Prospects of a Moderate Islamist Discourse

The Case of Bahrain

By: Mansoor Al-Jamri

MESA'97, Middle East Studies Association 31st Annual Meeting, San Francisco (CA), USA 22 November 1997

Ref: 971018


In Bahrain, the small Gulf state, a popular uprising (intifada) has been going on since December 1994. Leaders of the protest movement introduced an agenda that can hardly be described as ideological or fundamentalist. In fact, the movement in Bahrain is unique in its approach. In a debate in the British Parliament on 3 June 1997, the UK Foreign Office Minister, Mr. Derek Fatchett, described the Bahraini opposition as a "moderate" movement with a set of moderate demands. The term "moderate" refers to the fact that the popular Islamist-led movement has raised demands that are agreeable to secularists while at the same time avoiding any call for a revolutionary change of the local and regional political establishment. The demands of the movement call for the restoration of the parliament (dissolved in 1975) and return of the rule of constitutional law.

Bahrain is a Muslim society represented by both Sunni and Shia sects, with the latter making up around two-third of the population. The background to culture and society is religion, and Islamic beliefs pervade the socio-political life of people. Tribalism, however, form the background of the political establishment which has been controlled by the Al-Khalifa dynasty for the past two centuries. In practice, Islamists have adopted various interpretations that are open to debate when compared to the idealism of the message. This paper assesses the background to the present political crisis in Bahrain with particular emphasis on the Islamist element of the pro-democracy opposition.

Tribal culture

Both Nakhleh (1976) and Khuri (1980) explained the conflict between tribally-based rule and concepts of civil society that are based on popular participation, accountability and transparency in government.

Interestingly, the definition of the "State of Bahrain" may be found in "Bahrain Telephone Directory". The directory usually lists four names in the section entitled "State of Bahrain". These are "H.H. Shaikh Isa Bin Sulman Al-Khalifa, the Amir of the State of Bahrain; H.H. Shaikh Khalifa Bin Sulman Al-Khalifa, The Prime Minister; H.H. Shaikh Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa; Crown Prince and Commander-in-Chief of Bahrain Defence Force; and H.H. Shaikh Rashid Bin Isa Al-Khalifa". Such definition is similar to the one declared by the French King Louis XIV (1638-1715) who said, "I am the state".

Historically, it has been persistently demonstrated that tribal tradition denies people their constitutional rights. The ultimate concession would be to allow for advice to be expressed on some aspects of public life. In any event, it is up to the sovereign to accept or reject any advice. This perspective is founded on tribal conception of power and control. Tribal power is founded on the possession of properties and land by a most powerful tribe. Other tribes and groups of people must succumb to the overpowering one, otherwise they risk being attacked and destroyed.

The tribal tradition believes in such themes as "I and my brother against my cousin; and I and my cousin against the non-relative". The overpowering tribe considers itself the supreme core of the congregation. The allied tribes, which assisted in overpowering others, are next in line in terms of favouritism. The tribal chief establishes a "majlis" for his relatives to run the affairs of the congregation. No questions and no debates are encouraged. Instead poetry and statements of glorification for the chief are preferred. The best poets and the best persons in glorifying the chief receive gifts. Laws are implied. Revenge is an honourable practice.

Although Islam started in a tribal environment, Prophet Mohammed (SAW) taught his followers that brotherhood between one person and another is based on faith and concepts, not on blood-relation; that there is no person who might assume the role of absolute sovereignty, which is retained for the Creator. These underlying themes do raise fundamental questions related to scope and application. But what is common in them is respect for the dignity of mankind and the establishment of equality. Islamic message as preached by the Prophet propagated universal brotherhood, tolerance and egalitarianism, all of which are not compatible with tribalism.

Bahrain was the centre of the ancient civilisation "Delmon" and its people were known for their pearl trade and agriculture based on fresh artesian water. These factors made Bahrain a prosperous country in previous centuries. It was such prosperity that attracted the attention of outside powers and warlords. In 1722, a starvation in the Najd forced many tribes to look for better places for settlements, and Bahrain was one of these places.

