Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sunni Islamists Testing Political Boundaries Altered (Or Not) by the Uprising

The main subject of today's post is illustrative in that it follows conveniently from the main conclusion of the previous one. There, I argued that Bahrain's renewed crackdown on political protest--its effective ban on rallies, the recent arrest and prosecution of Nabeel Rajab, and so on--stems not primarily from the state's relationship with the Shi'a-led opposition, but from its tenuous balancing act involving Bahraini Sunnis.

The latter (excluding those from tribally-aligned families who have remained essentially apolitical even following the uprising) fall into two basic camps: (1) those who have used the opportunity of their post-February 2011 political mobilization to press for a harsher security posture vis-a-vis the opposition; and (2) those who have used it to articulate a wider political agenda independent of the state's dealing with protesters. So, in order to limit the appeal of the latter group, the government has sought to appease the former.

Yet the line between the two is of course blurred, as is the boundary beyond which acceptable petitioning among Sunnis becomes (from the standpoint of the government) unacceptable protest in its own right. This is all the more opaque as the true nature of Bahrain's largest post-February Sunni movements--the National Unity Gathering and Sahwat al-Fatih--itself remains ambiguous. Neither has demonstrated a willingness or desire to challenge the state directly on any specific matter of policy. As a result, it continues to be difficult to refute those who accuse the movements of being either an extension of existing political powers (al-Asalah and/or al-Manbar) or of (some faction of) the government.

To attempt to grasp the true significance of Bahrain's "Sunni Awakening," then, one can do little more than sit back and observe the progression of the ongoing political disorder. I have written previously that one possible litmus test will be the (eventual) restart of government-opposition dialogue. If Sunni groups remain insistent upon a seat at the bargaining table, one may be persuaded one way; if they relent and fail to press for their own political demands, one can be perhaps safe in forming the opposite opinion. The only problem is that renewed dialogue does not appear to be on the horizon.

Very interesting, therefore, is a development reported (Arabic here) last night. One will recall a recent post here that examined the controversy surrounding the building of a new Catholic Church in 'Awali, and indeed the relocation there of the church's entire Gulf vicariate, on land donated by King Hamad. As far as I can tell, the "controversy" was fueled almost exclusively by Sunni Islamists, who objected to the decision not only on religious grounds but also because it was seen to evince the government's (or at least King Hamad's) capitulation and/or thralldom to the West. (Unless I've missed something, Al-Wifaq and Shi'i clerics have stayed quiet about the issue. Update: According to this Washington Post story, 'Isa Qasim also has expressed opposition to the church, asking why resources should be diverted at a time when demolished Shi'a mosques have still yet to be rebuilt.) Recently, some 68 of Bahrain's Sunni clerics issued a statement carried in Akhbar al-Khaleej that called on "those who are responsible for order in this land to pull back the grant and the permission":

Now, one of the leading critics of the new church, Sh. 'Adal Hasan Al Hamad, has been removed from his longtime position as imam of the Nusuf Mosque in East Rifa' following a combative Friday sermon in which he repeated in harsher language the message of the 'ulama' statement. As reported in this informative Global Voices article, Al Hamad's sermon
described the land donation and allowing the church to be built as "Pro-Christian" and "an attempt to please Western nations." He urged worshipers to express their opposition, reminding them that they have previously drawn a "red line when it came to the leadership of this country" [in reference to their stand against the events of 2011] while the "rightful religion of Allah is far more superior and worthy of their support." He warned that “Silence in such matters could drag divine consequences."
In addition to the full (.mp3) audio of the sermon (as well as of previous Friday sermons), Al Hamad's website includes a thematic outline, which includes the following four questions:
  1. "What is the justification for building the church in Bahrain?
  2. Is Bahrain an Islamic state?
  3. Is this a test of the people in the country, and will we pass the test?
  4. Do you know, O listeners, the hypocrites in the country?"

Now, someone at the Ministry of Justice has a real sense of humor. Rather than bar Al Hamad from giving Friday sermons altogether, instead Sh. Khalid has offered him a lesson in religious tolerance and multiculturalism. Having spent 25 years at a grand mosque in an almost exclusively Sunni neighborhood of East Rifa', Al Hamad has been relocated to a much smaller mosque in Tubli, which depending on the exact location is either mixed or exclusively Shi'i. (Hopefully for him, his new home--Sheikha Kanoo Mosque--is not in the village portion of Tubli!)

The irony of the decision has not been lost among critics of the move. The aforementioned article notes a Tweet by Jamal Ibrahim Al-Najem:
"For his speech on the largest church in the Gulf and after spending more than a quarter of a century in East Riffa, Dr Adel AlHamad is moved to a Shia Area in Bahrain! We are All Adel Hassan!"
A similar sentiment echoes across various media. One popular Arabic-language article by blogger Rashid Ahmad Al-Rashid describes the situation as "A Tale from Another Planet with the Minister of Justice!" Elsewhere, on Twitter, Muhammad Khalid writes that "[t]he Sunnis of Bahrain reject moving the preacher of the Nusuf Mosque Dr. 'Adal Al Hamad to another mosque under any pretext":

Then, in another Tweet,Khalid goes even further:
"The transfer of Dr. 'Adal Al Hamad to another grand mosque is injustice against him and Sunnis as a whole and a test [case] for something larger that will soon shock the Sunni street. Be prepared."
Sunni Internet forums are no different.
  • One popular thread calls for an end to Sunnis' "political closeness" with the state, saying, "We are with the leadership... We are with the government... But we are against the ongoing persecution against Sunnis simply to satisfy the traitors [i.e., the opposition] and the West!"

