Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Clerical Authority and Electoral Participation in Bahrain

For those keeping track of who it is exactly that is responsible for the events of February 14 and the ensuing political crisis in Bahrain, the Bahraini authorities have over the past six months articulated a long list of candidates: first it was the "Iranian-inspired" revolutionaries themselves, in particular the Coalition for a[n Islamic] Republic; then their Iranian-backed leaders, who were rounded up in turn; then the U.S. Embassy was involved; then the United States itself along with President Obama, what with its unholy alliance with Iran; then the Qatari regime (via their minions at Al-Jazeera English) was implicated.

The reason we review this progression of culpability is because Bahrain's political blame game has now hit on a new target: al-Wifaq and in particular its de facto spiritual leader and ranking marja' of Bahrain, Sh. 'Isa Qasim. Among the local news articles of the past week are, for example:

You get the idea. There are a lot of them. In fact, the general mood of the Bahraini press via-a-vis al-Wifaq and Sh. 'Isa Qasim is aptly captured by the front page of today's Gulf Daily News, which proclaims subtly:

(For now we'll leave aside the issue of who it was that ruined everything, and when.)

Even more subtle has been the rhetoric on Twitter, where 'Adel Flaifel and the so-called "Faruq militia" have been busy issuing direct threats to 'Isa Qasim, other Shi'i clerics, and their followers:

"O Ulama Council, 'Isa Qasim, Hadi al-Mudarrisi, Muhammad al-Mahfudh: you've chosen the sword, and the sword has done you in."

Or, if that one isn't graphic enough for you:

"The Lion 'Adel Flaifel: Muharraq is but an island where the body of the wali al-faqih will soon float, and [the bodies of] those who followed him." Nice.

To go after al-Wifaq and its clerical (and lay) leadership is natural, of course, given the group's high-profile exit from the National Dialogue, its weekly "festivals" that look a lot like demonstrations; and its boycott of the upcoming by-elections, which has resulted in 9 of the 18 vacant lower house seats lacking a candidate altogether, and this despite the timely appearance of two new "Shi'a" parties led by pro-government personalities. (A fact that annoys the government to no end: votes may be fudged; but there still must be candidates for whom to make up votes.) And since 'Isa Qasim is universally understood as the religious "inspiration" that gives the group its legitimacy, that he should now come under attack by regime supporters is not particularly surprising.

What is more notable, though, is the government's own hand in the matter. In this case, Bahrain's Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs--the same minister who attempted to dissolve al-Wifaq altogether back in mid-April--sent a letter yesterday to 'Isa Qasim accusing him of dividing the country; criticizing the political content of his Friday sermons, in particular his stance against the by-elections; and threatening further legal action. ('Ali Salman already held a press conference today to denounce the letter.)

While 'Isa Qasim's role in steering ordinary Shi'a toward an electoral boycott is clear, still the government's newfound irritation at this injection of religious authority into its electoral system is disingenuous. In the first place, the authorities didn't seem to mind the influence (or "interference") of Shi'a clerics but five short years ago, when al-Wifaq appealed not merely to Sh. 'Isa Qasim but Grand Ayatallah al-Sistani in Iraq in order to procure electoral participation following al-Wifaq's split from al-Haqq. (For more on the al-Sistani fatwa episode of 2006, see Laurence Louër's book.)

Secondly, and more fundamentally, Bahrain's ENTIRE party (or "society") system is based upon nothing BUT religion: its electoral districts are gerrymandered precisely around Sunni-Shi'i lines, and apart from some dozen pro-government, tribal "independents," all of Bahrain's legislators belong to political societies based explicitly on religion, whether Shi'ism or Salafism or the Muslim Brotherhood ideology. To suggest that it is only the Shi'a who appeal to religion in their choice of political affiliation and behavior, therefore, is simply untenable.

On the contrary, as this 2006 Gulf News article makes clear, in fact it was the former head of al-Asalah, Sh. 'Adal al-Ma'awdah, who started the tradition of using religious directives to secure electoral participation, when he solicited Sunni authorities in Saudi Arabia to issue a fatwa declaring it obligatory for Bahraini Salafis to vote in the 2002 elections. As Habib Toumi explained then,
Little did the agenda-setting shaikh know that he was creating a precedent that would be taken up this year [i.e., 2006] by Shiite leaders to explain to their followers the reasons for their controversial decision to end their boycott of the polls and to fully endorse popular participation.
This fact--that religion influences electoral participation not only for Shi'i Bahrainis but for Sunnis as well--is also evidenced in the results of my 2009 Bahrain mass survey. There, respondents were asked directly whether they participated in the 2006 elections. And, as the figure below indicates, increased religiosity (gauged on the basis of other questions) augments the likelihood of electoral participation among all Bahrainis, not just among Shi'a.