The present ruling Al-Khalifa family attempted to invade Bahrain for the first time in 1700. Sheikh Yousif bin Ahmad Al-Bahrani (1695-1772) explained " In 1700, when I was 5-year old, the Utob (ie the Al-Khalifa) committed horrific atrocities while the ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulla bin Majid, was weakened and unable to counter that aggression. The ruler, Sheikh bin Majid, contacted the Howala (who lived on the coasts of Persia) and requested their assistance for the defence of Bahrain. The Howala assisted in repulsing the attack of the Utob, but by then the country was in ruin".

Eight decades later, in 1783, the Al-Khalifa utilised the spreading of internal conflict caused by the exhausting external attacks on the islands, and invaded Bahrain. The invaded people, called Baharnah, were predominantly Shia Muslims, and this has helped the invading tribe in consolidating its power by referring to religious themes. The leader of the Al-Khalifa tribe was given the title "Fateh", i.e. Conqueror. This title indicated a deep meaning, including the legitimisation of shedding the blood of the conquered people as well as the confiscation of land.

Following those troubling years, the ruling family was amongst the Gulf tribes that enjoyed the British military protection following the signing of the General Treaty in 1820. Britain controlled Bahrain up until 1971.

Pro-democracy demands in the twentieth century

The call for democracy is not a new one. Holden (1966) reported the sentiments of a Bahraini graduate, who said "we are treated like children… we have no parliament, no newspaper, no trade union, no modern law courts and no modern laws". Similarly, the survey published by the "Financial Times" on 31 May 1983 stated "the main subject of political debate within Bahrain is whether the Government is likely to reintroduce a National Assembly". The FT survey accurately reflected the debate in the Bahraini society during that period. The debate remained to be the same over the decades. From the time that the Assembly was dissolved (in 1975) by an "exasperated Government" there has been speculation about when (or if the Ruler) would try another democratic experiment. Such speculation increases with events. In the early eighties, appointed consultative councils in Qatar and Oman, was followed by the reappointment of a council in the UAE and the election of a new assembly in Kuwait. The Financial Times concluded "It is not easy to find anyone in the ruling family or outside it who says openly that he is against the establishment of a newly elected, or partially elected, assembly. In Bahrain, people feel that it is important that they be liberal".

Answering the FT queries, government officials responded that an election "would encourage outside interference in Bahrain politics". By this they of course meant Iran, which would spread "the political passions of its Shia co-religionist on the island". Had the Financial Times carried the story in the fifties and sixties, "outside interference" would have meant Egypt, while in the seventies, South Yemen and Socialist countries would have been to blame. Another important observation by the FT survey of 1983 says "those who are of a genuinely liberal persuasion add that some of the people at the top of the Government -notably Sheikh Khalifa bin Sulman- simply do not think that the creation of a new assembly is very important. They, and several of the technocrat ministers outside the ruling family, believe that it would only hinder development".

The government position seems to remain the same over time. On the one hand, there is the perceived outside interference while on the other there is a need to avoid hindrance to development. In fact these two arguments seem to cover up a deeper problem inherent in the culture of the political establishment.

The roots of demands for greater popular participation in Bahrain go back to the year 1938 following the introduction of modern education and discovery of oil. The Bahraini society had developed, and virtually all its sections were united in their struggle for democracy and human rights. These demands manifested themselves in the uprisings of 1938, 1954-56, and 1965. Moreover, the Bahraini society is probably the only one amongst the GCC countries that posses an indigenous working class.

Demands for labour unions were not tolerated or accommodated. Presently, the local press or officials do not utter the words "Labour Unions". It is also one of the primary reasons why foreign workers presently form the majority of the work force in Bahrain.

Between 1923-1926, Britain introduced "administrative reforms" that ended obvious parts of the feudal-tribal system. The British Advisor, Sir Charles Belgrave, amalgamated modern administration with tribal structure. This amalgamation was never successful. The people of Bahrain demanded popular participation and accountability, while the tribal chiefs resisted any changes to the status quo. Tribal elements made-up the core of the state while sectarianism was used as a means of ensuring an efficient control of society along confessional lines. There is an undeclared policy of segregation in Bahrain. Presently, the Shia are virtually barred from all strategic positions and are non-existent in defence and security sectors. This has created dynamism for a community-based opposition within the Shia of Bahrain.

