The King Listens to Sheikh Isa Qassim!
2017-06-15 - 1:02 am
Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): On May 21, 2004, the Sheikh was directly attacked by security forces as he led a demonstration on Saif Street. It was a mysterious incident, but its ambiguity in itself revealed the contradictions of the relationship between the King and Sheikh Isa Qassim.
When the security forces intercepted the demonstration before it reached the Pearl Roundabout, Sheikh Qassim intervened and asked the people to move back. At the moment he spoke with the demonstrators, he suddenly faced a barrage of gas canisters and rounds of rubber bullets.
All the circumstances have pointed to the fact that it was not incidental at all. "It was a striking surprise that could have left someone killed," said Sheikh Qassim describing the event. The Sheikh was taken to a safe place. Newspapers reported that he suffered from suffocation, yet the most shocking thing was what happened later on.
The King called Sheikh Isa to check on him, ordered the formation of a commission of inquiry, and even dismissed the Interior Minister, Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, who had been in office since the independence of the country (30 years ago)!
It all happened on the same day, and within hours!
People have the right to be surprised by this precedent, more than being surprised by the crackdown on the demonstration. Did the demonstration face a crackdown for the purpose of removing the Interior Minister after formally blaming him? Was it perhaps part of a plan or "conspiracy" that this would happen even if Sheikh Isa Qassim himself was to get injured? Or was the demonstration attacked to show the regime's "good intentions" towards the Shiite citizens and their leaders, but only after beating them up a little? Or was it all purely coincidental that the King used in another call with Sheikh Qassim?
In addition to the call, the King's words seemed to be a play on emotions. He said he was upset, and unsatisfied, and that he shares the demonstrators' anger, and stands with their protest against the violations committed against religious sanctities in Iraq!
The King's steps (which seemed to have been carefully studied) undoubtedly received a positive and generous response from Sheikh Isa Qassim. The Sheikh (along with Sayed Ghuarifi) issued a statement, in which he referred to the King's phone call, praising the "royal measures". He further described it later on in a Friday sermon as "a smart and wise stance" and that reflects a keenness and desire for dialogue and closing any door leading to a strife.
However, the Sheikh also wanted to know who was behind this act as long as it happened "without the King's consent." In a statement, he stressed that this raises "big question marks on who is behind this attack".
On the same day, the former leader of Wa'ad Society, the late Abdul Rahman Al-Nuaimi, states that "whoever ordered attacking the demonstrators deliberately intended to sabotage the friendly relationship that was built last Wednesday during the meeting of the King with the opposition".
Al-Nuaimi was referring to the King's meeting with the political societies on the constitutional issue following the popular petition crisis, the first action taken against the 2002 constitution, two years after it was issued.
Before that Wednesday, which Al-Nuaimi mentioned, there was another meeting that paved the way for this meeting between the King and the opposition, and even arranged it directly. Perhaps this meeting was the most relevant to crackdown on the demonstration.
The meeting then was only between the King and Sheikh Isa Qassim himself! Why did the King listen to Sheikh Qassim? How was the Sheikh able to influence him? What does this have to do with the Sheikh's stance regarding the 2002 constitution when it was announced? What was the nature of his position regarding the palace at the time? Did the King believe in Sheikh Isa Qassim, and believe in the reality and sincerity and honesty of his intentions?
Sheikh Isa Qassim's Initial Position towards the 2002 Constitution
From his first Friday sermon on April 6, 2001 to his 45th sermon on February 8, 2002, Sheikh Qassim did not mention the charter and did not address the concerns thereof, not even once. This only happened a few days before the announcement of the new constitution, and it seems that the need to address it was based on leaked information about what would take place.
In this speech, the Sheikh addressed the political elites stressing on the mechanism of constitution amendment and the consultative nature of the Shura Council. He considered that to be a guarantee of "consensus" and "strengthening of confidence" and said that "this generation wants to establish stable political relations." The King (then Prince) issued one of his economic "favors" at the time, which was to dropping payments of a large part of housing loans. The Sheikh did not spare words of praise on these steps taken by the Prince, and considered it an indicator of his concern and care, and wished him success. He further reiterated that such steps need the change in the Constitution to be "constitutional"!
