End of Shia Mourning Season: Why Does US Embassy Monitor Ashura in Bahrain?

2016-12-09 - 6:13 am

Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): The Shiite season of mourning which lasts for two months, kicking off in the beginning of Muharram, followed by the occasion of Arbaeen, and finishing off with the commemoration of Prophet Mohammad's demise, has recently ended. In seven episodes, Bahrain Mirror presented a reading research on the cables sent by the United States Embassy in Bahrain's capital Manama to the US State Department about the commemoration events that take place during Ashura across Bahrain. The cables were disclosed by WikiLeaks in 2010.

This begs the question: Why is US diplomacy so interested in Bahrain's Ashura?

Political Ashura: From Imam Khomeini to Qatif, Najaf and Nabatiyeh

In June 1963 during Ashura, thousands of Iranians were killed after taking to the streets in protest of the Shah, answering the call of a Shiite religious authority, who later became the founder of the Islamic Republic.

The revolution led by Rouhollah Khomeini in Iran wouldn't have succeeded without Ashura. Again on the commemoration of this religious occasion in August 1978, the most massive protests of the revolution were held. The scene was described as the final confrontation and last challenge that made the country spiral out of control, leading to the overthrow of the Shah regime a few months after.

Imam Khomeini's words on Ashura became part of the Shiite heritage, such as "All we have is from Ashura," and "Ashura is the victory of blood over sword."

Coinciding with the Iranian Revolution, the month of November in 1979 witnessed what was known as "the uprising of Muharram" in Qatif and Al-Ahsa. Determined to publicly commemorate Ashura, Shia Saudis took to the streets, chanting political slogans denouncing sectarian discrimination and persecution. The uprising was stifled with a siege imposed on the Qatif region, after violent clashes erupted between Shia citizens and Saudi Arabian National Guard, leaving around 20 people killed and dozens injured and imprisoned.



(Ashura Protests in 1979, Safwa, Saudi Arabia)

Iraq in 1977 also witnessed what was known as the "Intifadah of Safar," which was launched to fight the authorities' decision banning marches from Najaf to Karbala during Arbaeen, and ended with bloodshed. These demonstrations are considered to be the most prominent anti-Ba'ath movement, which was backed by the late Shiite religious authority Mohammad Baqer Al-Sader.

Elsewhere in Lebanon in 1983, the city of Nabatiyeh saw historical confrontations between the Shia and the Israeli forces during the commemoration of Ashura. Demonstrators set Israeli military vehicles on fire and attacked occupation forces with swords.



(Lebanese citizens burning Israeli military vehicles during Ashura in 1983)


Ashura Tax in Bahrain: National Union Committee

Bahrain is the only Gulf state where Ashura is an official holiday. The old market neighborhoods in the capital Manama are considered the historical central location of Ashura events. Thousands of people attend Ashura in Manama. Shia mourners even flock from neighboring countries and that is why it is called "the Karbala of the Gulf."

Bahrain has always been considered an improved model of Shiite religious freedoms, yet the history of how these freedoms were achieved is a matter of controversy. Prior to the administrative reforms, historians report that the ruler imposed a tax on the commemoration of Ashura, according to Lebanese anthropologist Fuad Khuri in his book Tribe and State.

Even dozens of years before the Iranian Revolution, Ashura in Bahrain automatically turned into a political platform against the ruling family and its British protector amid the accumulating suppression practiced against the Shia majority in the country. The island kingdom was always on alert and Manama and the rituals practiced therein were a source of intimidation.

In the 1950s, although Ashura was the cause of sectarian scuffles at the time, this religious occasion became the drive behind the establishment of the first political entity that brought together both religious sects. Symbolically, the first meeting of the National Union Committee was held at the Bin Khamees Ma'tam, and that is how a semi-consensus took place between the Sunnis and Shiites that Ashura be used politically for the fight for freedoms and rights. It was also a pleasant surprise when the Poet Abdulrahman Al-Mu'awda, who belongs to one of the most prominent Sunni tribes, stood and recited a eulogy about Imam Hussein on the Arbaeen during the National Union Committee meeting, urging people to confront oppression and imperialism, walking in the footsteps of Imam Hussein.

It was a historic Ashura success in Bahrain. The anti-imperialism Sunni Bahrainis could not resist the power of Ashura. They could not find a better platform that would help accomplish their anti-British domination political aims, since Ashura fuels willpower and fervor, and mobilizes the people. The former British advisor Belgrave expressed in his memoirs his admiration for this occasion which was also followed up in British diplomatic communications.



