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Who is Ayatollah Isa Qassim?

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 Devil, 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.”

Early studies

Isa Qassim was born in 1937 to a fisherman in Diraz and attended Budaiya primary school, followed by a secondary school in Manama. However, because of the Iranian origins of Qassim’s family, he didn’t obtain Bahraini citizenship until 1962, and it was several years after that that his own offspring were granted Bahraini citizenship. Shaikh Qassim worked as a teacher in Budaya primary school where he remained until 1962.

Isa Qassim also pursued Islamic studies in Naim under Shaikh Abdulhussain al-Hilli and Sayyid Alawi al-Ghuraifi. In 1962 Qassim travelled to Iraq for religious studies in Al-Najaf under a range of Shia scholars including Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr (father of controversial cleric Muqtada al-Sadr).  

In Al-Najaf Isa Qassim established a close relationship with other Bahraini scholars including Shaikh Abdulamir al-Jamri, Shaikh Abdullah al-Ghuraifi, Shaikh Abdullah al-Madani and Shaikh Abbas al-Rayyis. All of them were from the same generation and knew each other well even before going to Al-Najaf.

These figures would constitute the core of the institutionalized Shia Islamic movement in Bahrain through the Islamic Enlightenment Society - the Bahraini branch of the Iraq-based Al-Da’wah movement. The Enlightenment Society is administered under the Shia Ulema Council which later came to be dominated by Shaikh Qassim.

Writing Bahrain’s 1973 Constitution

When Bahrain declared its independence in 1971, one of the first challenges was to produce a Constitution and establish an elected Parliament. 

As only a small number of religious figures at that time had benefitted from further education, Isa Qassim was singled out by the clerical establishment as a candidate for the Constitutional Assembly elections.

However, Isa Qassim was still pursuing his studies in Al-Najaf and declared that he preferred to continue his education – until his brother travelled to Iraq, four days before candidates registration closed and personally ensured that Isa Qassim and his family returned to Bahrain.

Shaikh Qassim was successful in these elections and as one of the 22 elected delegates is reported to have played a major role in ensuring emphasis on Islamic Shari’ah in the new Constitution. The Constitution also provided for a single-chambered Parliament, the National Assembly, with 30 elected members.

Religious Bloc defeats nationalist candidates

To contest the 1973 National Assembly elections, Qassim, along with his Al-Najaf colleagues, Al-Rayyis, Al-Jamri, Al-Madani and others formed the Religious Bloc, with the institutional support of Qassim’s Islamic Enlightenment Society.

In the National Assembly elections, these Da’wah members played a major role in influencing Shia communities away from nationalist and left-wing groups. For example, 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.

As a result of this intense activity, a high proportion of the candidates put forward for these elections were from Diraz, educated in Al-Najaf and associated with the Al-Da’wah movement. During the 12 Decemberelections Qassim won more votes than any other candidate in the contest (1,079) and entered Parliament.

Islamists in the National Assembly

Until that moment, the Islamists had been seen as a conservative bulwark against the general strikes and political activism of the left. Once in Parliament, it was the Islamist Religious Bloc that proved to be most forceful in undermining the democratic enterprise.

Shaikh Qassim and others wanted Islamic law and the entrenchment of Islamic customs. Bahrain’s leaders wanted to open up the country to foreign investment, tourism and a globalized work-force.

Isa Qassim’s Religious Bloc advocated measures like the separation of men and women in society; banning alcohol; criminalizing blasphemy; and Islamic forms of punishment; all of which would have been disastrous for the leadership’s vision:

“The relationship between the ruling family and the religious bloc deteriorated quickly because of Shia opposition to the government’s support for socially liberal and progressive legislation initiatives, which Sheikh Qassim and his Shia colleagues considered contrary to Islam” - Ali Alfoneh.

The authorities found themselves siding with the progressives, to halt initiatives by these clerics. This pressure from Islamists for laws unfavourable to non-Muslims was a contributing factor towards the failure of the National Assembly project. However, the final straw was the new Security Law.

The Government tried to convince the Religious Bloc that the new measures were aimed against agitation by the far-left. But the Religious Bloc realized that their own vision was the one predominantly in opposition to the Bahraini authorities. As a result, Shia MPs united with the left-wing to block the measures. The authorities responded by dissolving the General Assembly.

Isa Qassim and the Shirazis

The mid-1970s were distinguished by rivalry between Qassim’s conservative Da’wah faction with roots in Al-Najaf and the more radical Shirazis linked to Karbala-based Ayatollah Mohammad al-Shirazi.

Al-Shirazi gave his nephew Hadi al-Mudarrisi the task of collecting religious taxes from Bahraini Shia. When Al-Mudarrisi gained Bahraini citizenship in 1974 this sparked intense rivalry:

“A fierce struggle for the Shi’a khums money erupted between the two factions. Shaikh Qassim and Al-Mudarrisi competed with each other from mosque to mosque and matam to matam to attract the greatest number of followers and greatest amount of khums” - Ali Alfoneh.