This does not mean that Sheikh Isa Qassim will allow the "Constitution" to be his main concern. In the Friday sermon, which came one day after the announcement of the new constitution*, Sheikh Isa Qassim did not take an emotional stance. He expected what would happen a long time ago, and did not want everything to depend on this constitution. The Sheikh did not express his opposition to the amendments and did not give an impression that he was shocked or surprised. He rather revealed an attitude closer to acceptance and said "the changes came as a compromise between the implementation of the constitution and its disruption... The constitutional changes did not take us back to the level one of the constitution and did not completely paralyze us at the point of disrupting the Constitution, yet it lies on a middle ground"!
Sheikh Qassim not only attempted to cool down the intensity of the crisis and dealt with it calmly, but also stressed that it should not "destroy political relations, or adversely affect stability", and that Bahrain must not go back to the exhausting internal strife it suffered from.
Moreover the Sheikh spoke almost with certainty that the situation would not be refused. He said early on that participation is obligatory: "It is imperative for the Muslim community to fulfill its Islamic duty in every electoral process, by active and effective presence on both the levels of the media and voting."
In addition, the Sheikh advised the King to wisely select the members of the Shura Council! He said that the people "aspire" to have the appointment of the members of the Shura be done in accordance with "the interests of the people and their convictions... as well as competence and expertise...!"
In the next sermon, the Sheikh justified his opinion by saying that the act of defending rights and protecting interests has more than one method, and that the chosen methods are always subject to the set of values and " the reality" taking place!
Answers to say the least
Undoubtedly, the Sheikh did not want the 2002 constitution to turn into "the shirt of Uthman". He did not want to disrupt life and the "reform" projects even if there was tampering with the constitution, fraud and political treachery.
Sheikh Qassim might have seen this coming since he issued his anti-National Action Charter statement in 2001. He might have known that we were on the verge of a major political game. We might understand that the shift in his stance, from the extreme right to the middle, is because he felt that it was too late and that "political reality" indicates that it is impossible to reverse it.
After about 5 months, specifically in July 2002, the Sheikh saw that the issue regarding the constitution and the stab in the back by the regime has gone too deep into the subconscious mind of the people and the elite, to the extent that it can no longer be underestimated. He held back his political stance a little bit, and expressed it with more caution. He said that the constitutional changes must abide by the Charter, adding that it has disrupted the course of the reform approach and created confusion and divisions among the people. However, even in this discourse, the Sheikh did not leave the language of diplomacy, and wondered: "Will these constitutional changes "remain" like this (forever) or will they change?" He further stated that the government is required to give "answers" to these questions at the very least!
When disagreement over participating or boycotting broke out, it was critical to have a decision made. Sheikh Qassim committed himself to neutrality and even to silence. He forbade it to cause harmful dispute with the government. He stressed that the official channels must remain open for demanding rights and mending the situation, and he was the first to speak of a "dialogue".
Sheikh Qassim later saw that "there is a long way between a society of anarchy and a society of stability." He; however, expressed his concern of having the relationship between the people and the government return to being shaken.
After the societies announced their boycott of the elections at the beginning of September 2002, Sheikh Isa Qassim officially announced that the scholars' stance on the boycott and participation is now: silence!
After the elections, his calm attitude did not change, as he addressed the participants and talked about their responsibility and role now, and the responsibility of the MPs [they elected] who entered the parliament in order "to represent the people as a whole", especially in light of even their relative participation in the enactment of laws.
The fact that Sheikh Qassim (after years) revealed that the clerics' stance (which he kept quiet about) was with the participation in the elections tells a great deal. It can be said that the constitutional issue has been and could have remained in the circle of issues the Sheikh kept silent about, in favor of other matters. His position was one based on a different understanding of the Charter and reforms.
Al Khalifa were not to give in so easily. Political shuffling can be absorbed, and the constitutional situation should not be the sole determinant of the political reality. In the end, Sheikh Qassim since 1973 has established a "relative" democracy approach, making it imperative (even if one is an MP) to deal with the ruling authority even outside democratic institutions.
The Sheikh from the very beginning did not believe the lie of the Charter, and he did not think not for one moment that Al Khalifa were sincere in handing over the legislative power to the people voluntarily. If he wanted to deal with that reality, he had not see it as it was, and not wait for illusions.