The relationship between the Al-Khalifa family and the people improved noticeably in the early seventies. When in 1968 the British government announced its intention to withdraw from east of the Suez, including Bahrain, the ruling family felt the need for popular acceptance. The present Amir visited the Holy City of Najaf (Iraq) to meet with the then spiritual Shia leader, Seyed Mohsin Al-Hakim, and assured him of his good intentions towards the Shia of Bahrain. The Al-Khalifa family also allowed exiled opposition figures to return home. In May 1970, the UN Security Council ended the claims of the Shah of Iran for Bahrain by unanimously accepting the findings of Mr. Winspeare Guicciardi, the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary General that Bahrain should be declared an independent and sovereign state. Following this, the Constituent Assembly was half-elected in 1972 to approve the Constitution of Bahrain. And in 1973, the first National Assembly was elected. In 1975, the Amir dissolved the parliament. Since then, the ruling family resisted all calls for the reinstatement of the parliament.

The protest uprising (intifada)

Probably, the darkest years for democracy in Bahrain had been the eighties. The situation at the start of the nineties looked grim. The absence of democracy compounded with the distorted labour market and sectarian discrimination in the society were exacerbated by a sharp fall in oil revenue. The aftermath of the liberation of Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion provided a hope that a political openness was imminent. In 1992, a petition signed by more than 300 distinguished personalities was submitted to the Amir, calling on him to restore the parliament. In response, the Amir, decided to form an all-appointed Consultative Council that failed to satisfy the aspirations of the nation. The appointed council plays an advisory role and has no legislative or monitoring powers.

By the end of 1994, the situation reached a climax when leading opposition figures started collecting signatures from the public in support of a Popular Petition calling for the restoration of political rights.

The 5th of December 1994 was the day when the present political crisis exploded in street violence. It was a day when a Shia religious scholar, Sheikh Ali Salman had been arrested during a dawn raid. This arrest was part of a show down orchestrated to avoid the popular petition. The opposition had not planned to go to the streets, but the state decided to settle matters once and for all. In the confusion, they grossly miscalculated the resilience of the opposition social forces. A community-based opposition, never seen in the history of Bahrain, emerged with a coherent and moderate agenda. This movement established itself on a solid legitimacy based on the demands for the restoration of the dissolved parliament, the constitution of Bahrain, the 1992 Petition, the 1994 Popular Petition and international human rights conventions. This legitimacy is the most important factor for consolidating the opposition.

The tribally-controlled state found itself face to face with an activated population demanding constitutional rights. Tribalism, as practised in Bahrain, could not accept the notion of civil rights. The government's strategy remained the same since the first days of the uprising. It insisted on branding the opposition as an Iranian-backed Shia group. The opposition insists that it is a broadly-based coalition encompassing all sections and trends in the society. The strategists of the state concentrated their attacks against the Shia community to justify their claims and for proving that the problem is one of security. The strategists of the opposition aims at proving that one section of the society may not be used as a scapegoat, that the crisis is a political one and that the solution lies in the initiation of political dialogue with the broadly-based pro-democracy petitioners.

A caveat worth of noting is that the ruling family has always refused to meet with a mixed Sunni-Shia delegation. Peter Waldman (1995) cited "The quest for democracy in Bahrain has united the Muslim sects. This spring, prominent Sunnis and Shiites requested a joint meeting with the emir to discuss the unrest, but were rebuffed. Instead, rulers met separately with elders from each sect. The groups were given very different messages, according to participants in the meetings: Sunnis were reassured the Shiites were under control. Shiites were ordered, in unusually tough terms by the emir, to stop the violence at once, as a condition to discussing any concerns".

Encounters and critical challenges

There are two fundamental differences between the present uprising and the other major one that took place in 1954-56. The movement of the fifties had a favourable regional environment with several Arab countries supporting the opposition. Moreover, mass demonstrations in the fifties were not limited to the Shia population. The Sunni population, concentrated mainly in Muharraq, marched on the streets at the same time when the Shia were marching in Manama and rural areas. In the nineties, the influence of a religiously-based conservative movement amongst the Sunni of Bahrain coupled with government-sponsored sectarianism played a significant role in keeping the Sunnis under control.

