Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Iran’s Man in Bahrain

by Ed Husain
April 27, 2012

Bahrain's leading Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassem takes part in an anti-government rally in Budaiya on March 9, 2012 (Hamad I Mohammed/Courtesy Reuters). Bahrain's leading Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassem takes part in an anti-government rally in Budaiya on March 9, 2012 (Hamad I Mohammed/Courtesy Reuters).

The dominant narrative in the West, that Bahrain’s opposition figures are somehow deserving of unconditional support because they are opposing an unelected monarchy, deserves scrutiny—the situation on the ground is more complicated than many recognize. In an interview with CFR today, I explain some of the complications and the geopolitical implications of empowering the Bahraini opposition without them first rejecting sectarianism, embracing women’s rights, abandoning violence, distancing themselves from Iran, and returning to the negotiating table.

Most importantly, it is necessary for democracy activists to be democrats, not theocrats.

When I was in Bahrain earlier this month, Ayatollah Isa Qassem was a name that kept being repeated by opposition members. Qassem is the philosophical and spiritual head of the al-Wefaq opposition party in Bahrain. I ask you to read the evidence below and decide for yourself if he is a peaceful democrat. These quotes are taken from Qassem’s sermons. The original Arabic appears below the English translation of each quote.

From a sermon on June 7, 2002:

[Khomeini is] one of the heroes of Islam and Islamic unity…and when we speak of Islamic unity we have to salute Khomeini’s jihad and dedication to the cause—to salute his establishment of Islamic unity week and his passion for the issues of the Islamic ummah with Palestine at the forefront of his attention. He will remain a champion fighting for the oppressed across the world.

… بطل من أبطال الإسلام والوحدة الإسلامية…ويفرض علينا الحديث عن الوحدة الإسلامية أن نحيي جهاد الإمام الخميني قدس سره في هذا السبيل، وتأسيسه لأسبوع الوحدة الإسلامية وذوبناه في قضايا الأمة، وفي طليعتها القضية الفلسطينية، وحتى غدا لسعة أفقه ينتصر لكل المستضعفين في العالم

June 6, 2003:

[The Iranian Revolution is] the call that never dies and will not die. It is not right for the nation to weaken and waver in its support for it and without pledging its full alliance in thought, sentiment, and practice, and refusing to submit to the arrogant American administration.

إنها الصرخة التي لا تموت ولن تموت ولا يصح للأمة أن تهن أو تتهاون دون الالتفاف بها وإعطائها الولاء الكامل فكراً وشعوراً وعملا بلا استكانة أمام الإرادة الأمريكية المتغطرسة، ولا ذوبان في الطرح الأمريكي، ولا مغادرة عن الصراط الإسلامي القويم

February 13, 2004:

A few words on the occasion of the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran:

A revolution that was ignited by one of the heroes of faith, knowledge and determination; a lover of the lovers of Mohammed’s lineage and his blessed sons, peace be upon them.

[The Iranian Revolution is] a blessed revolution that toppled one of the Islamic world’s despots–the despot most supportive of the Great Devil, the United States, as the great Imam al-Khomeini named it.

A revolution that made America kneel in Iran, and cut the hand that tried to defile Islam and its values in that country and stopped it from looting and plundering the wealth of the good Muslim Iranian people in such a provocative manner.

. كلمات سريعة في مناسبة انتصار الثورة الإسلامية في إيران

ثورة فجّرها بطلٌ من أبطال الإيمان والعلم والعزيمة والصمود، وعاشقٌ من عشَّاق خط أجداده الكرام محمدٍ وعليٍ وأبنائه الهداة عليهم السلام

ثورة مباركةٌ أطاحت بواحدٍ من أشدِّ طواغيت عالمنا الإسلامي، وأكثرهم دعماً من الشيطان الأكبر أمريكا كما سمّاها السيد الإمام الخميني العظيم