The Da’wah and Shirazi rivalry was also reflected in politics. While Shaikh Qassim and his associates served in Parliament, Al-Mudarrisi’s faction were preparing for armed struggle. Al-Mudarrisi had studied under Ayatollah Khomeini and was an early exponent of his radical ideas. This radical trend gained greater momentum after the success of Khomeini’s revolution in Iran.

Isa Qassim and the Islamic Republic of Iran

Sheikh Isa Qassim’s Islamic Enlightenment Society supported the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran materially and spiritually and its success provided a stimulus to their own political activities.

Isa Qassim, June 2003: “The Iranian Revolution is the call that never dies and will not die. It is not right for the nation to weaken and waver in its support for it and without pledging its full alliance in thought, sentiment, and practice, and refusing to submit to the arrogant American administration.”

Before the start of Iran’s Islamic revolution, the leaders of the Islamic Enlightenment Society initiated their first communications with Ayatollah Khomeini in Al-Najaf where many of these clerics had studied.

After the revolution succeeded, Qassim’s Society sent a telegram congratulating Ayatollah Khomeini and expressing their support for the revolution and Islamic rule. A delegation from the Bahrain Shia Islamist movement also visited Tehran.

Radicalization and coup plots

The Islamic Revolution radicalized the Shia of Bahrain. Shia festivals became heavily politicized. Giant portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s revolutionary leaders became a central element of Al-Da’wah public processions.

Iran’s “Office of the Liberation Movements” sponsored and radicalized Shia groups across the region. The first elements to benefit from Iranian support were from the Shirazi movement and in particular the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain which staged a coup attempt in Bahrain in 1981. 

After the Shirazi faction fell out with Ayatollah Khomeini in the mid-1980s and many Shirazis were jailed or exiled following the Bahrain coup plot; Iranian attention moved to Isa Qassim’s Al-Da’wah movement.

Iran’s leaders realized that figures like Abdulamir al-Jamri and Isa Qassim were followed by tens of thousands of Bahrainis and through them Iran could have a major influence:

“Gulf Da’wah movements had, since their inception, a different conception of ‘exportation of the revolution’ than the Shirazis, which better corresponded with the way the pragmatic wing of the Islamic regime understood it. They were willing to promote welayat al-faqih and the good image of the Islamic republic” - Laurence Louer.

Further study in Iran – patronage of Ali Salman

Shaikh Qassim travelled to Qom in 1991 to continue his studies towards Ayatollah status. Qassim studied under Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Hashemi and Ayatollah Sayed Kazem Haeri. This brought Qassim and other clerics further into Iran’s ideological orbit:

“Sheikh Qassim’s move to Iran indicated a greater Shia exodus to theological seminaries in Qom beginning in the early 1980s, when the Islamic Republic established Al-Athar Theological Seminary in Qom, which under Hojjat al-Eslam Abdulah al-Daqaq specialized in the education of Bahraini theological students” - Louer.

Shaikh Qassim became a patron of a younger figure studying in Qom at around the same time: Ali Salman had been deeply influenced by Qassim’s sermons in his younger years and when Qassim left for further studies in Iran, Salman - who was completing his basic studies in Qom - was the elder shaikh’s choice to replace him as preacher in the Diraz and Al-Khawaja mosques.

Inciting unrest during the 1990s

Immediately on his return Ali Salman played a major role in inciting the unrest of that period. Salman led a protest against a charity marathon running through Shia villages in which women were said to be inappropriately dressed. The marathon collapsed in chaos as protesters threw stones at the runners. Salman then took the opportunity to shift his criticism from participants in a fun run to the Government.

During the 1990s unrest Abdulamir al-Jamri and Ali Salman were dominant figures in mobilizing militants against the authorities. Because Isa Qassim was based in Iran he had a free hand to engage in the most inflammatory rhetoric against the Bahraini leadership, who accused him of being a leading figure in Bahrain Hezbollah, which was said to be behind a number of terrorist incidents.

Isa Qassim, February 2008:  “If you look within the Islamic nation for a political system that is not connected to the West, to the axis of evil, and does not prostrate before either West or East, you will only find one political system… Iran.”

Qassim lived in Qom until 2001 and returned to Bahrain on March 8, 2001, benefitting from King Hamad’s political amnesty.

Isa Qassim and Welayat al-Faqih

Welayat al-Faqih (rule by the supreme jurisprudent) is a principle advocated by Ayatollah Khomeini claiming that absolute religious and political leadership of the Muslim faithful should be in the hands of senior clerics. The Iranian religious city of Qom became the main centre for conferring religious legitimacy on this principle.

Ayatollah Isa Qassim, June 2007: “A man of mercy, a revolution of mercy, a state of mercy that is revolution is his, and the state is his, and the secret lies in the mercy of his Islam, the Islamic revolution, and the Islamic state… If all Islamists, regardless of their sects, gathered around this man, this revolution, this state and the peoples of this nation followed them, Islam would have been on a fast track to total victory.”

