The 14 June announcement by the Bahrain Justice Ministry of the closing down of Al-Wefaq Islamic Society quickly gained strong reactions from both those supporting and opposing the decision.
For many Bahrainis, Al-Wefaq is the main entity responsible for stirring up sectarian tensions and fuelling the 2011 unrest. To them, this is a long-overdue move which will silence the clerical figures who have done so much to incite instability and undermine Bahrain internally and externally.
Others view this move against Al-Wefaq Islamic Society in the context of the King’s ratification of a law banning clerics from involvement in politics. Should a movement dominated by clerics have a place in a political system committed to the separation of religion and politics, democratization and a progressive constitution?
Participants in the political process should as a basic prerequisite have a clear national and non-sectarian agenda while not being subject to any form of foreign influence.
There are also Bahrainis who oppose everything Al-Wefaq stood for, but worry about the impact that Al-Wefaq’s closure could have on efforts to heal the wounds of the past and bring all segments of society into a dialogue about Bahrain’s political future.
Below, we look at the role Al-Wefaq has played over recent years and the Justice Ministry’s justifications for taking this move:
Sectarian movement led by clerics
Al-Wefaq Islamic Society was founded in 2002 when many Islamic opposition figures returned from exile and came out of jail in the context of King Hamad’s general amnesty.
The spiritual leader of Al-Wefaq is Ayatollah Isa Qassim, and the organization’s secretary-general is the cleric Shaikh Ali Salman, who was jailed last year. Organizationally, it is also very close to the Islamic Scholars Council, which was abolished two years ago and which regularly mobilized political support for Al-Wefaq at election time by describing them as “the Bloc of Believers”. Al-Wefaq boycotted the 2002 elections, but participated in 2006 and 2010.
Al-Wefaq have consistently used religion as a means of mobilizing supporters and winning support. For example, Shaikh Ali Salman angered Ayatollah Sistani in 2006 by fraudulently presenting a private telephone call with the Iraqi Ayatollah as a fatwa urging Bahrain’s Shia to go out and vote for Al-Wefaq at the parliamentary elections.
Arguably the recent changes in the law banning clerics from participating in politics would have little impact on Al-Wefaq, because many of its former MPs were not serving clerics, but benefitted from clerical support behind the scenes and from the pulpit.
Al-Wefaq’s record in Parliament
The presence of 17-18 Al-Wefaq MPs in Parliament between 2006-2011, along with MPs from a number of Sunni political societies, gave Islamists a built-in parliamentary majority with which to force through ideological legislation.
The Family Law was an example of how Al-Wefaq used their parliamentary leverage to block a bill which gave women the rights to go to court for issues of divorce, child custody and inheritance. Eventually a Sunni version of the Family Law did pass in Parliament; which left Bahrain’s Shia community without legal recourse on personal issues because Al-Wefaq wanted to maintain the traditional system where local clerics arbitrarily gave rulings on family issues – a reality which provoked many Shia women to resort to Sunni courts to seek justice.
Failure to rein in rioting & acts of terrorism by supporters
Most of the rioting and violence since 2011 was at the hands of youths and communities loyal to Al-Wefaq or affiliated splinter organizations like Al-Haqq, Al-Wafa and the 14 February Coalition. For a long time Al-Wefaq refused to condemn acts of violence and described rioting against police as “self defence”.
As time went on there were growing numbers of bombings and terrorist attacks against police, mostly by terrorist cells affiliated with Iran. Al-Wefaq put out statements in very general terms condemning “all forms of violence” – although these were also problematic because they equated acts of terrorism with alleged abuses perpetrated by police.
Al-Wefaq’s leadership were mostly smart enough to avoid directly inciting violence in public statements. However sermons and statements by leading figures 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!”
Shaikh Ali Salman in 2015 was also jailed for inciting violence in his sermons. At the end of May 2016 Salman’s sentence on appeal was increased to nine years.
Boycott of the Parliament
At the outset of the February 2011 unrest, Al-Wefaq’s 18 MPs walked out of the Parliament and their positions were later filled in a by-election later that year when it became obvious that Al-Wefaq had no intention of returning.
Al-Wefaq was widely criticized by the EU, Britain, US officials and others when it refused to rejoin the political process for the 2014 parliamentary elections.
Al-Wefaq’s absence has allowed for the emergence of a broader diversity of moderate Shia MPs from constituencies which are Shia majority or have a history of supporting the opposition. This includes young MPs like Jalal al-Mahfoudh and Ghazi Al Rahmah; a diversity of women MPs like Fatima al-Asfour, Rua al-Haiki and Jamila al-Sammak; technocrats and businessmen like Mohammed Milad and Adil Bin Hamad; moderate clerics like Shaikh Majid al-Majid and Shaikh Majid al-Asfour; and Deputy Chairman Ali al-Aradi.
