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Beware of who you’re championing

Open message to US Senators and the State Department

A number of US Senators have written to Secretary of State John Kerry demanding a rethink on military sales to Bahrain in the context of the closure of Al-Wefaq Islamic Society and the move to withdraw nationality from Ayatollah Isa Qassim. The State Department also condemned the measures against Isa Qassim, saying that this would "further divert Bahrainis from the path of reform and reconciliation".

The moves against these entities are undoubtedly controversial and have provoked a broad range of reactions. However, US Senators and the State Department should consider a number of factors before speaking out forcefully in support of these elements:

Separating politics from religion

The moves against Al-Wefaq Islamic Society come in the context of highly progressive legislation which bans the participation of serving clerics (Sunni and Shia) in Parliament and politics. Bahrain’s Constitution also rejects the existence of political societies based on sectarian principles.

Al-Wefaq is a sectarian religious society run by clerics, with Ayatollah Isa Qassim as its spiritual leader. America should support this move to distance religion from the political domain. Indeed, this deserves to serve as a model for other states in the region.

Ayatollah Isa Qassim is one of the most outspokenly anti-American figures in Bahrain.

Qassim in public sermons has repeatedly attacked the “Great Satan” and praised the Iranian revolution for cutting America down to size. Al-Wefaq has similarly staged a number of anti-American rallies.

Isa Qassim, February 2004: “The Iranian Revolution is a blessed revolution that toppled one of the Islamic world’s despots–the despot most supportive of the Great Satan, the United States, as the great Imam al-Khomeini named it. A revolution that made America kneel in Iran, and cut the hand that tried to defile Islam… and stopped it from looting and plundering the wealth of the good Muslim Iranian people.”

Al-Wefaq manipulated the pulpit for political gain

Isa Qassim’s (now defunct) Islamic Scholars Council was used to compel the Shia community to vote for Al-Wefaq en masse at election time, describing them as “the Bloc of Believers”.

In 2006 Al-Wefaq Secretary-General Ali Salman falsified a fatwa by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani commanding people to vote for Al-Wefaq – which drew an angry private response from the Ayatollah himself. Bahrain cannot hope to be a constitutionally-based democracy when the ballot box is manipulated by clerics (Sunni or Shia), or when people are compelled to vote along sectarian lines.

Isa Qassim is the voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Bahrain

Qassim is routinely described as Ayatollah Khamenei’s Deputy in Bahrain, a designation that he has never distanced himself from. Qassim studied in Qom throughout the 1990s to achieve his Ayatollah status and is the foremost proponent of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Welayat al-Faqih (rule by clerics) principle. This by definition makes him opposed to democracy and Bahrain’s tolerant constitutional model.

Qassim himself is from an Iranian family lineage and was only naturalized as Bahraini when he was 25 years old as he departed Bahrain in 1962 to spend a decade abroad in Al-Najaf pursuing Islamic studies.

Ayatollah Qassim has been a consistent voice of support for the Islamic Republic of Iran throughout a period when Iranian funding and weapons have been used by militants to kill police and undermine stability. Furthermore, there are questions about millions of dinars which passed through Qassim’s hands and his Islamic Enlightenment Society. According to the Justice Ministry, some of these funds ended up in the hands of militant groups.

Al-Wefaq opposes women’s rights and civil freedoms

A glance at Al-Wefaq’s parliamentary record between 2006 and 2011 shows a religious society which liaised with other Islamists to bloc progressive legislation, including the Family Law for the Shia community – meaning that Shia women are forced to visit Sunni courts to seek justice. Socially and culturally forward-leaning legislation like CEDAW and the measures to limit the participation of clerics in politics could never have passed with Al-Wefaq in Parliament. Bahrain’s Parliament is better off without Al-Wefaq and religious figures of all affiliations.

Bahrain has de-naturalized numerous Sunni extremists

Bahrain’s legislation to remove citizenship from a small number of individuals involved in terrorism most recently encompassed a number of radicalized Sunnis who affiliated themselves with Daesh. Including a judgment by a Bahraini court on 23 June 2016 against 13 Sunni extremists affiliated with Daesh.

The US and human rights groups should not fall into the trap of condemning all cases of nationality withdrawal, when the majority of cases are terrorism related, including individuals responsible for bombings which killed policemen. Such figures should not be generalized as “prisoners of conscience”.

Ayatollah Qassim and other Al-Wefaq leaders have incited violence

Isa Qassim’s sermons over the unrest period were consistently of a political nature, culminating in a notorious sermon where he repeatedly called on his followers to “crush” the police who he accused of offending the modesty of Bahraini women. Qassim abused the pulpit to mobilize large numbers of people.

Al-Wefaq’s leader Ali Salman also uses the pulpit for inflammatory political speeches, in several occasions indicating that protestors could take a much more “forceful” and violent approach if Al-Wefaq’s clerical leadership gave the order.

Tolerant Bahrain deserves American solidarity

As the recent State Department report shows, there has been important progress towards reform, but more needs to be done. Bahrain needs international support to continue down this path.

Bahrain is arguably the most progressive and socially tolerant state in the region. This should not be taken for granted. This Kingdom needs solidarity from its closest allies to marginalize those who do not share this vision of a progressive and reforming Constitutional Monarchy.

As a close ally with strong interests in Bahrain, it is unsurprising that senior US figures follow developments closely and take a concerned interest in significant developments. However, care should be taken to understand the motivations and agendas of key entities before rushing to their defence – Are these individuals and societies working for a united, tolerant, progressive and reforming Bahrain, or not?

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