Yes, Bahrain Really Is Bulldozing Shi’ite Mosques: Documenting the Destruction with Open Sources

US President Barack Obama’s recent Middle East policy speech confirmed the allegation that the Bahraini government has been bulldozing mosques:

. . . What we will oppose is an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion and not consent. Because democracy depends not only on elections, but also strong and accountable institutions, and the respect for the rights of minorities.

Such tolerance is particularly important when it comes to religion . . . America will work to see that this spirit prevails -– that all faiths are respected . . . In a region that was the birthplace of three world religions, intolerance can lead only to suffering and stagnation. And for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.

I was confident in my sources when I made my post a few days ago on the subject, but became less certain when directly challenged on the matter by Bahrainis, who assured me that this was all an opposition hoax. Obama’s confirmation, however, can be trusted–the US, with its huge numbers of personnel in Bahrain, would have abundant ability to confirm the bulldozings on its own, without the aid of the open sources I used. Obama had no reason to make these remarks if they were untrue–they would rile up the Bahraini opposition (creating further risks of instability) and anger the Bahraini government. Obama’s speech did not include any major policy changes, besides the $2 billion dollar assistance program for Egypt (an extremely sensible move), but his remarks against the Bahrainis and against America’s frenemy Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen were stronger than those of the past. The US has changed its tone on the Arab Spring, going from cautious calls for peace to open support of the protesters to an open military intervention on their behalf.

In the case of Yemen, this was likely a product of the realization that the massive instability caused by Saleh’s resistance to change will aid groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who owe their existence to Yemeni instability (and perhaps a little Yemeni state tolerance). Yemenis do not have a historical reputation for being violent or extreme–even the ancient Romans called the region Arabia Felix, “Happy Arabia,” for its relative fertility and peacefulness compared to the rest of the Peninsula–but the US is aware that more radical forces from more radical neighboring countries may exploit Yemen’s hour of weakness to plan further violence.

The case of Bahrain is more confusing. The US has a massive naval base in Bahrain, and Bahrain is a major petroleum producer, so it has two incentives to play the quiet game once again, and it had been doing precisely that. Obama’s speech, both by its words and its context, brought Bahrain into heightened attention. He made it clear that the US has been using back channels to pressure the al Khalifa to rule their society more justly, though it is likely that the changes being called for are like those that the US called for under Mubarak–more political openness and less violence. Calling for a total change of the Bahraini system–say, a republic–would likely cause hyperventilation in Riyadh, Doha, Muscat, and the other surviving monarchies.

Since I was challenged on the veracity of my claims–specifically, people asserted that the buildings destroyed were illegal outbuildings of mosques, not mosques themselves–I figured I’d do a little more digging to find the truth about what’s happening to the mosques of Bahrain. The Bahraini government, it should be noted, is not denying that religious buildings are being bulldozed, though it has downplayed the significance of their actions and emphasized that the buildings were illegal.

A blogger created a Google Maps database of the mosques that had been targeted. I decided to study two mosques that have featured prominently in the images of the crackdown. The first is the Momin mosque in Nuwaidrat, famous for the images of one of its elegant archways standing amid the rubble:

The archway matches one that appears in an alleged pre-demolition photo on opposition website Bahrainonline.org:

Note especially the match between the building’s color and the few patches of paint that are visible behind the arch in the rubble.

Footage exists from within the rubble of the building:

Note that around ten seconds into the video, you can see a housing development several hundred yards away. This housing development appears on satellite imagery of the area, confirming that the site being filmed is indeed the one in question. I have highlighted the Momin mosque and the development for this image.

Is this building, however, actually a mosque? I used Google Earth’s ruler feature to draw a line from the Kaaba in Mecca to beside the building. Google Earth, unlike Google Maps, uses a spherical model of the world, so a straight line will follow the great circle route used by Muslims to determine the proper direction to face while praying (qibla). This is the result:

The building is thus facing qibla, as is typical for mosques. As far as I can tell, the pre-destruction image above was taken from beside the eastern corner of the mosque–thus the gates are invisible, but you can make out the white columns on the southeast side of the mosque in this picture. (Note also this video, which shows the white columns and green foundation amidst the rubble.) The post-destruction image was apparently taken from outside the mosque compound, to the north (i.e. from the other side of the gate).

But was the Momin mosque illegally constructed? Was the main building we see in the photos an illegal expansion of a smaller mosque, as the al Khalifa have insinuated about many of the destroyed mosques? The mosque is at least apparently registered with the Bahraini government. Google Earth also provides images taken in the past, so we can see how long the mosque stood there. The first image of the site is from July 2004:

Compare that with this image from November of 2005.