The absence of Al-Wefaq has meant that Islamists are a small but vocal and active minority. With Al-Wefaq in Parliament it is inconceivable that progressive legislation like CEDAW, the domestic violence law, and the ban on clerics’ membership of political societies, would have been passed.
The Shia Islamic movement has historically had very close historic ties to Iran. Clerics like Ayatollah Isa Qassim have a long record of ties with the Islamic Republic, cemented during long periods of Islamic study there. In the early 1980s, the Tehran-backed Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain was the main vehicle for the opposition, but after a 1981 coup attempt it was dispersed into exile and the principle movement became the Islamic Freedom Movement based in London, which existed with Iranian sponsorship.
All these movements coalesced into Al-Wefaq when it formed in 2002. Al-Wefaq processions and events were instantly recognizable by giant-sized portraits of Iran’s religious leadership and yellow Hezbollah banners. They deliberately obscured these visible Iran links after 2011. However Iran has not been silent about its support for the Bahrain opposition
The US State Department in its State Sponsors of Terrorism Report stated that “Iran has also provided weapons, funding, and training to Shia militants in Bahrain. In 2015, the Government of Bahrain raided, interdicted, and rounded up numerous Iran-sponsored weapons caches, arms transfers, and militants. This includes the Bahraini government’s discovery of a bomb-making facility with 1.5 tons of high-grade explosives in September.”
Support for Al-Wefaq in Shia communities
Al-Wefaq has arguably been in a difficult position over recent years. By publically distancing itself from the most radical organizations it is not sufficiently outspoken for radical supporters of Haqq, Wafa and 14 Feb. However, by failing to rejoin the political mainstream in 2014, it alienated much of its moderate support who wanted to see a dignified exit after years of instability and political turmoil.
In particular, owners of small businesses in Shia neighbourhoods were tired of endless strikes, boycotts and “days of rage” which had turned once busy markets into no-go zones and drove many shops and companies out of business.
In the 2014 elections, Bahraini voters rejected political societies of all affiliations, with only around three seats being won by MPs from societies. Islamic organizations in particular were seen as out of touch with the aspirations of ordinary voters.
Al-Wefaq had promised to fight for the rights of their political constituencies; but five years of unrest had in practice left Shia communities even more marginalized and economically left behind as a result of continual riots, rallies and violence.
By early 2016 Al-Wefaq clearly had no exit strategy – or rather no strategy of any sort.
When the Crown Prince first tried to bring all sides into the National Dialogue in 2011, Al-Wefaq boycotted the process, making maximalist demands such as dissolving the Government as a condition for any prospect (they briefly participated in Summer 2011 and then withdrew in response to provocative comments by the MP Jassim al-Saeedi). Finally Al-Wefaq was drawn into the Dialogue process in 2013, although these discussions which included many political societies made little progress and Al-Wefaq eventually withdrew in protest at the temporary detention of senior member Khalil Marzouq.
In early 2014, the Crown Prince made another effort to re-energize the Dialogue by meeting with Al-Wefaq’s Shaikh Ali Salman. The process continued behind the scenes for much of 2014, but came to a halt after Al-Wefaq rejected the Government’s five point plan (election boundary reform; more powers for elected MPs; wider consultation over ministerial appointments; judicial reforms and security sector reform) which aimed to meet the opposition half way on a number of issues.
Whatever your views on the dissolving of Al-Wefaq, it is indisputable that they have been a problematic presence inside Parliament and a divisive presence outside Parliament.
Although the opposition’s boycott of Parliament has been an obstacle to the political process, arguably Al-Wefaq’s absence has been good for Parliament and has allowed for a more diverse representation and more progressive legislation.
Al-Wefaq’s existence as a transparently sectarian society led by clerics, many of whom enjoy close links with Iran, also flies in the face of efforts to separate the domains of politics and religion in Bahrain, so as to move on a democratic path which puts sectarian affiliations to one side.
It is very important that following this move there are serious efforts to re-engage with Shia communities which have traditionally been loyal to Al-Wefaq so as to reintegrate them into the political process and demonstrate that their interests and aspirations are recognized and respected by the political system.
The dissolving of Al-Wefaq is undoubtedly a controversial move which many entities will try and portray as a negative step for rights and freedoms in Bahrain. Therefore, it is important that this step be taken in conjunction with a renewed commitment to reform, fully implementing human rights commitments and renewed efforts to achieve social political reconciliation in support of national unity.