ثورةٌ ركّعت أمريكا في إيران، وقطعت يدها الجانية عن العبث بمقدّرات الإسلام وقيمه الغالية في ذلك البلد وعن نهب خيرات الشعب الإيراني المسلم الكريم وثرواته الهائلة بصورةٍ استفزازية بشعة

June 4, 2004:

The day of the departure of Imam Khomeini was a catastrophic day that this nation had to live through. He was a Quranic leader, a mujahid in the name of God, stubborn on the path of truth, a seeker of the afterlife, a teacher of the nation putting generations on the track of struggle, and establishing a school of guidance…

يوم الذكرى للرحيل السعيد للسيد الإمام الخميني (ره) يوم فاجعة عاشتها الأمة الواعية، وواعيةٍ قاسيةٍ. كان قائداً قرآنياً مجاهداً في الله، عنيداً في الحقّ، طالباً للآخرة، معلّم أمة، ومخرّجاً لأجيال على طريق الكفاح، ومدرسة هادية للحياة

June 8, 2007:

A man of mercy, a revolution of mercy, a state of mercy that is not exclusive to this nation but for the people at large. The man is Imam Khomeini, the revolution is his, and the state is his, and the secret lies in the mercy of his Islam, the Islamic revolution, and the Islamic state…If all Islamists, regardless of their sects, gathered around this man, this revolution, this state and the peoples of this nation followed them, Islam would have been on a fast track to total victory.

رجلُ رحمة، وثورةُ رحمة، ودولةُ رحمة، رحمةٍ ليست خاصة بالأمة، وإنما أستطيع القول أن كل ذلك فيه رحمة للناس. الرجل هو الإمام الخميني، والثورة ثورته، والدولة دولته، السر في كون هذا رحمة إسلامُ الرجل، إسلام ثورته، إسلام دولته
.والإسلام ضرورة لإنسانية الإنسان، للحياة الدنيا، للآخرة
وأقول لو التفّ الإسلاميون كلّهم بكل مذاهبهم، بالرجل، بالثورة، بالدولة، والتفّت بذلك شعوب الأمة لأسرع الإسلام الخطى على طريق النصر الكاسح، ولعمّت النعمة الأمّة والإنسانية بصورة أظهر وأوضح

February 8, 2008:

The revolution happened in Iran setting in place an Islamic Republic, so they gathered against it in animosity. The East, the West, and their agents in the Islamic world. They belittled it, and belittled those who are in charge of it…If you look within the Islamic nation for a political system that is not connected to the West, to the axis of evil, and does not prostrate before either West or East, you will only find one political system: [Iran]

حدثت الثورة، وأقام الإسلام نظاما إسلاميا جمهوريا في إيران، فاجتمعوا على عداوته والكيد به، اجتمع الغرب والشرق والعملاء الداخليون في البلاد الإسلامية على عداوته والكيد به. قلّلوا من شأن وشأن القائمين عليه …  لو بحثت في إطار الأمّة كلّها عن نظام سياسي لا يرتبط بمحور الغرب ولا بمحور الشر، ولا يسجد على أعتاب الغرب ولا الشرق لما وجدت غير نظام واحد

February 15, 2008:

…and Hezbollah is a treasure enriched by mujahideen, heroes, revolutionaries, and pillars of faith— there is no need to worry about [its future]

 وحزب الله حزبٌ كنزٌ يثرى بالمجاهدين، بالغيارى، بالأبطال، بقممٍ إيمانية واعية فلا يُخاف عليه، وإنه لحزب منجب، وإن الأمة التي منها هذا الحزب لأمة منجبة

June 12, 2009:

…and his revolution, his victory, his state created many revolutionaries on the path of God…you rightfully and honestly say that Khomeini’s revolution, his victory, and his state created a new widespread jihadist line that transcended the borders of the revolutionary country…