The challenges faced by leading activists centred around the ability to steer events away from extremism, while at the same making sure that the ruling family understands that it can not silence opposition by selective victimisation.

By September 1995, the state came close to defusing the crisis by striking a deal with the jailed opposition figures, amongst them the two Shia Islamists who are members of the Committee for Popular Petition, Sheikh Abdul Amir Al-Jamri and Mr. Abdul Wahab Hussein. The truce ended when in January 1996, the Shia community leaders together with more than two thousands people were put back in jail.

On the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) front, the ruling tribe appealed for more financial assistance from its Gulf allies within the GCC. Appeals were made with an underlying message, that any deterioration to stability of tribal rule in Bahrain would adversely impact on other ruling families in the Gulf. The message was well received. Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait gave oil revenue and cash. Consequently, the Bahrain Monetary Agency announced on 13 September 1997 that "Bahrain's 1996 economic growth reached 6.1% compared with 4.5% the previous year, and that a six million dinar ($16 million) budget surplus was reported". This surplus was the first of its kind since 1985.

Powered by such intensive financial backing, the state went further in its plans. It started importing thousands of Bedouins from the Syrian Desert and Yemen, granted them Bahraini citizenship and employed them in the security and military services. The management of the University of Bahrain was ethnically cleansed and by now the Shia Muslims were reduced to around 15%. The top 420 officials of the state were subjected to similar treatment and the Shia had been reduced to around 23% in 1997. The administration of the country is to be divided into four provinces. More dangerously, a decree was issued in early 1996 aimed at transferring the religious affairs of the Shia community to state control. In short, arbitrary laws were enacted and the power of the state was mercilessly deployed to consolidate absolute tribal rule.

External factors

The regime attempted to create a link between the uprising in Bahrain and external powers. On 3 June 1996, the security forces exhibited a theological student from the Iranian Holy City of Qum and showed him together with few youths on TV to confess of a grand plot to topple the "Sunni" government. The state emphasised the sectarian nature of the claimed plot to ensure that the Sunni population is isolated from active opposition.

The opposition maintained that the uprising is internally driven, with a local agenda that had been formulated on legitimate popular demands, which can not be said to reflect foreign interests. In fact, all the demands were based on the constitution which legitimises the rule of the Al-Khalifa family. Negating the constitution, either by the opposition or by the government, would result in the removal of the source of legitimacy for the ruling family.

Unrest continued to surface with international human rights organisations continuing to expose the flagrant abuses of human rights. Ironically, it was the 3rd of June 1997, exactly one year after the claimed plot, that the British House of Commons debated the situation in Bahrain, with the new UK Foreign Office Minister, Mr. Derek Fatchett declaring that the Bahraini opposition is a "moderate" one with a moderate set of demands.

This historic parliamentary debate was to be followed by a major 109-page report issued by the US-based Human Rights Watch on 24 July 1997. This was also followed by an important and historic UN Human Rights Sub-Commission resolution which was passed on 21 August 1997, condemning the Government of Bahrain for its gross violations of human rights including discrimination against the Shia community. This condemnation represented a back-firing of the policy adopted by the ruling family which assumed that using the Shia as a scapegoat would continue to be a winning game.

On 18 September 1997 the European Parliament issued another historic resolution calling on the Bahraini Government to release political prisoners, to facilitate the return of exiles and institute due process of law, according to accepted international standards, and to open negotiations with opposition forces immediately, with a view to holding democratic elections, open to all sexes, at the earliest opportunity. Moreover the Parliament called on the European Union Member States to refrain from supplying arms or security support to the Government of Bahrain and requested the European governments to take initiatives in order to obtain similar restraint at international level until democratic conditions have been restored.

The United States did not parallel these positive responses. It was also on 18 September 1997, when Mr. Johnny Young, President Clinton's nominee to be the next Ambassador to Bahrain, said "The United States supports fully the Government of Bahrain's efforts to maintain order and stability in the face of periodic outbreaks of violence. As we have emphasised in our continuing dialogue with the Government of Bahrain, this objective must be pursued in a manner consistent with international standards of human rights. We will continue to encourage constructive and decisive action, by the Government of Bahrain to address the underlying political, social and economic causes of the unrest".