After controlling for other individual-level determinants of election participation such as age, gender, education level, economic status, and so on, it turns out that the average Bahraini Shi'i is about 61% more likely to have participated in the 2006 elections if he is "religious" as opposed to "non-religious." The corresponding effect among Sunnis is only about 1/3rd the magnitude, at 20%, but it exists nonetheless. (And in any case the relatively lower impact among Sunnis results in large part from a much higher baseline probability of voting, at almost 70% compared to barely 40% among Shi'a, an obvious effect of the al-Haqq-led boycott of 2006.)

Similarly, we may examine the results of another relevant question asked of Bahraini respondents: "To what extent do you agree with the following statement?: 'Men of religion should not influence the way people vote.'" Or:

إلى أي مدى توافق أو تعارض كل من العبارات التالية؟
يجب على رجال الدين أن لا يؤثروا في كيفية تصويت الناخبين"

We see that although there is quite a difference in the extent of individuals' agreement (with rather more Sunnis "strongly" agreeing with the statement), there is much less difference in the proportion of Sunna and Shi'a that agree versus disagree with the idea that clerical authorities should influence the way people vote (which, if obviously different from influencing WHETHER people should vote, is still an instructive question). Here, 76% of Sunnis answered that they "agree" or "strongly agree" with this sentiment, compared to a similar if slightly lesser 69% of Shi'a.

In the end, then, the anger of Bahrain's pro-government citizens and Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs is misplaced. Directed now at al-Wifaq and Sh. 'Isa Qasim, it should be aimed at Bahrain's larger system of religious-based politics, including electoral politics, which was crystallized long before February 2011, and which has only been strengthened since. Such actions as the provocative letter to 'Isa Qasim--to say nothing of a possible formal inquiry or arrest--merely add fuel to this already hotly-burning fire.

Update: forgotten in all this al-Wifaq talk was mention of the 7th "Right to Self-Determination Rally" of the Feb. 14 group, to be held this Friday in al-Dair. As always, the flier (rating: 4/10):

Update 2: it seems that the government has succeeded in scrounging up a bunch of new candidates for the by-elections. Reports now say that there are 44 candidates total, and at least one for each district.

Update 3: tomorrow Bahrain's sacked workers are holding another event, this time an automobile procession under the appropriate headline: "The Road to Work." It will run all the way from the ALBA complex in Sitra to the Seef area. That should be good fun for everyone who is trying to get anywhere tomorrow night!

Update 4: Here's one out of left field. Muqtada al-Sadr is quoted by the Iraqi Islam Times as saying, "We will invade Saudi Arabia and burn everyone and everything" if the Bahrainis "touched a hair on the head of my uncle Sh. 'Isa Ahmad Qasim."

And Faisal al-Shaykh in Al-Watan weighs in on 'Isa Qasim and the cease and desist letter from the Ministry of Justice, asking, "Is it really a provocative and foolish letter?"

Update 5: Sunni groups (via 'Adel Flaifel) are issuing some sort of ultimatum for 'Isa Qasim's Friday sermon tomorrow, to the effect that he should "apologize" or else.

And a new report (full text here) from the Tactical Report group claims that the Qataris are attempting to broker an end to the crisis in Bahrain through the forced resignation of the prime minister in one year's time. We'll see about that. Now that the Bahraini authorities are floating the idea of imposing corporate taxes to shore up their financial situation, you know Khalifah bin Salman wouldn't want to miss out on that action.

Update 6: So much for an apology from 'Isa Qasim today in his Friday sermon, which The Washington Post summarizes thus: "Top Bahraini Shiite cleric warns island’s rulers to allow reforms or risk Gadhafi’s fate." A video of the sermon is now available:

Update 7: Monsters & Critics discusses the village clashes of the past few days coinciding with al-Quds Day and 'Isa Qasim's Friday sermon.

And Qatar's Emir made a quick visit to Tehran to discuss "matters of mutual concern." Perhaps that Tactical Report is not entirely off-base.


  1. I would like to raise several points regarding your entry (which is as intellegent as always):

    1. Is that even though the arrows of the government are clearly misplaced this is simply how their game of propaganda works . There always has to be a reltively new "enemy"(Axis of evil anyone?) that had a hand in the events that happened so they can keep on saying pretty much anything in the newspapers (which we all know by now are basically rotten ) . And I can even assure you that even the propagandists writing in these newspapers know that the anger is misplaced but their situation isnt really a situation where you can freely choose who to flame .lol.