It is noteworthy that the Crown Prince's visit to Sheikh Issa Qassim's house was at the height of the heated dispute over the constitution, boycott and participation. There is in fact no more explicit example of the nature of the Sheikh's policy than this.
The regime; however, did not benefit from all this political flexibility, honesty, caution, and goodwill. It went on to play the Sheikh, politically, to one end: To force the Shiite opposition to accept the King's full project, and to enter the parliament, despite all of its flaws.
Personal Status Law: Reverse reaction
The first time Sheikh Qassim described this issue as the "constitutional crisis" or "the constitutional problem" was after the personal status law issue had taken its toll, which was the first of the King's political cards, as we have previously discussed in the second report of this file (see: Ayatollah Isa Qassim, Reminiscent of Sheikh Khalaf at the King's Palace)
The personal status law crisis triggered a reverse reaction from the Sheikh. The Sheikh since then did not fail to bring up the constitutional crisis, through a history of Friday sermons, until the last quarter of 2006, when the political societies announced their decision to participate in the elections.
Sheikh Isa Qassim found himself busy and preoccupied with the personal status project. The spirit of his subsequent sermons shifted portraying his anger, sorrow and regret. He believed it is an issue that cannot be compromised for the sake of stability and national unity, etc.
From here on, he initiated challenging not only the King's constitution, but also the constitution of his father. In June 2003 (about a month after his meeting with the King over the issue of the personal status law), Sheikh Qassim discussed the Charter, the First Constitution (1973) and the second (2002) within the context of an "Islamic" stance.
After emphasizing that all these do not represent true Islam, he also declared that they do not represent true democracy. "It is not right for a Muslim to view the first constitution as the greatest ambition. The pro-democratic person does not seen from this viewpoint, and the pro-Islamic more so," he stressed.
The period after the personal status law is not as the time before. Sheikh Qassim entered a constitutional debate, and the regime lost a very important stance. Thus, up until the constitutional conference, the constitutional amendments (and the subsequent goal of entering the parliament) became the major issue that concerned the Sheikh. He saw that the rest of the issues (especially the personal status issue) were only consequences and not the main problem.
The Constitutional Conference: A Turning Point
If there is a turning point in Sheikh Isa Qassim's rhetoric regarding the King's project, it is the Constitutional Conference (held on 14 February 2004). The Sheikh's attitude towards the constitutional crisis changed systematically since that date.
With extreme caution, Wefaq head Sheikh Ali Salman described the constitutional conference as a "necessary corrective action that is not meant to break the prestige of the regime." Salman repeatedly emphasized that it is a rights movement action that does not disturb the Al Khalifa government, and that it is "a peaceful disciplined political movement under the command its own religious, political and political leadership."
The religious leadership (represented by Sheikh Isa Qassim) for their part supported the conference without reservation and strongly defended it: "The Constitutional Conference is a conference of proposals and demands to amend the constitution, a reasonable and lawful conference, which lies on the line of reform... and the political societies are very demanding of such steps."
The Sheikh was using the cards of the political game, and the worst of which was the personal status law.
After disregarding the subject for a prolonged period of time, Sheikh Isa Qassim stood at the Friday prayer pulpit on the occasion of the commencement of the constitutional conference, and detailed the problems of the 2002 constitution, stating how it is: non-contractual, incompatible with the Charter, restricting of popular will to the will of the government, noncompliance with the 1973 constitution and how it deprived many of the people's jurisdictions. For the first time, the Sheikh said that the 2002 constitution confiscated the sacrifices of the people and the blood of its martyrs, describing it as a "terrible setback"! In fact, the Sheikh not only criticized the 2002 constitution, but also criticized the National Action Charter.
The King's Response
The organizers of the Constitutional Conference invited the Royal Court, which sent them an apology, while stating that the King supports such conferences, seminars and meetings. Sheikh Ali Salman regarded this as a positive response from "His Majesty".
After the conference was concluded, during a meeting held on the occasion of the third anniversary of the Charter, the King spoke in a calm language: "I have hope that our affairs in this country will be addressed in the spirit of one family and that we will achieve more national gains." In his speech, the King stressed on "adherence to religion" twice, adding that one shouldn't stop at a certain stage and that the way of life is development.