Such a comment may be understood within the framework of the policy adopted by the United States in the Gulf region. The opposition welcomed Mr. Young's reference to the underlying causes. However, his assertion that Iran had links with opposition figures reflected the mind-set of the US policy makers. The hostile US-Iran relations had always been a winning factor for the tribal dictatorship. The Shia of Bahrain have natural links with the holy cities of Qum and Najaf. This is a religious and basic right. Since the early eighties, Qum became a safe place for Shia religious students. Students in Qum were to be influenced by the worsening Iran-US relations and the Iran-Iraq War. Despite all this, the Shia Islamists in Bahrain fostered, propagated and led an independent and moderate opposition with traceable local roots. This is an achievement, which the opposition is proud of.

By September 1997, the government adopted a new strategy. The local media launched personalised attacks against the United Kingdom and targeted such personalities as the European MP, Mr. Stanley Newens. This is because the latter had co-sponsored the resolution passed by the European Parliament on 18 September. The government had already embarked on the silencing of international news agencies. The German News Agency (DPA) correspondent. Ms. Ute Meinal, was expelled in July 1997. The BBC Correspondent Ms. Esmat Al-Moswai was also silenced in the same period. The local correspondent of UPI, Mr. Mohammed Al-Ghasrah was detained and forced to resign in mid 1997. Reuters local correspondent, Mr. Abbas Salman had been detained for one day in September 1996. For this reason the staff of the remaining news agencies of Reuters and AP know that they face similar treatment if they report any views (other than official ones) about the political crisis.

The government of Bahrain adopted this new policy following its set backs on the international scene. It realised that attempting to blame Iran (and at some stage Qatar) for the local crisis was a total failure. They had therefore up-graded relations with Iran to ambassadorial levels on 26 September 1997. This took place at exactly the same time when the local media started blaming the UK for inciting violence (see Al-Ayyam, 23 September 1997). Al-Ayyam criticised the "crooked methods" used by Western states, particularly Britain, in their approach to "terrorist elements". It said that Britain was "receiving and caring for terrorist elements, facilitating their movements on British territory, and granting them private passports to facilitate their suspect movements throughout the world in order to create bloody tragedies in several Arab areas". The paper also specifically condemned British MEP Stanley Newens's "defence of the crimes committed by terrorist elements in Bahrain". The commentary said that the days of colonialism were over and Arab countries would not tolerate its return. The opposition replied by saying that it hoped "one day there would appear a courageous person from the political establishment who could face the challenges of the modern age. There is a short cut to ending the crisis and it is unfortunate that those in charge can not open-up their eyes, minds and hearts" (see Bahrain News by BFM, 27 September 97).

Moderate Islamist discourse

It is important that some basic definitions are clarified when reviewing the type of discourse adopted by certain groups. Islamism, political Islam and Islamic fundamentalism are terms used by researchers and politicians when referring to the relationship between Islam and politics. Gellner [see Ahmad et al (1994)] emphasizes that the secularization thesis, which assumes the diminishing role of religion in the industrialized societies, does not apply to Islam. Enayat (1982) clarifies "if the essence of politics is the art of living and working together, then four of the five pillars of Islam - prayer, fasting, alms-giving, pilgrimage, are perfectly suited to promoting.. group solidarity amongst its followers".

Guazzone (1995) describes Islamism as the ideology that provides the common denominator for a number of political movements presently active in the Muslim and Arab worlds. She says "Islamist movements are, in fact, complex and multi-sided political actors which interact chiefly with their domestic social environment, not only do they draw from it the resources needed for their organization and growth, but they also change its reference values and are changed by it. Islamist movements are also part of a system of relations and conflicts with the other actors on the Arab political scene - both in government and in opposition - with which they contend for consensus and power".

The need to redefine the approach of the Islamist was noted by Badie (1989) who said "the reformist and then revivalist movement caused the Muslim elite to feel it necessary to redefine themselves in relation to Europe, right from the beginning of the nineteenth century". The themes brought up by the French Revolution in 1789 "inevitably structured the intellectual debate which began in Persia, the Ottoman Empire and in particular, in Egypt".

