Sheikh Isa Qassem

Bahrain’s Ayatollah conundrum

American Herald Tribune | Muhammad Ali Carter: The Persian Gulf monarchs fear the Shia of Bahrain in the same way that Saddam feared the Shia of Iraq – The oppressive Persian Gulf Kings are desperate to avoid making the same mistakes as the Iraqi dictator.

Recent raids made by government forces in Bahrain against the opposition stronghold has left at least five unarmed protesters dead and hundreds detained in one of the deadliest crackdowns since the anti-regime protests erupted in 2011 against the Persian Gulf nation’s Western-backed monarchy on the small island of Bahrain. Armed police targeted a peaceful sit-in outside the home of Bahrain’s most senior Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Isa Qassim, who is seen by the regime as the most powerful opposition leader due to his unique spiritual status among the majority Shia Muslim population of the island. The attack came following the decision by a Bahraini court to sentence the prominent Shi’ite cleric to a 1-year suspended prison sentence, the court also ordered a seizure of assets belonging to the Ayatollah and his office, part of an ongoing crackdown on dissents in the tiny island kingdom.

An Ayatollah is a highly revered religious authority and scholar within the Shia Muslim community. Throughout history, the Shiites have turned to their Ayatollah’s as a source of guidance in all manner of life’s various predicaments, be it religious law, cultural practices or daily social situations. This relationship becomes more important during times of great duress and oppression; Shia Muslims are the oldest sect within Islam and have often found themselves on the receiving end of political oppression throughout their history leaving their community scattered and marginalised in many areas where Shia Muslims have settled. In countries with a large Shia Muslim presence, the Ayatollah’s have often played a major role in standing up for the rights of local Shi’ites and mobilising the Shi’i community to become a more effective and formidable political force. This has been seen in action in recent history in countries with a sizeable Shi’i presence such as Lebanon, Iraq and Iran but now we are beginning to see the same political awakening of the Shi’ites in the heavily Shia populated areas of Eastern Saudi Arabia and the island Kingdom of Bahrain, which is located just off the coast of the Shia majority eastern province of Saudi Arabia.

Ayatollah Isa Qassim is now playing the same role in Bahrain that many of his great Shia clerical colleagues have played before him, such as Grand Ayatollah Khoei in Iraq during Saddam’s reign or Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the united opposition, in Iran was under the rule of the Shah. Although Ayatollah Qassim is not a politician himself, he commands greater power over the population of Bahrain than any one person in the current regime has, a situation which no amount of force could change. Ayatollah Qassim has used his unique position to encourage civil unrest and peaceful opposition to the current regime without actually involving himself directly in Bahraini politics, something which the, already imprisoned, Sheikh Ali Salman did leading him vulnerable to repercussions. Ayatollah Qassim did have a background of involvement in Bahraini politics during the 70s but was soon to walk away from his political career, favouring his religious education which he received in Iraq & Iran. Once achieving the high rank of Ayatollah, Isa Qassim has refrained from entering politics directly but has remained a consistent critic of the regime, dedicating many of his congregational Friday prayer sermons to political discussion and criticism of regime behaviour. Ayatollah Qassim is known for his discreet tactics and rarely makes a discussion in public.

He has been described as the ‘spiritual leader’ of the – now banned – leading Bahrain opposition party Al-Wefaq, led by the –  now imprisoned – Sheikh Ali Salman. This vague role of ‘spiritual leader’ was also used by the Lebanese Ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah for the Hizb al-Dawa party, Haraket Amal & later to Hezbollah, a position of advisor to the group without being a full member of the group a way for both Ayatollah Fadlallah & Qassim to avoid submitting their opinions to internal Democratic debates so that they can retain position without paying the price for it from the regime.

Ayatollah Qassim’s avoidance from direct politics has made him a particularly difficult figure for the regime to deal with, something which Saddam, the Iranian Shah and American & Israeli occupation forces in Lebanon all realised for themselves when trying to pacify rebellious Shi’i populations of their own.

The Bahraini regime is stuck with an island that hates it. Practically the entire population wants the regime ousted after a series of brutal crackdowns following the 2011 Arab spring which saw thousands of Bahraini protesters pour onto the streets demanding political change. Instead of reforms, the regime offered death, torture and tear gas – as a result, the opposition’s demands changed from mere political reforms to widespread revolution & regime change.