1990s Intifadah: The Opposition in a Poem

"Since the mid-1990s it is an anomaly if at least one political activist is not arrested for an ardent anti-government speech at this the zenith of ‘Äshürä' and of the entire month of Muharram," says Justin Gengler in his book entitled, Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf.

During the Intifadah in the 1990s, the authorities arrested Husseini preacher Sheikh Ali Al-Najas. Even though he was blind, the secret security servicemen tortured him to death. The reason, of course, was his repeated outspoken criticism about the ruling family, which he expressed on Ashura platforms.

What distinguished the 1990s uprising in Bahrain is its intensive use of Ashura and its rituals: such as taking advantage of Ma'tam platforms and mourning processions to deliver opposition political speeches and mobilize crowds against the regime in power. Bahrain's most senior cleric and the spiritual force behind the 1990s intifadah was Sheikh Abd al-Amir Al-Jamri, who was also an outspoken preacher. In one of Al-Jamri's messages, he stressed on the important and systematic role of Ashura platforms, expressing regret that the authorities imprisoned the majority of eulogy (Azaa) reciters. They were playing the role of Twitter today: They were the only media platform the opposition had.

Throughout Bahrain's modern history, any reciter that addressed politics was pursued by security authorities along with the whole group (Husseini procession) he was linked to. Thus, a secret group called "The Martyr Procession" emerged, which was not affiliated to any party and had no announced leaders. Through that procession, political slogans were launched.

During the 1990s, security forces did not only raid Ma'tams and attack mourning processions for chanting anti-regime political slogans, but also targeted anyone wearing black, including university students for instance.


After 2001: Politics from the Womb of Ashura

"Indeed, to an outside observer of the most holy Shi‘i festival of Ashura, it is difficult to perceive whether the myriad processions, passions plays, and sermons tell of the battle against the ‘Umayyad caliph or against the Bahraini monarch," noted Gengler describing the 2009 Ashura events he attended in Bahrain.

The Ashura season, which does not end on the Tenth of Muharram but rather extends through the entire Month of Muharram until the end of Safar, continued to occupy a political role even following a stage of political relief and what was known as the reform project launched by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in 2001.

Eulogy reciters and preachers continued to use the Ashura platform to touch on local and international political issues. Harsh criticism of the government, the political situation and new laws did not stop and also the Palestinian and Iraqi causes remained the highlights of the religious season at the time.

With larger space to practice religious freedoms, during that period, central congregational prayers were held and the Ashura speech was delivered by Sheikh Isa Qassim in Manama. Also from the womb of Ashura, more hardline speeches were delivered by opposition groups that defected from Al-Wefaq Society after the latter decided to take part in the Parliament.

On Ashura, the Haq Movement, a splinter group that broke away from Al-Wefaq, led by detained activist Hasan Mushaima also set up a platform in central Manama. In Manama as well a tent was set up for the martyrs and torture victims committee. Ashura to both parties was the most significant platform for political mobilization and gaining supporters and sympathizers.

Furthermore, leftist political societies (a mix of secular Sunnis and Shiites) began to issue annual statements on Ashura. These statements, according to Dr. Abdulrahman Khalifa, "adorned the front page of Al-Jamaheer newspaper" issued by the Bahrain National Liberation Front, which was a party founded by leftists in the 1950s.

Hence, Ashura will always incite controversy and continue to be monitored by state authorities and the US embassy as well.




WikiLeaks and Ashura: US Embassy on a Mission

The US cables leaked by WikiLeaks makes us certain that US embassies around the world, even those that are not intelligence bases, work on the ground to gather and analyze information. Unlike government forces that monitor the Shia's commemoration of Ashura with the purpose of punishing and arresting those who participate, the US Embassy in Manama collects information on Ashura for study and examination in order to give a comprehensive overview to the US administration in an annual confidential report.

Why were the US embassy cables confidential? What is so dangerous and important about the speeches of Sheikh Isa Qassim, Hasan Mushaima or Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, according to US diplomacy? What is so secret about Ashura commemoration rituals and ceremonies in Bahrain and what controversial impact does it leave? Are certain directives, decisions or reactions taken based on these cables and reports? Or is there a need to use them in devising plans and security and political strategies for the region?

These cables do not only reach the US State Department, but are also sent to the central US leadership in the Gulf as well as to intelligence agencies, analysts and researchers.

