism list,’ which includes the MB, among other Salafi groups (Shorouk News, 1 August 2021). In the weeks following the amendment’s ratification, the state implemented a range of measures to further target the MB. The criminal court extended the enlistment of the MB on the ‘terrorism list’. The Ministry of Transportation and Egyptian National Railways removed 190 employees for allegedly “belonging to the MB” (Al Masrawy, 22 August 2021). Also, the Ministry of Religious Endowments announced the formation of directorate-level committees for the inspection of libraries, books, magazines, and publications in mosques for works “authored by Salafist, Gama’a Islamiyya, or MB members” (Al Masrawy, 28 August 2021).
Last month in Yemen, pro-Houthi authorities in Amanat Al Asimah governorate issued a directive ordering educational districts to organize hussainiyas “in the manner of Iraqi and Iranian Shiites” during commemorations for Muharram (Al Asimah, 19 August 2021). Meanwhile, pro-Houthi police actively enforced bans on wedding singers, arresting at least four singers during August and early September. Pro-Houthi authorities also enforced prohibitions on gender-mixing and restrictions on women’s rights during the same period. Pro-Houthi university personnel detained a student for two hours because he was talking alone to a female classmate on campus in Sanaa. Houthi forces also arrested a number of young men and women in Sanaa for throwing water at each other from two cars while celebrating a wedding, accusing them of “performing sexual acts in public” (Al Mashhad Al Yemeni, 8 August 2021). Additionally, they forcibly shut down two all-women mosques and banned girls and women from riding horses in Sanaa.
In their ongoing campaign against Salafism, pro-Houthi authorities also forcibly shut down a Salafi center in Sanaa, the sixteenth Salafi mosque or center to be shut down in Sanaa since June 2021. Pro-Houthi authorities also began demolition work on a Salafi Hadith Center in Dammaj and seized a Salafi mosque in Bab Al Filak.
Finally, pro-Hadi forces arrested the pro-Houthi Shiite Marja’ — a high-ranking member of the Shiite clergy — Hassan Ali Yahya Al Emad in Al Mahrah governorate as he allegedly attempted to re-enter Houthi territories after returning from Iran (Mareb Press, 30 August 2021).
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