  • Another insists that "the Sunni opposition will tip the scales in the future!!"

  • Yet another announces a Sunni "gathering" this Friday at Al Hamad's new mosque in Tubli, presumably to protest his relocation.

Incidentally, this means that Bahrain will have at least three demonstrations on its hands on Friday, as al-Wifaq and other opposition societies already are on the books for their "Freedom and Democracy" rally along the familiar path of Budaiyi' Road; and the February 14th Coalition is holding week-long festivities--including a Molotov cocktail assault on a Sitra police station--in the run-up to next week's verdict in the opposition leader trial.

So, then, what to make of all of this? First, the government's message seems to be clear, and is something along the following lines: "Sunnis, we are happy to hear your complaints about the opposition, and have even tolerated with good humor a year's worth of complaints about our supposed hypocrisy in dealing with the opposition. But just because we've given you a bit of what you wanted--Nabeel Rajab's in jail; and in a week or so his friends' sentences will be renewed--don't think that you can dictate wider policy, especially when it threatens to hamper the international image we are seeking to cultivate and the international relationships that we depend on."

It is in this sense, I think, that Muhammad Khalid describes Al Hamad's removal as "a test [case] for something larger that will soon shock the Sunni street." Indeed, Al Hamad too refers to a "test" of Sunnis in his offending sermon, when he asks, "Is [the church issue] a test of the people in the country, and will we pass the test?" Whether this "something larger" refers to anything specific--say, a new government-opposition dialogue; or simply another item on the long list of percieved wrongs against Bahrain's Sunni community--it's hard to say. But inasmuch as any solution to Bahrain's political impasse requires resolution first of the government's "Sunni problem," it will be interesting to observe what, if anything, comes next.

A final question, which is admittedly pure speculation on my part, concerns the role of Saudi Arabia. Obviously, Bahrain's room to maneuver politically depends critically on the view from Riyadh. But, as Simon Henderson wrote only two days ago, there is renewed speculation about the health of King 'Abdallah (and even of the newly-anointed crown prince), who has left the Kingdom reportedly for treatment in New York. Thus, does the fact that the Saudis may soon have something much larger to worry about than avoiding possible government concessions in Bahrain--namely, a full-blown succession crisis--offer King Hamad, the crown prince, and their friends in the State Department a new window of opportunity to make some political progress?

Update: Two additional links that I forgot to incorporate. A first is an article by 'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf for the NYT's "Room for Debate" feature. A second is a new Chatham House paper by Jane Kinninmont (does she sleep?) on Kuwait's "experiment in semi-democracy."

Update 2: As a commenter notes, Sh. Rashid has now backed off his decision to transfer Al Hamad after "meeting with a number of Sunni sheikhs and 'ulama'." (Note that today was the planned Sunni "gathering" in support of Al Hamad.) Perhaps the political boundaries have indeed shifted in Bahrain.

Update 3: And someone points out this "documentary" on the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain.

Update 4: Still more documentaries. This Bahrain Mirror story describes a new video titled "The King and the Corruption of the State" making its way around the YouTubes. What's new, you ask? Well, this one comes not from the opposition but, purportedly at least, from Bahraini Sunnis. Subtitled "The Sunni response to the king of Bahrain," this thing is two hours long!

Part 1

Part 2

Update 5: A post in Bahrain's main Sunni forum casts doubt upon the origins of the aforementioned videos critical of King Hamad. It notes that the poster of the video--and of several previous critical videos--is based in the UK, a main center of the traditional opposition. Even if it is a fake, however, the video remains interesting in that it signifies a more concerted effort among activists to appeal (even if through propaganda) to disaffected Sunnis.

Update 6: No surprise here: "Bahrain court upholds sentences of opposition leaders." Why start another fight with security-minded Sunnis and royals if you don't need to?


  1. Tell me since when do supposed academics cross the line to political activism? With such a fiery extent that mimics local political activists? Fullbright right? Hmmmm.... New Middle East Initiative is still strong after Bush.

  2. What is it exactly that I am advocating here?

    1. Dear justin,

      You are doing a great job.

  3. Great post. Btw, Shaikha Khalil Kanoo Mosque is in New Tubli (near the sewage outfall), sufficiently far away from Tubli village proper.

    1. Thanks. This raises an interesting philosophical question for Al Hamad: better to be in a Shi'i village, or next to sewage?

  4. Bahrain is fine and in good health. Business continues to thrive and the outlook is bright. Everything else is noise and only the enemies of the nation will try to paint a different picture.