In the period between these images (actually, between March and November of 2005–there are other pictures), expansions were made on the grounds of the Momin Mosque. Several trees were removed from its courtyard and fences were put up. Some sort of small outbuilding appears to have been put up in the northern corner of the compound. It is possible that this was an illegal construction. However, the fact remains that the Momin Mosque stood unmolested in Nuwaidrat for at least seven years, and any expansions that were made have also stood for several years.

The second mosque I examined is the Amir Barbaghy Mosque, located just off the Sheikh Khalifa bin Sultan highway. This mosque is the “centuries-old mosque” I referred to in my last post. It is the site of the tomb of a Sheikh Amir Mohammad. The Waqf Department has registration for the site, complete with photographs and a description of the mosque’s history. An activist helpfully juxtaposed a screen capture of the Waqf Department’s page with one of the mosque being destroyed:

Note the orientation of the building. The highway is to the right of the image–you can see a truck parked and a guardrail. Note also that the building is being destroyed from one corner. If you were standing in the road, you would see the left side of the building missing. That is exactly what Bahraini activists saw when they drove by the mosque at night, as you can see in this footage:

The footage is unclear, but you can clearly see the piece of the roofing structure that the bulldozer has left sticking out, and you can see that the left side of the building is missing. The mosque’s own website provides several old photos of the mosque, some of which are as old as 2002. This photo was taken then, from the highway (which was clearly not as developed back then):

Here is a still from the video, from more or less the same perspective, as it was being destroyed:

The building in this still looks a bit wider–we’ll look at the mosque’s expansions in a bit, but I think the apparent wideness is just some blurring in the video, because if you watch the clip a few times, it is clearly the same size as the building in the photos.

Though it should be obvious by now, we can still ask if this building really is a mosque. The website makes it clear that it is–and, if Google Translate is working effectively, there are references to Ashura, which would show it to be a Shia mosque. I also ran my qibla test on the Amir Barbaghy Mosque:

Note that the mosque is actually a little bit off of qibla–it’s pointed a bit to the north. It’s possible that the indicated direction of qibla inside the mosque is not directly into the back wall, but I think the building’s improper orientation could be a sign of its significant age.

Now, let’s look at the mosque’s expansion. Here’s an image from 2004:

As you can probably see already, there have been several expansions since then. There are, for instance, several buildings in a new clearing in the grove to the south of the mosque. Some of the buildings can be seen in this image from June of 2006:

You can also see a few fences have apparently been put up to the mosque’s east. There are several images of the mosque on Google Earth, and most of them are pretty blurry. However, it appears that there may have been changes to the buildings in the south over the years. Here’s the clearest image of the compound I can find, from August of 2009:

In this image, you can clearly see the main building. There’s no evidence that I’ve seen that the main building has been expanded at all, especially not on the north side of the building that we saw being destroyed in the footage and photographs.

In both cases–the Amir Barbaghy Mosque and the Momin Mosque–the main building has been targeted by the bulldozers. In both cases, that main building had been in existence for several years, and often the allegedly illegal expansions had also been in place for years. This is a serious challenge to the official narrative, that these buildings being destroyed are not mosques, that destruction at mosque sites was of building expansions and not the mosques themselves, and that the destruction was a crackdown on illegal construction and nothing else. If that really were the case, why did the al Khalifa regime leave the illegal buildings for years and years, and then destroy them in the wake of a political crisis that was tinged with sectarianism? If they were not engaging in deliberate anti-Shia oppression, their actions were extraordinarily foolhardy, for they have certainly conveyed that message.

It is noteworthy that the al Khalifa’s defenders, despite their wide presence on the Internet, seem to stick quite closely to the main government narratives. This is likely an artifact of heavy censorship of information about the revolts. Compare, for instance, the many different stories that emerged in the freer American media after the death of bin Laden–he was armed! He was unarmed! He used his wife as a human shield! The SEALs had dogs with titanium fangs for biting through armor! In the age of Web 2.0, momentous national events provoke a spread of information that is faster than the spread of confirmation. Even quality sources like CNN are likely to make significant mistakes, for 24-hour networks face the same pressure to immediately produce information (or “infotainment”) before detailed checks can be performed. This diversity of facts does not show up among the Bahraini regime’s allies, for they are being fed an approved narrative rather than an unbiased, uncensored stream of information. The excesses that they document have certainly occurred, but they ignore the government’s own excesses. The bulldozing of mosques is likely the most dangerous action the al Khalifa have engaged in yet, for it risks turning an ambiguous movement into one that is unabashedly sectarian. A sectarian uprising in Bahrain would be an enormous victory for Iran and would force the United States to choose between its principles of democracy and human rights and the practical necessity of retaining its naval base. Before the bulldozings, that choice was only a vague risk. Now, it is a serious possibility.

(I would appreciate any confirmations or corrections from native speakers on the information I gleaned from translated materials. Also note that “Barbaghy” is sometimes Anglicized “Braighi” or “al Brabgy,” and “Momin” [“believers”] is sometimes spelled “Momen” in the original sources).

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