Clerics like Ayatollah Isa Qassim were thoroughly immersed in the principles of Welayat al-Faqih and his followers have been very clear about Qassim’s adherence to this principle. During Shia processions huge posters were on display featuring images of Isa Qassim alongside Iran’s leaders with a quote from Qassim, saying: “Keep the way of Khomeini until the arrival of the Mahdi” – a direct affirmation of the Welayat al-Faqih doctrine.

Many of Ayatollah Isa Qassim’s public pronouncements lend support for Welayat. A July 2012 paper by the American Enterprise Institute noted Qassim was increasingly moving into Iran’s orbit and this, “should be a red flag for the US on Bahrain”.

Ayatollah Isa Qassim, June 2002: “Khomeini is… one of the heroes of Islam and Islamic unity…and when we speak of Islamic unity we have to salute Khomeini’s jihad and dedication to the cause... He will remain a champion fighting for the oppressed across the world.”

Ayatollah Isa Qassim and Al-Wefaq

Al-Wefaq Islamic Society was founded in 2001 when many Islamic opposition figures including Isa Qassim returned from exile and others came out of jail in the context of King Hamad’s amnesty.

Shaikh Ali Salman became the organization’s secretary-general. The spiritual leader of Al-Wefaq was Ayatollah Isa Qassim. Qassim reestablished the Islamic Scholars Council, which regularly mobilized political support for Al-Wefaq at election time by describing them as “the Bloc of Believers”.

Ayatollah Isa Qassim, June 2009: “His revolution, his victory, his state created many revolutionaries on the path of God…you rightfully and honestly say that Khomeini’s revolution, his victory, and his state created a new widespread jihadist line that transcended the borders of the revolutionarycountry.”

At the beginning of the 2011 unrest, Ayatollah Isa Qassim was seen as one of the figures advocating a hard line of confrontation against the Government and Al-Wefaq accordingly withdrew from Parliament. 

Sermons by leading clerics were often thinly-veiled calls for mobilizing supporters against the state. In early 2012 Ayatollah Isa Qassim gave a notorious sermon in which he incited his supporters to “crush” the police. Videos circulated widely of the cleric with his fist in the air leading a chant of “Crush them!” Qassim notably refused to condemn acts of terrorism against police and citizens.

Ayatollah Isa Qassim proved more effective than grassroots leaders in bringing out supporters onto the streets, notably in a bout of major protests in March 2012. A few months later, following a routine search of Qassim’s home by police, thousands of protesters came out onto the streets, declaring that “Isa Qassim is a red line”.

A typical Qassim speech from that period declared: “The ruling Al Khalifa regime violates people’s rights, its legal system issues oppressive rulings for detainees and the regime’s mercenaries kill the young and old, the selection of Bahrain as the headquarters of the Arab human rights court is an inhumane act that amounts to a cover-up of the regime’s offenses and crimes.”

A special ceremony held in Tehran to honour Ayatollah Isa Qassim in April 2014 declared him to be the “Messiah of Bahrain”.

Removal of Ayatollah Qassim’s nationality

In 14 June 2016 it was announced that Al-Wefaq Islamic Society would be closed down.

The Ministry of Justice said that organizations like Al-Wefaq had “worked for decades on diverting from the concept of the state, securing legal cover for acts associated with extremism and terrorism and worked to create a new generation that carries the spirit of hatred… this is out of the culture of exclusion, intolerance and linking opposition political organizations in countries of the region with sectarian and extremist political parties that adopt terrorism.”

On the same day, Ayatollah Qassim’s Islamic Enlightenment Society was closed down which was shortly followed by an announcement of the discovery of BD 10 million in Qassim’s private bank accounts, accompanied by claims by the authorities that additional funds under Qassim’s control were laundered and passed to anti-Bahrain groups abroad. 

A week later on 20 June, it was announced that Ayatollah Qassim’s citizenship would be withdrawnAnnouncing this move, the Interior Ministry said:

“Ever since he received Bahraini nationality Qassim established organisations that followed an external religious political authority, played a major role in creating an extremist sectarian environment and worked to divide society along sectarian lines… Qassim adopted theocracy and emphasized absolute allegiance to religious clerics. Through his sermons and fatwas, he exploited the religious pulpit for political purposes serving foreign interests... He collected funds without complying with the law.”

Since the announcement, Iranian figures and the Iranian media have condemned the move against Qassim sought to incite violence and instability in Bahrain. TV channels like Al-Alam were calling on Bahrainis to take to the streets in protest and a statement by Hezbollah called on people "to express their anger and rage decisively":

Qassim Soleimani, head of Iran's Qods Force: "The Al Khalifa surely know their aggression against Sheikh Isa Qassim is a red line that crossing it would set Bahrain and the whole region on fire, and it would leave no choice for people but to resort to armed resistance... Al Khalifa will definitely pay the price for that and their bloodthirsty regime will be toppled".

Hezbollah statement: “This pushes the Bahraini people to difficult choices which will have severe consequences for this corrupt dictatorial regime”.

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