    2.In earlier years I have personally have held on wifaq that they didnt seek to change the pattern islamist politics work in Bahrain and change it from shia islamist and sunni islamist into simply "islamist" politics and ideology which we would a melting pot for both of them (as revolutionary and unprecedented that may be) , however I came to the same conclusion you in that the sect being the most influential in the decision making of an ordinary person during the electorial process , and of course the Government made the rules for this to remain the way things are forever by making an absloutly rediculous voting system which clearly highlights secterian lines and effectivley making any hope of overcoming the secterain ghoul in any upcoming election.

    And finally a comment is needed about the duality of treatment to sunni and shia islamists in the state media. I noticed that even though its true that sunni islamists are mentioned in a much better way , the articles in general have a tendency to criticise islamism in general and subtly encourage what I call " government seculars" , and I think this support is one of the main reasons both Asala and Al-Minber lost seats in the 2010 elections to the so-called "independents" , because the government was growing tired of some of their lunacies in the parliment and wanted to make their influence on socity(sunni of course) gradually less than what it is.

  2. If i may suggest that you add the influence of tribal belonging on the electorial decisions of the Bahraini society in comparison to the religious influence.

    Also, in your survey question whether scholars should influence elections; i think you should have been more specific on the type of influence. Its different when a scholar gives a view on the overall situation of the elections (just like the current one), or when he guides ppl to vote or not vote for certain candidates (which is unacceptable)

    Great article

  3. Justin, for the first time since a long time ago, the leaders of the opposition are coming to unified stances without any apparent drama. In fact, recently that has been bolstered by the letter sent by the Minister of Justice & Islamic Affairs.

    For example, you have Sh. Moh'd Habib al-Meqdad inviting people to stand with Sh. Issa Qassim:

    Also, one of the leaders of the Shirazi movement in Bahrain, S. Moh'd al-Alawi, also released the following article:

    Is this an attempt to further polarize? Maybe.. but as Dr. Majeed al-Alawi said, the content was correct, but perhaps they messed up on the name and address:!/DrMajeedAlalawi/status/105962255790768128

    On another note, you missed this:

  4. Justin, just as expected, it seems like the opposition is re-aligning its ranks..

    Follow Waad's headquarters' re-opening and the main element in all the speeches given by the different society leaders:

  5. The tweet you posted:
    "#Bahrainلقد جاءت الأوامر لعيسى قاسم من الحوزة العلمية في قم والتي يشرف عليها الحرس الثوري إما بالاعتذار عن خطبة غدا أو الاستمرار بما يرغب به الشارع الشيعي من تحريض وهدم... وغدا سيكون يوما مفصلي ... فلنسمع خطبته وسأوافيكم بالتحليل ... "

    That translates roughly to:
    "Orders came for Isa Qasim from the Iranian Religious Council in Qom which the Revolutionary Guard oversee to either apologize from giving a speech or continue saying what the Shi'i street wants (provocation, destruction, etc). Tomorrow will be a decisive day, so lets hear his speech and I will update you"

    I wouldn't put it past him to issue threats, but that wasn't one.

  6. Right. "Tomorrow will be a decisive day, so let's hear his speech and I will update you." How is that not a veiled threat?

  7. Just don't feel it sounds that aggressive in Arabic. His general tone in his tweets is condescending and mocking either ways, so likely if he's gonna do something stupid he won't publicly announce it :P

  8. Well, obviously he is not actually going to DO anything.

    He probably wouldn't even know how to get to al-Diraz from Busaiteen or Riffa' or wherever he lives.

  9. Is this site "tactical report" reliable? They've been releasing a lot of reports concerning Bahrain the past few months.

  10. I find it ridiculous how a psychopathic well-known torturer such as Adel Felafail can be lionized by the Sunni Arab community and given such prominent platforms while Shia who are merely demanding basic rights are quick to be labeled as 'terrorists' and 'rioters.' What an undeserved sense of superiority and entitlement. I mean anything that a Sunni Arab does gets a pass; Bahrains usurping rulers have historically been loyal dogs to any outside entity that throws them a bone and they host the US 5th fleet and they call for ties with Israel (which I personally don't mind, Im just pointing out the hypocrisy abd double standards) yet anything the Shia does will be labeled as treacherous and disloyal (it still boggles my mind how one can automatically expect a community to be loyal to a system that institutionalizes discrimination against them and villifies them). If a Shia advocates ties with the West; he's a traitor. If a Shia advocates for the ever so grateful Pro Saddam Palestinians and 'out Sunnis the Sunnis' in villifying Israel (as per the Stockholm syndrome inferiority ridden complexes that many Shia have, unfortunately), then hes still a traitor (or at the very least his intentions are suspect). What gives?

    PS I really need to refrain from reading about the likes of Adel Flaifel when Im drunk; I ended up going on twitter for my second time ever and unleashing a tirade addressed to him... Childish? Perhaps. For some reason I thought it was a great idea at the time (coincidentally, many things seem like a great idea when Im ridiculously drunk).