    What remains is pure entertainment for the likes of us - the academics and commentators - who need to keep a job or a cause to pursue. Nothing will change in Bahrain. As a side note, good news to food lovers, Pot Belly and Vapiano's are now open in Bahrain!!

  5. @Sal: Thanks for the update. So I'll mark you down as "everything is fine," then?

  6. Justin - Everything IS fine. You should visit and see for yourself.

  7. Doubt I'd get to see much apart from the inside of the airport, seeing as how a few months back my participation in a conference there was blocked by someone or another.

  8. Update: Minister of Justice withdrew his decision to move Sh. Adel Ahmed (

  9. That video was crappy. However, I do have to agree with their line of questioning regarding the terrorist Maryam Al Khawaja? Who funds her trips and frequent travel, her hotel stays, her day to day cost of living? Follow the money....

  10. Does arab monarchy matter? Good one hope u enjoy

  11. Spreading this kind of propaganda cannot be conducive to a successful visa application Justin. However, the Qataris I am sure are proving to be far more hospitable.

    Question when will we see a piece on that garden spot, that hub of democracy and human rights, called Qatar?

    1. A few things:

      1.) Propaganda? Who is the one constantly citing statistics about economic improvement and noting when the newest Dairy Queen has opened up?

      2.) Did you not see the explicit qualification "purportedly, at least" with which I prefaced the videos?

      3.) The videos are interesting whatever their origins: if they are fake and are indeed (mainstream) opposition propaganda, then they signal a new tactic in attempting to find allies among disaffected Sunnis. If they are authentic, then the implications are obvious.

      4.) In fact, I do have a forthcoming article on anti-Westernization in Qatar in the fall issue of Middle East Policy that is based on new survey data. I'll be sure to send the link.

      5.) I also "spread the propaganda" in the previous update with the "documentary" about the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain. So does this mean that (a) I agree with it; or (b) that I shouldn't be allowed to return to the U.S.?

    2. Speaking of economic improvement; Urbano is opening in Bahrain. That is good news.

      But seriously speaking, a critical and thought provoking analysis on democracy and freedom of speech in Qatar is much needed. It is not the same as a cultural piece on anti-westernization and how locals feel offended by seeing the frivolous dress sense of western females. No, I am talking about applying the same standards of critique that you do to Bahrain. The same line of questioning you pursue regarding the hidden (or not so hidden) hand in the cookie jar is not only applicable to Khalifa Bin Salman but also Hamad bin Jassim? Dont you agree?

    3. Speaking about economy, there's a new not so encouraging article in Reuters; "Bahrain economy shrinks in second quarter":

    4. Silence regarding the HBJ question.

      On the economy article, you need to read it properly, the "decline" is due to the change in the base year used to calculate growth and the adjustment applied for current versus historical prices. Devil is always in the details.

    5. @Sal: It may surprise you to learn that I do not have infinite time to respond to comments here--doubly so for impertinent ones.

      My interest in Bahrain stems from a larger interest in a specific topic: the political attitudes of ordinary citizens in the Arab world (in particular in the Gulf), and how these shape outcomes in the region. My interest is not in the promotion of U.S. policy goals, of democracy, or of hastening the end to the Al Khalifa monarchy.

      Qatar, unlike Bahrain (and Kuwait), has relatively little to study on this front as citizens are not particularly interested or involved in politics. Political life is thus much more limited in scope, and one like me is limited in what he can study without intimate knowledge of royal court politics. The Qatar article I mentioned is not "a cultural piece," as you say, but attempts to use what limited data is available on citizen attitudes to analyze possible challenges to the political status quo, particularly as it relates to Western (especially military) influence in the country.

      Of course, it should go without saying that simply because I reside in Qatar does not need I must take an intrinsic interest in its politics. Before moving to Bahrain I spent two years in Yemen. Did you see me going on about 'Ali 'Abdallah Salih and the Yemeni uprising? (I am also a U.S. citizen with no interest in voting much less in domestic U.S. politics.)

      As you profess at least to have some first-hand knowledge of the Bahraini economy and what stores are and are not opening, I do wonder why you spend so much time repeating the same set of comments and asking rhetorical questions when you could make a more substantive contribution to the discussion here.

  12. The Bahrain Mirror videos are eye opening. I hope they get as much as possible views from Bahraini Sunnis so that they join their brothers to get their rights from the cruel dictatorship monarchy.

  13. Update: Actually the Shia cleric Isa Qassim had an opinion about building the church, "Bahrain’s most senior Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, has actively opposed the church plans, questioning why the government should donate land for a Christian site when Shiite mosques have been destroyed as part of the crackdowns."

  14. @Mohammad: Thanks, I've added this above. Seems like the WaPO is about a week behind.


  16. This one is even better, deep intellectual thought process. Bahrain's leaders not only speak flawless English, but are miles ahead. Whether you agree with their approach and political calcualtions is another matter, however this is embarassing:

    1. No worries though, I'm sure Qatar's gross economy growth has increased by 1.58% or something so everything is fine according to you.


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