The reactions to many of the concepts coming from the European age of enlightenment were also characterised by fear and sometime hostility, since the output philosophy was primarily viewed as the product of "unbelievers". That hostile reaction was somehow justified when examining the methods by which the victorious European World attempted to spread "modernisation". The modernisation of the state was viewed as a top-down process, which is a reflection of an authoritarian and centralist view. This process started by equipping the armies along European lines. This process also needed a system of education and as such the first to receive modern education were usually army personnel. The undemocratic rulers then inherited such a top-down trend. The Panels Overviews published by the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (1993) commented "Arab regimes tend to view democratisation as a process led from the top down so that the end result (to maintain the status quo) can be controlled".

The universality of paradigms and concepts need to be judged within the context of philosophical views and social structure. Equivalent terms of references between differing cultures were and remain to be a concern for many. Terms like homeland (watan), nation or community (ummah), equality (musawah), unity (tawheed/wehda), struggle (jihad), exchange of opinions/consultations (Shura), revolution (thawrah), liberty (hurreya), liberals (ahrar), free people (ahrar), allegiance and affiliation (wala'a and intima'a), patriotism (wataneyah), democracy, citizenship, popular sovereignty, and human rights, were and are somehow differently understood and interpreted.

By coming to terms with the various conceptions and their applications, thinkers and activists would be able to work out the common themes shared by the differing cultures. Oversimplifications or ad hoc borrowing of concepts and ideas do not serve any useful purpose. For the internalisation of these common themes to take roots it is necessary for pragmatists and utopians alike to start from the harsh realities of politics.

One of the themes that brings Islamists and secularists together is the denunciation of arbitrary practice. Another one, says the Economist survey (6 August 1994) on Islam and the West, is that "a Muslim and a westerner both believe, more clearly than most other people, in the idea of individual responsibility".

Islamist reformers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries debated the right of the individual to revolt against oppression in favour of the establishment of a just or a fairer society. Mohammed Abdeh in Egypt called for the acceptance of good European laws on the basis of their compatibility with such Islamic concepts as Shura.

Ijtihad, or independent judgement, was effectively deployed for reconciling revelation with reason. Islam, after all, had in its principles the respect of reason. In fact revelation was viewed as a means of access to reason "Those who truly fear God, amongst His servants, are the knowledgeable" (Quran: Sura 35, Verse 28).

Enayat (1982) explained how scholars in the Muslim world handled the issue of constitutional state by referring to principles of ijtihad. The Shia scholars in Iran, for example, led a Constitutional Revolution in 1906 by invoking the various concepts underlying ijtihad, such as the concept of "obligatory preliminary" and "secondary apparent rules".

Al-Sadr (1975) supported the progressive view of another jurist, Mohammed Jawad Mughnieh. The latter appreciated the social dimension of Islamic jurisprudence. According to this view, those revelations that relate to worship practices ought to be understood and followed literally. However, those revelations that relate to social issues ought to be understood by taking into consideration other factors such as experience and circumstances, and these vary with time and place.

Bahraini Islamists

There is a broad spectrum of differentiated ideological currents within the Islamists trend, however, all accepting and adhering to Islamic framework.

One issue that emerged during the present events is the moderate nature of the opposition's demands. The group that led the petitions was made of both the Sunni and Shia sections of the society. They included liberals, leftists and Islamists. The Shia Islamists enjoy the largest popular base and are able to call for mass action in support of the pro-democracy demands. Indeed, in the early nineties, many religious scholars started explaining the concepts of civil rights by referring to the constitution of Bahrain. When in 1993, thousands of copies of the country's constitution were printed and distributed in mosques and other gatherings, the security forces raided several houses and printing shops and arrested scores of activists. The spread of rights-culture inside mosques was viewed by the state as a dangerous development that must be countered by repressive measures.