Fear of ‘The Ayatollah’

I have written before about the Bahraini regime’s fear of ‘the Ayatollah’ – a fearful reputation which has been bestowed on the scholarly class of the Shi’ites by those who seek to master their faithful brethren. A reputation which has been well earned following the decades of active political opposition, rebellion and successful armed resistance against tyrannical dictatorships and imperialist powers, all of which has fuelled the train of geopolitical change in the Middle East over the past 5 decades or more. It was the Ayatollahs in Najaf & Karbala that made Saddam increasingly paranoid of an internal rebellion, forcing him to spend huge amounts of regime resources spying on the Iraqi Shi’i religious schools and the scholarly class which ran them. Saddam felt so deeply threatened by the Ayatollahs that he even sanctioned torture, imprisonment & assassination of the Iraqi clerical leadership and its following. He banned Shi’i religious practices such as the annual Ashura commemorations and, when the Shia did finally revolt during the 1991 uprising, Saddam ordered a heavy-handed counter attack with the aim of totally destroying the Shia, both body and soul – not only where Iraqi Shia Muslims murdered on mass by regime forces  but the holiest Shia shrine in Iraq (the shrine of Imam Hussain) was attacked and almost completely destroyed by Saddam’s Republican Guard. Eventually, Saddam fell, following the American invasion, leaving Iraq open to Ayatollah Sistani & the Shia opposition in exile to start Iraq afresh. Saddam fell from total power for many reasons but the longest running factor leading to his demise was the opposition to his rule by the Ayatollahs of Iraq and the influence they commanded over the large Shia Muslim community in Iraq.

The situation is very similar now in Bahrain and in eastern Saudi Arabia. Large Shi’ite communities, led by local high ranking Sheikhs & Ayatollahs have proved themselves to be troublesome to the control of the regime over the area, a problem which shows no sign of going regardless of the brutality of the Persian Gulf regimes.

Saudi’s defence of the attack

Saudi Arabia was quick to defend the Bahraini regime’s decision to open fire on the peaceful sit-in leading to the killing of five innocent protestors. The security of Bahrain “is an integral part” of Saudi security, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) quoted a source in the Kingdom’s Foreign Ministry as saying. Pictures and video evidence prove that the police forces sent into Ayatollah Qassim’s hometown of Diraz to disperse the crowds of supporters were armed with high power assault weapons, looking more like special forces from the army than the typical riot police armed with batons and rubber bullet shoot guns. This was a clear order, shoot to kill anyone who gets in the way – armed or not, they are just Shia terrorists, probably ‘backed by Iran’.

As possess of regime forces – dressed head-to-toe in their intimidating black body armour – roamed the streets like wolf packs out on the hunt, a loud voice could be heard hollering from the nearby Mosque on the loudspeaker system, typically designated for the Muslim Azaan (call to prayer) in an attempt to offer some form of support to the now trounced sympathisers of Ayatollah Qassim. “God is great, God is great” cried the speaker “We have come here grateful to Allah and accepting of his will, every time one of us falls martyred… raise your hands in prayer and ask Allah to accept this sacrifice”. This exact incident parallels the moment when Saddam Hussein’s murderous Republican guard entered the city of Karbala where the Iraqi Shi’i rebellion of 91 made its final stand at the Shi’ite holy mosque of Imam Hussain. The death toll from the recent incident in Bahrain is nowhere near comparable to the massacre which took place during the Iraqi  91 uprising but the comparison comes in the way both regimes deal with their Shia opposition.

Trump’s poor choice of words

Trump had barely just arrived in Riyadh, on his first tour of the Middle East as President, when the news of Bahrain’s vicious crackdown on unarmed civilians began to circulate across social media.

Trump spoke out about what he intended the future relationship was to be between the US & the Persian Gulf during his meeting with the Bahraini King, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, at the Gulf Cooperation Council leaders’ summit in Riyadh which took place just days before the Bahraini regime authorised its forces to attack the peaceful sit-in outside Ayatollah Qassim’s home in Diraz. “Our countries have a wonderful relationship together, but there has been a little strain, but there won’t be a strain with this administration,” said Trump while sitting next to the corpulent Bahraini King.