The Embassy lists all the minor details of Ashura in their religious, social and political context. The deep observation of Ashura in Bahrain (even if the US flag is drawn on the streets to be marched on) makes the US Embassy reports historical documents of great significance.

To US policy, Ashura was an inspiration for many revolutions and Shia resistance movements in the region, starting from Iran and not ending in Lebanon. The US has since been asking itself when this Shiite passion for Ashura in Bahrain will end?

These cables, which seemed to have become an annual mission since 2005, show that US diplomacy does not see Ashura as a mere religious occasion commemorated by seasonal rituals every year. The cables prove that Ashura is related to Gulf security, the stability of ruling regimes, the fifth column, the Iranian neighbor, and how the US image is portrayed in a Shiite's mind.

In 2008, the former US Ambassador Adam Ereli and other embassy officials attended Ashura commemorations in central Manama in January, as part of a post's outreach to Bahrain's Shi'a, stated a US Embassy cable.

This intensive monitoring is not to be taken lightly. There is a team that the Embassy sends annually to observe these events attentively. The Embassy also calls its Shia contacts to collect more information.

On the local Bahraini level, the Embassy finds Ashura to be a big opportunity for measuring the presence of political forces, their effectiveness and draw the public political mood. The cables note that these religious celebrations provide insight into the strength of movements, groups and public views.

British Colonialists Too

The leaked US cables gave us clear insight on the extent to which the US Embassy in Manama follows up this religious occasion, yet there are other documents from the British records that prove that the UK was as paranoid, also monitoring the commemoration of Ashura.

The document says that the British Political Agent Gault asked in August 1955 the UK foreign office to provide a military cover in the Gulf and strived to convince the ruler of Bahrain Sheikh Salman bin Hamad to deploy a number of the "Flamingo" destroyers at the Juffair base. He told the "Loch Lomond" destroyer to head from Kuwait to Bahrain to face what is taking place at the zenith of Ashura, fearing a possible eruption of tensions and popular outrage after National Union Committee threats to organize protests, rumors of a strike and planning of confrontations. The document says that Gault considered Ashura to be a difficult period during which emotions rage.

The Americans were keen to monitor Ashura celebrations even before they had an embassy in Bahrain, even from a cultural perspective. The US Embassy shows pride in the events it holds where it showcases rare and perhaps the oldest pictures of mourning processions taken near the US mission house in 1908.

Why didn't Saudi Arabia Study Ashura?

Justin Gengler highlights that the personalities and events of these founding days in particular can evoke powerful remembrances of political grievance when institutionalized in ritual and lore-and when put to good use by shrewd political entrepreneurs looking to rally the troops.

Ashura has the ability to politically and emotionally fuel the people. In many pages that Gengler devoted to speak of the political aspect of Ashura in Bahrain, he says that "many a citizen will be motivated by religious or political ideals such that he is willing to risk life and limb by engaging in activities in defiance of the state," adding that "repression" as an explanator of political behavior must be weighed against the countervailing power of individuals to suffer and even embrace sacrifice for the sake of a political cause."

Despite all the limelight shed on the commemoration of Ashura, the annual season of Shiite mourning, there is not any unprovoked objective political reading on this occasion and its rituals written by an official state authority in the Gulf States or any research or academic centers affiliated to these states; although it is deep rooted in the very existence of Shiites and has proved that it can influence even the adherents of other religious sects and schools of thought.

Why didn't the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain attempt to study Ashura far from the ideological conflict? Why didn't they try to understand their Shiites citizens through this door? Why didn't they try to gain the support of the Shia rather than cause divisions and question their loyalty?

Ashura in the Gulf and Bahrain, according to the US reports, is the largest public gathering and the best measure of the political behaviour of Shiite citizens. Ashura has also proven, through its cultural and historical aspects, to shift from a cause of sectarian and ideological confrontation and conflict to an occasion for political organization based on mutual values and interests, even when founded on sacrifice as was the case of the National Union Committee.

Although the Ashura commemoration was compared to the celebrations of Christmas by the US Embassy, there is no religious festival that can compete with Ashura in the extent of its political influence and mobilization. Ashura in Bahrain continues to shake the Gulf even after 2011. Even though WikiLeaks stopped leaking US Embassy cables by the end of 2009, there is no doubt that this annual mission is still ongoing.

We might just have to wait for another WikiLeak!

Link to In-Depth: WikiLeaks: US Embassy Annual Reports on Ashura in Bahrain

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