وقد صنعت ثورته وانتصاره ودولته ثائرين كثراً على طريق الله

تستطيع أن تقول محقّاً صادقاً بأن الإمام الخميني (قده) قد نسَلَت ثورته وانتصاره ودولته تيّاراً ثوريّاً جهاديّاً رساليّاً واسعاً داخل الأمَّة متجاوزاً في سعته حدود بلد الثور

June 19, 2009:

…Hezbollah is an exemplary Islamic group…

…حزب الله مثال اسلامي

June 26, 2009:

The western reaction to [the Iranian elections] in such an exaggerated manner ignites strife, perpetuates struggle, and creates a division in an otherwise peaceful country. Hatred here is a hatred toward Islam, and the Islamic mode of governance and the effectiveness of that mode in solidifying the nation and its dignity, ensuring its progress and superiority, and preserving its interests and independence. Behind that hatred is a fear of a wider reversion to Islam and what that means in terms of turning over the scales of powers on Earth and changing the equation to the benefit of the Islamic nation and those who are oppressed…

الحدث الداخلي في إيران يمكن أن يحدث في كل مكان ويأخذ حجمه الطبيعي وينتهي إلى ما ينتهي إليه من غير انحياز من قوى الشر في الأرض لطرف معيّن على حساب آخر بهذه الصورة المبالغ فيها، ومن غير هذا الدفع والتحريض الشديدين على إلهاب الفتنة، وإشعال النار، وتعميق الصراع، وإيجاد محرقة شاملة في بلد آمن. البغضاء هنا بغضاء للإسلام، والصيغة الإسلامية للحكم، وفاعلية هذه الصيغة في تثبيت أصالة الأمَّة، وعزّتها وكرامتها، وتحقيق تقدّمها وتفوّقها، والحفاظ على استقلالها ومصالحها
ووراء هذا الحقد خوف من عودة أوسع للإسلام الحق من قبل الأمة، وما تعنيه العودة للإسلام من انقلاب موازين القوى في الأرض، وتغيّر المعادلة الفعلية لصالح الأمة الإسلامية والمستضعفين

 

For al-Wefaq’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Isa Qassem, to enter the Arab uprisings without nullifying his previous remarks on democracy as Western and evil makes a farce of what the Arab Spring was all about. Policymakers in Washington should be well aware of the forces that are opposing the monarchy, and the ideational links to Hezbollah and Iran. Yes, the monarchy must reform—but so must the opposition. The sentiments expressed above are not those of a democrat.

7 Comments

  • Posted by Olijaan

    I’m afraid I don’t see anything extraordinary here, particularly given the immediately striking fact that alll the above statements you provided were made in either February or June, that is to say around the anniversaries of the Iranian revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, respectively. Surely such statements in sermons at those times could be expected at least as a matter of courtesy; as I am sure you are aware, both these events have been quite widely commemorated outside Iran in Shia communities of the region ranging from Lebanon to Pakistan and India.

    Your seem to not only greatly overstate the content of the remarks (while neglecting context) but to too easily assume that this is, firstly, evidence of the involvement of Iran (despite the findings of the Bassiouni Report to the contrary) and, secondly, would translate into an intention to instal a theocracy (for which there is no evidence). Moreover, you set these conflicts firmly along sectarian lines.

    Of course, this is to not even mention the other more disturbing ommission in your general analysis of Bahrain – namely the glaring absence of any acknowledgement, let alone condemnation, of the regime’s brutal crackdown on the uprising.

  • Posted by Abdulla

    You should check his sermons post-Feb. 14.. At one sermon (a recent one, perhaps 2 months old), he encourages people to ‘crush’ the police men, in effect making it ‘halal’. If one thing’s for sure, he’s far far away from condemning any of the terrorist acts that occur since last year.

  • Posted by Ali Sharif

    I agree with your points Mr. Husain. The points you have raised are as far as we Bahrainis know are correct. The opposition have always been big supporters of Iran and Hezbollah. Any observer of the Bahrain political situation during the past 10 years would know from the kinds of protests that the Shiaa opposition have been going through where all flags of Iran and Hezbollah were raised and once you enter the religious places of such, you would see the pictures of these leaders all over the place.