There is a history behind the evolution of an Islamist discourse in Bahrain. Underground movements spread in Bahrain after the declaration of the state of emergency in 1957. These movements were ideological, primarily leftist, in nature. Bahraini Islamists are part of the bigger world of Islam, and are naturally influenced by major tendencies. Sunni Islamists trace their roots back to the forties and fifties when a group of students joined the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan). A member of the ruling Al-Khalifa family, Sheikh Isa bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa, who occupied a ministerial position, is known for his connection with the Ikhwan. The Ikhwan had not joined any of the popular pro-democracy movements in the past decades. This in part may be explained by the closeness of its senior members to the ruling family, and the fact that many of them had been allowed to serve in senior positions in education and other sectors. It was not until the nineties that some Sunni Islamists began to play a public role in the pro-democracy movement. The original committee responsible for the 1992 petition comprised two Sunni Islamists, two Shia Islamists and two secularists, one Shia and one Sunni. A more or less similar structure was evident in the 1994 petition.

The Shia Islamists have traditionally been connected with religious scholars in the Holy City of Najaf in Iraq. Indeed several pro-democracy leaders in the fifties religious scholars themselves. They participated and won seats for both the Constituent and National Assemblies in 1972 and 1973 respectively. When in October 1974, the government attempted to force a State Security Law on the parliament, the Shia Islamists found themselves hand in hand with the leftists and liberals in the parliament. Although this alliance was pragmatic and somehow shakey, it was such a move that defeated the State Security Law in the parliament. The government resigned in protest on 25 August 1975. A day later, the Amir dissolved the parliament, suspended important articles in the constitution that prescribe re-electing a new parliament within two months and enforced the State Security Law.

Between 1975 and 1979, the state enjoyed a dramatic increase in cash flow provided by oil income. The suspicions between Islamists and leftists following the murder in 1976 of an Islamist journalist, Mr. Abdulla Al-Madani, provided the government with a golden opportunity for a major crackdown against Leftist organisations. The Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 altered the political map of the area as well as Western strategy. Amid the turmoil, a clear winner had been tribalism and absolute rule. By 1991 and following the liberation of Kuwait, the political forces have realised that the state has managed to diminish the margins of freedom even further. Resentment amongst the public and intelligentsia was growing and the opposition did not lose time in capitalisation. National consensus was achieved and translated into moderate petitions demanding the restoration of the rule of constitutional law.

In the nineties, there was a significant social change. The public had internalised the civil rights culture and the intelligentsia looked at the liberation of Kuwait as an appropriate time to publicly voice their demands. The Islamists were on the forefront, together with secularists, calling for the restoration of human and constitutional rights.


1. The moderate discourse adopted by all Bahraini political tendencies had taken roots through events and uprisings that started in 1938 and continued until the present time. The Islamist moderate agenda was based on the compatibility of demands with Islam and their convergence with civil rights fundamental concepts. The popular awareness of socio-economic and political rights played a pivotal role in the sustainability of the community-based opposition.

2. The tribally-controlled state continually rejected the demand for restoring the parliament. The participation of the nation in public affairs through its representatives and in preserving the rule of law that was enacted together by government and citizenry clash with the notion of tribal supremacy. At the same time, a hardened community-based opposition has deepened the conviction of the population that there is no bright future for the country beyond the rule of constitutional law. The events in Bahrain confirm the comment reported by the Financial Times survey (dated 31 May 1983) "It is widely remarked by Bahraini liberals in all sections of society that just as there may be a cost in electing a new assembly there may also be a cost in delaying".

3. The state consolidated its tribal rule through new administrative structure and by importing tribal population in an attempt to alter Bahrain's demographic balance. The opposition was left with no real choice but to continue its civil resistance.

4. Western fears were fully abused by the state to consolidate the status quo. Apart from the statements of the new British Foreign Minister, the US and other Western governments preferred to turn a blind eye to the consistent violations of human rights in Bahrain. Professor Fred Halliday clarified in a conference on Bahrain organised by the UK Parliamentary Human Rights Group on 26 August 1997, that instability and the two Gulf wars were not the product of democracy. He suggested that the West ought to make it clear that "absence of security is linked to absence of democracy". Unfortunately, such a warning may fall on deaf ears. It is not surprising that the Panels Overviews published by the Association of Muslim Social Scientists, p146 (1993) note that "The West, while calling for more democratisation, appears to sabotage the process so that it will continue to benefit from the favourite status quo. Many of the Islamic Movements are now making serious efforts to play by the rules and to gain practical political experience". The Overviews recommended that "the West needs to update its image of the Islamic movements and their spokesmen based on their actual actions, rather than rely on comfortable stereotypes".


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