Prominent Shiite Cleric in Bahrain Stripped of Citizenship

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The decision of the Bahraini government to revoke the citizenship of Isa Ahmed Qassim , the leading Shiite cleric in Bahrain, has triggered a wave of reactions across the region. Mr. Qassim, whose family is of Iranian origin, was born in Bahrain in 1937 and was granted Bahraini citizenship in 1962. He has been the spiritual leader of the Shiite al-Wefaq Islamic Society and an advocate of the principle of clerical rule. In revoking his citizenship the Bahraini Interior Minister accused Qassim of promoting ”sectarianism and violence.” The reaction from Iran, which sees itself as a protector of Shiite rights, has been swift, predictably critical, and dangerously threatening. For many, Iran’s reaction has further underlined the case of the Bahraini government, which has argued that Iran has carried out an intentional campaign aimed at undermining the domestic stability of country. Others have argued that the current war of words is just an extension of a long-running Iran-Saudi, and more broadly Shia-Sunni competition for influence in the Middle East.

Announcing the news of the revocation of  citizenship for Mr. Qassim, a Khaleej Times report cited official Bahraini news sources which indicated that the Shiite leader “was charged with establishing organizations that follow ‘external religious political authority’, and for his role in creating an extremist sectarian environment and divisions in society. The Bahraini News Agency, BNA, reported that according to a statement released by the Bahraini Ministry of Interior, ‘Qasim also adopted theocracy, encouraged sectarianism and violence, and through his preach[ing] and ‘Fatwas’ exploited the religious pulpit for political purposes to serve foreign interests.’ BNA added that ‘Qasim has kept his decisions and positions, which he dictated as religious rituals, dependent on his continuous communication with hostile foreign organizations and parties. He also collected funds without complying with the provisions of the law’.”

The main Iranian daily, Tehran Times, was quick to report some of the critical comments made by Iranian leaders regarding the Bahraini government’s decision, with many of them using overtly threatening language aimed at Bahrain’s regime: “Condemning the act, Larijani said, ‘The Islamic Consultative Council (parliament) warns the Bahraini regime of the rude adventurism, believing it will dash hopes for achieving a peaceful solution.’ According to a statement by the country’s interior minister, Sheikh Isa Qassim ‘exploited the religious pulpit for political purposes to serve foreign interests … encouraged sectarianism and violence.’…The strongest warning words were voiced by Major General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Qods Force, saying that crossing Isa Qassim’s redline risks ‘dire repercussions, including armed struggle by people and overthrow of the Al-Khalifa dynasty.’ Also, the Iranian Foreign Ministry in a statement on Monday, carried on its official website, condemned the move, denouncing the regime’s ‘intensification of its security approach toward religious and national leaders, opposition to religious beliefs and principles, and misappropriation of religious assets and funds of the Bahraini people’.”

 The Bahrain News Agency, for its part, characterized comments coming from Iranian leaders and media as part of a long-standing pattern of antagonistic statements which are calculated to intimidate and interfere with Bahrain’s domestic politics: “To Bahrainis, the warning issued by Qasim Sulaimani, a commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was merely a confirmation of the hostile stances taken by some Iranian officials against Bahrain in recent years. A study of the statements issued by Iranians regarding Bahrain between February 2011 and May 2013 concluded that the kingdom remains a direct target in the Iranian plans for the region and that 160 antagonistic statements were made in the two-year period, Dubai-based Gulf News reported….According to the study prepared by the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies, several statements were clear incitement to violence and to resist the local authorities. Many of the statements were not limited to Bahrain and targeted other countries in the Gulf, mainly Saudi Arabia. The study found out that the Iranian media regularly resorted to emotions to stir sectarianism and to incite the people against the authorities.”

In an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Salman Al-Dossary notes that Iran’s aggressive response to what should be an internal matter for Bahrain, proves the necessity for taking drastic and quick action: “Doing Bahrain another favor, IRGC’s major general Qasem Soleimani, notorious for leading sectarian bigoted militias in Iraq and Syria, directly threatened an armed bloodthirsty “resistance” showing up in Bahrain, both motivated by the Qasim incident and violence. Not only do those declarations prove Iran’s wanton interference in the affairs of neighboring countries, but they also define its unwarranted policy for openly supporting armed movements. Once again Iran operates unlike any other country in this world….All attempts on distorting Bahrain’s image, forging facts and downplaying its counterterrorism efforts must be drawn to a stop. Not for the sake of saving Bahrain itself, as much as it is to protect the whole region from the daily strain of terrorism it faces….It is time for the Manama government to rest assured. It is not obliged to either explain or clarify its decision to strip Isa Qasim from his nationality, especially after Iran has provoked a so-called ‘revolution’ in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Iranian stances play the best defense to Bahrain’s decision.”