    The fact that the Shiaa community in Bahrain are democracy seekers is not correct. The main belief of this sect is to have a leader that commands the crowds into any matter of life. This was apparent when the Family law in Bahrain was introduced, the Shiaa part of it was not approved due to Isa Qassim’s disapproval of it which in effect reflects the Iranian view of Women’s rights. This is a small example, and many other examples can be easily mentioned.

    In reply to the above mentioned comment, I would like to say that the bessuoni report did not say anything about the Iranian involvement. It only mentioned that the government did not provide any details of such involvement due to its sensitivity.

    And as a person who lives in Bahrain, we sense the effect of Isa Qassim’s speeches on the crowds where the intensity of their so called “peaceful” protests increases if the speech of Isa Qassim comes out encouraging these crowds to fight the government.

    I suggest that the person who made the comment goes back to the history of this opposition movement in the past ten years and judge whether it’s a theocracy or a democracy.

    The government made a lot of mistakes. and are progressing in fixing such mistakes (slowly though). In addition, the latest amendments to the constitution have been so much beneficial in empowering the people and I think this should be considered as an improvement in the current situation in Bahrain. I believe that many other improvements should be done, however, the people of the country are not ready for a pure democracy and this process could take years. Other countries needed 100s of years to perfect this democracy.

    Some parties want to give the world a message that this country is going through a civil war. I tell everybody out there, please come to Bahrain and we will show you that the country is very normal and life goes on in many parts. F1 has been a big proof of that.

  • Posted by Mariam Janahi

    It is everyone’s right to live in a country that protects their rights and gives them freedom of expression and allows them to live with pride and dignity. Democracy is just a word that is been used very lightly these days and many of those who appear to be fighting for it do not really apply it when it contradicts with certain agendas. To me, theology and politics do not meet. We can’t have a real democracy and a civil society and take instructions from a clergyman with a status of Ayatuallh. A person who is considered a superior being who does not make any mistakes. How can one have a dialogue or discussion with someone who is elevated to such high rank? I’m not surprised to see a simple two word sentence in Arabic on the photograph of Sh. ISA Qassim stating “you are not to be disobeyed”. In Arabic لا تخالف. These two words are very powerful and defeats any attempt to have any democracy that is not the democracy of the religious leader.

  • Posted by baba

    what is the point of this. The opinion. He expressed. Is shared by a large number of People . Why are u trying to blame the victim not the. Government
    After all the majority rules in a democracy. And the majority in this case is the demonstraters. Truth hurts.

  • Posted by Kory Satter

    The “Arab Spring” is bad for two states, and two states with a deep hatred of each other: The Islamic Republic of Iran and the State of Israel.

    Iran does not have as much to lose as Israel does, however. Yes, it is true that Iran might lose its friend Syria, but this is not 100 percent sure yet. Furthermore, Iran has already gained Shiite Iraq as a new friend and if Bahrain goes, then it has one more friend to gain — and in the Gulf, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

    As for Israel, on the other hand, it should be much more worried. The pro-democracy uprisings in places such as Egypt and Jordan, in particular, should be worrisome. If these said countries transition to democracy, then Sunni Islamist parties with a hard-lined stance against Israel will rise to power (as the success of the Muslim Brothers and Salafis in Egypt have shown).

  • Posted by Kory Satter

    The so-called “Arab Spring” is almost a trade-off for many entities in the region. Some of these trades are beneficial, others, not so. One example of these trades concern Iran: Iran very well might lose Syria, but gain Iraq and Bahrain as new allies — both predominately Shiite countries. Hamas has gone head to head with the Syrian regime, too, but now has the Islamists in Egypt for allies, and pretty soon, probably Tunisia, Libya, and perhaps Morocco. Israel, on the other hand, has lost all sense of hope. Democracy in the region is bad for Israel, because the people of the Middle East will no longer tolerate the oppression of the Palestinians.