Arguably, the 1973 National Assembly marked the moment when Shia Islamic movements gained ascendancy over the leftist and nationalist “progressives”.
Up until that moment, the Bahraini authorities had always regarded the progressives as the main challenge to their authority. Throughout the earlier 20th century it had always been the left-wing and nationalist factions which had organized political activism among the workers and lobbied for the withdrawal of the British from Bahrain and the Gulf.
The Islamists had been seen as a conservative bulwark against the general strikes and political activism of the left. For that reason the authorities had initially been supportive of a strong “Islamic” trend within the Parliament.
Religious Bloc versus the People’s Bloc in the National Assembly
Once in Parliament, it was the Islamist Religious Bloc that proved to be most damaging in undermining the modernizing political programme of the Bahraini authorities.
Isa Qassim, Abdulamir al-Jamri and other figures within the Religious Bloc wanted Islamic law and Islamicization – the Monarchy and the rest of Bahrain’s ruling class wanted to open up Bahrain to foreign investment, tourism and a globalized work-force.
The 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 disasterous for the vision of opening Bahrain up to the outside world.
“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.” (A. Alfoneh)
As a result, the authorities more often than not found themselves siding with the left-wing People’s Bloc, to halt initiatives by the clerics, who had spontaneously transformed themselves into the de-facto opposition.
This pressure from Islamist parliamentarians for laws unfavourable to non-Muslims were a contributing factor towards the failure of the National Assembly project. However, the one thing that succeeded in uniting the Religious and People’s Blocs was the new “Security Law” proposed by the Government. The Government tried to convince the Religious Bloc that the new measures were primarily aimed against agitation by the far-left.
But the Religious Bloc had realized by then that their own vision – not that of the leftists – was the one which would be predominantly in opposition to the general programme of the Bahraini authorities. As a result, Shia MPs united with the left-wing to block the proposed measures. The authorities eventually responded by dissolving the General Assembly.
Eclipse of the left
The brief existence of the National Assembly marked the transformational moment in modern Bahraini history where the previously-dominant liberal and nationalist forces rapidly lost ground to the newly-ascendant force of Shia political Islam in Bahrain.
Up until that moment, the Shia clerical establishment had been scarcely recognizable as a coherent oppositionist ideology – indeed, they had usually been relied on by Bahrain’s leadership as a bulwark of conservatism. However, from that moment on, Bahraini oppositionism would have a predominantly Shia face and a religious identity.
The clamping down on political groups after the dissolution of the Parliament was probably the final nail in the coffin of the leftist movements, and it would be several decades before they regained any kind of relevance in domestic Bahraini politics. Meanwhile, the ex-members of the Religious Bloc were clearly in the ascendancy and their influence would only grow with time.
In the later 1970s the Da’wah clerics of the Religious Bloc would be somewhat overshadowed by the more radical ”Shirazi” faction, who were also the first to benefit from the patronage of Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries.
However, within the Bahraini Shia community, figures like Abdulamir al-Jamri and Isa Qassim came to represent the orthodox clerical establishment. Therefore, in the following decades it was inevitable that these figures would be the ones to dominate the political direction of the Shia opposition.
Origins of the Bahrain opposition: Other sections
A major divide within Shia Islam: Al-Da’wah and the Shirazis
Al-Da’wah and the Shirazis in Bahrain
The Da’wah current in Iraq
The Da’wah current in Bahrain
Why do Al-Da’wah & the Islamic Enlightenment society matter?
Origins of the Shirazi current in Bahrain
Consolidation and radicalization of the Shirazis
Differences between the Da’wah & Shirazi factions in Bahrain
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?
Who were the People’s Bloc?
Who were the Religious Bloc?
Religious Bloc versus the People’s Bloc in the National Assembly
Eclipse of the left
Politicization of Bahraini Shia
The influence of political Islam movements elsewhere
The influence of Ayatollah Khomeini
Politicization of religious festivals
The radicalizing influence of Iran’s Islamic revolution
Growing Shirazi radicalism
Exporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution
Al-Da’wah contacts with Iran’s revolutionary leadership
Changing Iranian allegiances
Saudi oppositionist movements
Announcing the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain
Islamic Front aims and ideology
1981 coup attempt by Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain
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
Iranian support for Bahrain’s Al-Da’wah movement
Moving into the Iranian ideological orbit
What is Welayat Al-Faqih?
Breaking with Shia quietism
Ayatollah Isa Qassim and Welayat Al-Faqih
A new generation of Shia clerics
Hezbollah in Bahrain
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Reform in Bahrain: Mansour al-Jamri (re. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja)
Wafaa: New Shia rejectionist movement
Bahrain’s Shia opposition: Managing sectarian pressures
Some potential new leaders in Al-Wefaq
Bahrain al-Wefaq hails Iran Supreme Leader’s support