There is no doubt that the King's speech seemed like a kind of answer to the old questions of Sheikh Isa Qassim, and his past grievances, but in any case, matters took another course. The King did not prevent things from taking the road of no return. Coordination between Sheikh Qassim and political societies had become much stronger. There was now one front, and the option of confronting the constitutional coup was clear. However, this time the ones to initiate the political game were the opposition.
Politics will return to the frontlines of "broad confrontation," and the banner will be held by the same 1990s man, Sheikh Ali Salman.
The Constitutional Petition: Going back in time instead of moving forward
Two months after the constitutional conference ended, and based on the decisions made therein, arrangements were made to launch a popular petition and send it to the King. The word petition in itself is very sensitive, as it is reminiscent of the beginning of the 1990s uprising**. It is a gloomy feeling that everyone experiences upon thinking that they are going back in time, instead of moving forward!
Parliament Speaker Khalifa Al-Dhahrani explicitly said that the popular petition means the return to the nineties. For months, a lot of controversy emerged regarding the petition and the right to sign it. Some walls were plastered with slogans like, "We will sign the petition despite all the challenges." Perhaps to today's readers, this may see as a trivial and laughable matter, but the complex political calculations at the time made it possible to address the authorities in the form of a petition which was viewed as a potential war!
As of March 2004, the organized "political mobilization" process, as described by Justin Gengler, began. As a result, the Internet was flooded with participations on a large scale, as many popular events and seminars were held in clubs, obsequies, mosques, society headquarters and even at public squares and on the streets. A large number of speakers emerged, and Sheikh Isa Qassim was present, as a very necessary religious cover.
The man who was in charge of petitions since the nineties came back to mobilize the whole country. Despite his tremendous ability to maintain his calm, Sheikh Ali Salman's speeches were not free of nervousness and tension. He announced a popular seminar for launching and signing the petition on April 21, 2004. The government immediately stood against the whole project. Its Minister, Majeed Al-Alawi, even threatened to dissolve the political societies if they gathered signatures from non-members.
A lot of tension rose and the political atmosphere heated up. Some said that the honeymoon between the government and political societies would end on April 21. Others said it was a referendum day, and asked for a holiday. April 12; however, passed by very quietly and was not recorded on pages of history, because the seminar was canceled!
The King's Messenger
It was reported that the government (or the King) sent a messenger to Sheikh Isa Qassim to stop this political tide. The messenger was none other than Dr. Majeed Al-Alawi. The most prominent thing reported was that Al-Alawi attempted to influence Sheikh Isa Qassim by the threatening messages of the government. He was given the choice to either cancel/postpone the petition or have political societies shut down and its leaders and religious and political figures arrested. It was reported that the minister told the Sheikh that the existence of the Shiite community was in danger because of this petition.
This can not be confirmed, but there is no doubt that the political societies, with the support of (or perhaps under the pressure of) Sheikh Isa Qassim, have decided not to ignore the official statement of Al-Alawi, since it must have been issued from the royal palace. The political situation almost caused an early split in the ranks of Al-Wefaq officials, and the government achieved a breakthrough, as it was able to stop the enthusiasm of the people on the streets, and take them back to the state of frustration.
But the petition was not canceled. The political forces used a trick that helps reduce tension as well as keep the movement flaming. This trick also received Sheikh Qassim's blessing.
The trick was to invite people to fill out an application form to join a political society, and then sign the petition as members of that society, and the process was known as the "sign and then sign". Instead of having a central headquarters, the societies set dozens of committees in villages and towns across the country to collect memberships and signatures.
"This is another wise choice", said Sheikh Qassim on April 20, 2004 in an exceptional speech, in which he talked about the petition, directly intervening in the matter for the first time. The Sheikh supported the political societies' decision and announced that it was issued in consultation with the clerics. Expressing his view on the matter, he highlighted that "the people are proving that they do not want any confrontation or clash... The people give up the constitutional stance while believing in its constitutionality, and give up the legitimate religious stance backed by the sacred Shariah while believing in its legitimacy, for the purpose of eliminating any justification that could be used by the other party in order to sabotage the reform process."