Al Arabiya’s Abdulrahman al-Rashed is quick to justify Bahraini government’s decision to revoke Mr. Qassem’s citizenship by pointing out other countries that have used similar measures to blunt internal threats that may have otherwise lead to greater internal instability: “Many countries resort to revoking citizenship as a sanction, especially from naturalized citizens or those with dual nationalities. In the United States, revoking citizenship is raised not only against terrorists, but also those who help them. Australia, Singapore, India and Israel also revoke citizenship. Isa Qassem is a religious man who leads opposition practices against the Bahraini state, like hundreds of other clerics in the Arab world who were lured by the experience of Iran, where the clergy succeeded in dominating power….We hope that Bahrain gets out of this long crisis, through which Iran has been trying for more than a decade to dominate Bahrain’s opposition political activity. The opposition must not accept the invitation to violence, sectarianism and protection from a foreign regime, or else this will justify the interference of any authority in the region to face them by force.”

Writing for the Saudi Gazette, Abdul Aziz Al-Samary makes a direct appeal at overcoming sectarian divisions, seeing that as a prerequisite to a sustainable and peaceful future for the region: “The feelings of hatred and enmity among the Shiites and the Sunnis have poisoned the atmosphere of our social life. The two groups mobilize their followers to spread hatred and sectarian violence. We don’t see any signs of peacemaking in the horizon to end sectarian fighting in the Arab world. On the other hand, the fighting rages whenever religious leaders take the podium….the Shia-Sunni conflict is caused by the mixing of politics with religion, making it one of the pillars of the religion. Those who do not believe in Wilayat Al-Faqih would be considered out of religion by the Shiites. According to the Sunnis, those who oppose its politics deserve severe punishment….From this bitter reality we can understand the need to separate politics from religion to end the Shia-Sunni conflict and put an end to religious violence and hatred. We should incriminate the use of religion for politics and enforce the mechanisms of democracy and civil society by presenting civilian models for political work.”

According to a recent Arab News editorial, there is an implication that Bahrain’s, or for that matter any other Arab country’s actions in the region, should be considered in light of the ongoing Iranian campaign aimed at weakening Saudi Arabia’s position in the region: “The Iranian government’s agents have also been active in the Gulf states. Serious sedition has been stirred up in Bahrain. The Kingdom helped Bahrain in containing the Iranian-backed threat to its peace and stability. The Kingdom also led its Gulf allies in Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen. This saved the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Tehran knows that Saudi Arabia is the key power that is checking its plans for regional hegemony. The Kingdom has therefore become the Number One target for Iranian espionage. Social unrest has been actively encouraged in Eastern Province…. it has taken the Riyadh trial to expose the lengths to which the Iranian government would go in pursuit of its dishonorable aims. And without doubt its scheme to disrupt the Haj is the most unforgivable. Had it succeeded it could have caused death and misery to Muslims from all over the world who come in peace as welcomed guests of the Kingdom.”

There are signs that perhaps Iranian leaders have recognized the ongoing frailty of Iranian-Arab relations; at least that is the conclusion that The National’s Michael Young draws from recent reshuffling in the Iranian government: “Mr Ansari replaced Hussein Amir Abdel Lahyan, who is considered close to the Revolutionary Guards and had oversight of Syrian and Lebanese affairs. Arab press reports described the new deputy foreign minister as a “friend” of the Arab states. The appointment was interpreted as an attempt by Mr Zarif to gain control of relations with the Arab world, at a time when these have reached an all-time low, amid sectarian conflict from Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen….If that is indeed the result, it would not be bad for Iran. The Islamic Republic’s ties with Arab countries cannot be deemed a success – or rather its successes have only heightened domestic polarization in countries, leading to accusations that Iran is pursuing power by destabilizing the region….A policy of playing on the region’s divisions may have earned Iran political leverage, but it has also generated strong resistance to whatever it does. Like Turkey, Iran is turning into a peripheral state getting burnt while playing Arab politics.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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