Under Obama’s leadership, Bahrain had experienced a rise in tensions between the US & Bahrain following the regime’s routine suppression of human rights and violent put-downs of past peaceful protests, now however, following Trump’s comments, Bahrain’s despotic King has now been left completely reassured that, despite his poor record on human rights, Trump will have his back covered politically going forward. The huge arms sale between Saudi & the US will only encourage the Persian Gulf states treatment of brutality towards its regional minorities. Trump’s willingness to be so openly reassuring to these oppressive regimes will only encourage further brutality following a two-term President who did react negatively to Gulf human rights crimes and responded by semi-downgrading the US relationship with Bahrain.

The US made the same mistakes with a past Arab tyrant, Saddam Hussein; supplying him with vast amounts of weapons, political cover and intelligence so he could fight the Shia revolutionaries of Iran and halt the export of the Islamic revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini into Arab territory. This was a US foreign policy which had no effect in stopping the Ayatollah’s of Iran installing an anti-imperialist totally independent republic but instead saw thousands of Iranians and Iraqis killed during the 8 years Iran-Iraq war, many as a result of Saddam’s use of western supplied chemical weapons. The West knew this but kept quiet.

This trend of failure in stopping the regional political revitalization of the Shia Muslims has been repeated again and again across the Middle East. Bahrain & Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslims have seen the change taking place across the rest of the region and they too demand freedom and recognition of their human rights. Trump’s miserable handling of the Persian Gulf regimes so early since he took office will lead to more unashamed barefaced cruelty, murder and violent crackdowns by the Persian Gulf regimes, which in turn, will force the Shia of Bahrain, Saudi & Yemen to look towards the only source of leadership they have, the Ayatollahs.

The regime seeks a solution

For a long time, the Bahraini King has perplexed himself as to what to do with the Ayatollah of Bahrain. How can you remove a man who has no real status within Bahraini society except for a personally spiritual status among his followers – who just so happen to be the overwhelming majority of the Islands population? Removing his citizenship, labelling him a terrorist, linking him to Iran and attacking his supporters has all had no effect in reducing Ayatollah Qassim’s influence or importance. The Saudi’s had the same problem with a zealous cleric of their own, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who heavily and openly criticised the Saudi regime; he was sentenced to death after a lengthy spell in prison under horrific conditions. Sheikh Nimr’s family members have also come under attack and many of whom have been killed by Saudi regime forces since Sheikh Nimr’s execution. The King of Bahrain has been less reluctant to remove the clerical elite of Bahrain with similar deadly tactics, the backlash following Saudi’s decision to execute Sheikh Nimr was immense but Saudi Arabia felt little internal threat as its Shi’i community is a minority with no power or representation within Saudi Arabian society. Bahrain, on the other hand, is left feeling more vulnerable with its massive Shia majority population adrift off the coast of the Persian Gulf; not too far to feel it cannot continue with systematic oppression of the population and its clerical leadership but still not close enough to the mainland to feel completely free to operate without retribution.

Iran remains a powerful presence in the Persian Gulf and the Supreme Leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khamenei, has vowed to support Bahrain’s protest movement, saying “We expressed our view in a clear way. We were never intimidated by the frown of the so-called powers of the world. We did not pay attention to their frown, and we never will. We announce our righteous position in a clear way. The righteous position is that the people of Bahrain have the right to protest.” Since 2011 Iraqi, Iranian & Lebanese clerics, scholars and political Ayatollah’s have all began a joint effort to defend Bahrain’s opposition against what is described as an ‘oppressive’ country, the two biggest Shia powers, Iran and Iraq, could apply major political & economic pressure going forward. Both Saudi & Bahrain have accused Iran of supplying terror cells with weapons to fuel an armed resistance but these accusations have been labelled as baseless by Iran & human rights groups working in the area.

At this stage, the regimes of the Persian Gulf will continue to seek a tangible solution to the problem of the revolutionary Shia and their troublesome Ayatollah’s but history has shown that the Ayatollah’s are not so easy to silence. World powers, bigger than Bahrain, have tried for decades to quell the growth of the Ayatollah’s influence, but all attempts have failed. Bahrain’s outcome will be no different.