Three days later, Sheikh Isa Qassim will reiterate his position in the Friday sermon, speaking again about the whole constitutional crisis that has put an end to all hopes of reform. "The constitutional issue has become a reality rather than a possibility...
The Return to State Security
Nonetheless, the societies' decision did not prevent the government from using pretexts, as Sheikh Qassim had hoped. The Sheikh's words were used to restore the political momentum in the street significantly. This political movement continued and its news spread reaching international media. People gathered in large numbers at the headquarters where the signing of the petition took place, in mosques, obsequies, mosques, even tents and on the streets.
The government and the King did not take this well of course, and as of May 2004, the authorities had arrested more than 15 youngmen involved in collecting signatures on the petition, in the first brutal reaction to the move. The detainees were charged with "plotting to change the political system by illegal means"! The regime's response was basically: "If you return to petitions, we will return to state security!" Tensions rose in the streets, but the societies told their teams to continue collecting signatures.
In a sermon on Friday, May 7, 2004, Sheikh Isa Qassim considered that the arrests, which is an act of drawing the sword from its sheath, will lead to political failure. He further stressed that "the petition was not a challenge" and that it was not impossible to agree on a way to amend the constitution. He also reiterated his call for an "open dialogue" on this political issue in order to find solutions and restore confidence.
The Sheikh Influencing the King
Friday sermons on their own did not work, so Sheikh Isa Qassim himself went to the King.
On May 9, Sheikh Qassim and Sayed Al-Ghuraifi met with the King at Al-Rawda Palace. Bahrain News Agency reported about the meeting, stating that they had discussed issues of public concern, and that the King had once again recognized the role of clerics in "promoting national unity and safeguarding the public interest of the country." Minister Majeed Al-Alawi was also present at the meeting, and described it as friendly. Al-Alawi said that the King considered such meetings to be a reason for reassuring that channels of communication still exist between the official authority and the active figures in society.
On Wednesday, May 19, 2004, at the Al-Safriya Palace, at the request of Sheikh Isa Qassim, the King met with the heads of nine political societies, including opposition ones. The late Abdul Rahman Al-Nuaimi and Sheikh Ali Salman confirmed that the discussion was about the constitutional issue.
The King listened to Sheikh Isa Qassim, and on the same day issued an order to release the persons detained over the petition, and instructed the Minister of Labor to have a dialogue with the political societies.
This was the first official dialogue between the opposition and the regime over the constitutional crisis, and the first practical result of Sheikh Isa Qassim's attempt to influence the King!
*No one knew that the amendments to the constitution would be issued on February 14, 2002. No one knew what was going on, as the opposition, following the National Action Charter of February 14, 2001, was waiting for the constitutional amendments to be made and presented to the people in a clear referendum, considering it was the only mechanism approved by 1973 Constitution to make a lawful change in its clauses. The new constitution, which was announced by the King unilaterally, gave the appointed Shura Council a legislative authority equivalent to the elected council of representatives, and deemed it the upper chamber of the parliament despite all the pledges made by the King on the eve of the vote on the National Action Charter, whose terms were vague. Many articles of the old constitution were changed in a manner that diminishes the powers of the parliament and strengthens the influence of the King and the executive authority, without subjected these changes to a referendum, and without even mentioning these changes in the National Action Charter.
**The 1990s uprising began in 1992 with an (elite) petition led by the late Sheikh Abdul Amir Al-Jamri, accompanied by left-wing activists and Sunni Muslim figures who later defected. When the late Emir refused to accept the petition, it was decided to launch a popular petition, and Sheikh Ali Salman was the most prominent and active figure in the mobilization for signing it. The focus in these two petitions was on the reinstatement of the 1973 constitution, which the Emir illegally suspended when the National Assembly was dissolved in 1975 and then gave the legislative authority to the cabinet. The 1973 Constitution, which was the country's first constitution penned by a council elected by the people, is considered a well-developed constitution in comparison with the 2002 Constitution, which was passed about 30 years later. The opposition has lost an important legal argument regarding its demands when the King played the game of changing the constitution entirely on the basis of the "mandate of the Charter", for the opposition's stance in the 1990s was based on the demand of lifting the suspension imposed on the contractual constitution approved by the regime itself. However, in 2002, their demand shifted to refusing the constitution as a whole, since it is non-contractual.
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