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The origins of Bahrain’s political opposition: Part 5

(Bahrain Parliament 1973; left to right - Ayatollah Isa Qassim, Sheikh Abbas al-Rayyes, Sheikh Abdulamir al-Jamri)

The origins of the national assembly political blocs

Pressure from progressive and left-wing groups for reforms and democratic freedoms bore fruit in the decision immediately after independence to establish a Parliament in 1973.

Twenty-two seats were contested; several seats went to independents, but the dynamics of the new National Assembly were largely defined by two political blocs; the progressive “People’s Bloc”, with eight members; and the “Religious Bloc”, with the core membership being Shia religious scholars who had received their education in Iraqi Al-Najaf.

Up until that moment, demands for reform had almost entirely come from the political left and their sympathizers, who the authorities saw as their main political challenge. Activism by Shia and Sunnis was still in its earliest stages; but this was all about to change.

Who were the People’s Bloc?

Although Bahrain at that time was far from having a mature system of political parties; members of the People’s Bloc in the National Assembly were understood to represent three groupings:

National Liberation Front—Bahrain: A Marxist-leaning organization which was one of the oldest leftist parties in region and had alternated between clandestine and open political activity during its history.

Popular Front for the Liberation of Bahrain: A left-wing organization which had branched off from other movements during the sixties; with a history of agitating for workers’ rights and independence from colonial powers.

Nationalist Democratic Assembly: The Bahrain wing of the leftist/Arab nationalist Ba'ath Party.

These eight MPs had differing degrees of nationalist, leftist and liberal views, but they were united by a modernizing vision for Bahrain, which proved to be broadly in tune with that of the Monarchy and the Government on many issues. Three were lawyers, one a sociologist and five had teaching experience.

Both Sunnis and Shia were represented in this bloc; one Shia representative had been elected in a Sunni-majority constituency, showing that Bahrainis did not necessarily vote on a sectarian basis.

Who were the Religious Bloc?

Around the time of Bahrain’s formal independence in 1971, a number of Bahraini clerics returned from Iraq, having received their education in the Shia holy city of Al-Najaf.

These clerics had been initiated into political activity by the Iraqi Al-Da’wah organization, with which they identified themselves. These Al-Da’wah affiliates established the Islamic Enlightenment Society, which would provide their platform for political activism and parliamentary participation in Bahrain.

Fuad Khouri (page 190) cites examples of how religious activists deliberately infiltrated Shia clubs and societies in order to dominate these organizations and thus wield disproportionate influence within their communities and control the candidature for the 1973 National Assembly elections.

In the case of the influential Jidhafs Club: “To control the club for political purposes the religionists infiltrated it in huge numbers and consequently won the election of 1973 with seven out of nine seats on the Executive Committee. They changed the club constitution in favour of Islamism instead of Arab nationalism, published and distributed many pamphlets with heavy religious content and abolished many of the ‘worldly’ programmes the modernists had established” (Khouri 1980).

Those who were seeking to mobilize popular support for the Religious Bloc were daunted by the professional and academic credentials of those being put forward for the “progressive” faction.

Therefore, they sought out well-educated clerical figures who could compete with these high-calibre secular representatives. The students of the Al-Najaf religious seminaries who had studied under the Grand Ayatollahs of Iraq were seen as perfect candidates.

Many of those associated with the Islamic Enlightenment Society put forward as candidates, such as Abdulamir al-Jamri, Abbas al-Rayyes and Abdallah al-Madani.

The senior Shia clergy themselves chose not to participate directly in the National Assembly; so the candidates put forward were almost entirely from this younger generation who broadly shared a similar background: Mainly from Diraz, educated in Al-Najaf and associated with Al-Da’wah and the Islamic Enlightenment Society.

Of the six MPs who formed the core of the Religious Bloc (three others had been elected on a religious platform but did not associate themselves directly with the Bloc once in Parliament); two were jurists, one was a Mulla (khatib), one was a journalist and two were primary school teachers.

during the formation of the Religious Bloc, Sheikh Isa Qassim - who would eventually rise to prominence as the pre-eminent Shia scholar in Bahrain - was still pursuing his studies in Al-Najaf. This little-known theological student and son of a Diraz fisherman was reputedly unconcerned with Bahraini politics. However, he was persuaded to return and stand for election; becoming in the process, one of the most influential figures in the National Assembly.

 

Origins of the Bahrain opposition: Other sections

Part 1

A major divide within Shia Islam: Al-Da’wah and the Shirazis

Al-Da’wah and the Shirazis in Bahrain

Part 2

The Da’wah current in Iraq

The Da’wah current in Bahrain

Why do Al-Da’wah & the Islamic Enlightenment society matter?

Part 3

Origins of the Shirazi current in Bahrain

Consolidation and radicalization of the Shirazis

Differences between the Da’wah & Shirazi factions in Bahrain

Part 4

Beginnings of labour activism and civil society movements

1953-56 unrest and the Higher Executive Committee

Emergence of left-wing, Marxist and Baathist parties

Whatever happened to Bahrain’s left-wing?

Part 5

Who were the People’s Bloc?

Who were the Religious Bloc?

Part 6

Religious Bloc versus the People’s Bloc in the National Assembly

Eclipse of the left

Part 7

Politicization of Bahraini Shia

The influence of political Islam movements elsewhere

The influence of Ayatollah Khomeini

Politicization of religious festivals

Part 8

The radicalizing influence of Iran’s Islamic revolution

Growing Shirazi radicalism

Exporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution

Part 9

Al-Da’wah contacts with Iran’s revolutionary leadership

Changing Iranian allegiances

Part 10

Saudi oppositionist movements

Part 11

Announcing the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain

Islamic Front aims and ideology

Part 12

1981 coup attempt by Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain

Part 13

Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain after the failed coup

The Shirazi movement loses favour in Iran

Declining influence: The Islamic front in the 1990s

Part 14

Iranian support for Bahrain’s Al-Da’wah movement

Moving into the Iranian ideological orbit

Part 15

What is Welayat Al-Faqih?

Breaking with Shia quietism

Ayatollah Isa Qassim and Welayat Al-Faqih

Part 16

A new generation of Shia clerics

Hezbollah in Bahrain

 

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