Today the Bahraini government stripped Isa Qasim of his nationality. Although Isa Qasim, Bahrain’s most prominent Shia cleric, was born in the Bahraini village of Diraz, nationality is seen by some in Bahrain as a gift bestowed by the ruling Al Khalifa family. This sentiment was summed up by the pro-government Bahraini columnist, Faisal al-Shaykh, who wrote that Isa Qasim was ‘gifted’ (takarram 3ala) his nationality in 1962 but has been serving the interests of Iran ever since.
What an ingrate.
Legally speaking, the Ministry of the Interior have the ability to strip citizenship of anyone deemed a threat to the state. They must do this with the approval of the cabinet, who are all approved by the Prime Minister, who is appointed by the King. This is therefore a fairly straightforward process with little threat of opposition. The legal basis of the removal of Isa Qassim’s citizenship removal is, according to the MOI “إذا تسبب في الإضرار بمصالح المملكة أو تصرف تصرفاً يناقض واجب الولاء لها”. This essentially means that the MOI can remove someone’s citizenship ‘if that person causes harm to the goals of the kingdom or engages in behaviour that contradicts his duty of loyalty to the state’. Naturally this vague caveat could technically include littering, or public indecency, although usually it is invoked when people are engaged in something deemed treasonous (aka involving Iran). The particular article is from a 2014 amendment to the Bahraini nationality law of 1963. Although the new article adds nuance to the previously vague stipulations, the nuance simply delineates more clearly the extraordinary repressive nature of the law.
The rhetoric in support of Isa Qasim’s ‘denationalisation’ has generally been fairly base. Apart from vague accusations that he had it coming, or that he was responsible for the turmoil in Bahrain, there have been some more peculiar memes. This one says he has been ‘stepped on’, as if he were an insect. The below image actually shows him as an insect, spraying a can marked ‘sectarianism’ on Bahrain.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of Bahrainis, especially those who oppose the policies of the Al Khalifa dominated regime, were up in arms about the decision. Videos show a large crowd outside Qasim’s house, many carrying photos or wearing white shrowds.
The public anger comes on the back of not only 5 years of repression, but on a recent swathe of exceptionally (even by Bahrain standards) draconian moves. Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s largest opposition political society, was dissolved by the government last week. Ali Salman, the Secretary General of Al-Wefaq, was given an upgraded sentence of nine years (from four) for alleged incitement against the government. The Bahraini authorities’ penchant for giving everything a veneer of legitimacy with PR speak or vague assertions of ‘rule of law’ is often undermined in their haste to execute reactionary policies. In this regard, the local paper, the Gulf Daily News, gleefully portrayed the ripping down of the Al Wefaq sign from their headquarters. Although there was numerous officials present, they left it hanging, presumably as a warning to other political societies…
Nabeel Rajab, Bahrain’s outspoken Human Rights activist, was also arrested at the same time a group of human rights activists were prevented by the Bahrain authorities from going to a UN meeting in Geneva. The arrest, which happened on the 13th June, occurred soon after Zainab Al Khawaja, another human rights activist, was released from prison and went into ‘self-imposed’ exile in Denmark. In addition to these rather high profile cases, the Bahrain courts upheld the death sentences of three men accused of killing a policeman in 2014.
Qasim has been a thorn in the regime’s side for a while. Some may remember how in 2011 he was demonised by state media for telling people to ‘crush’ the security forces. You can read more about the context for this speech here, but here’s a summary from my recent article on Bahrain.
Statements by Shaykh Isa Qasim, a Bahraini Shia cleric and the spiritual leader of al-Wifaq, were also manipulated by state media. In particular, a speech in which he said that people should “crush” (ishaqūhum) the security services was framed by the regime as the moment that created a unilateral shift to violence among the opposition. His speech was even used in court by one policeman injured in an attack in the village of al-Eker as evidence pointing to the reason for oppositional violence (Zahra, 2012). While continued brutality by the security forces was most likely the catalyst for increasing fringe violence, the regime used Qasim’s anger and frustration to legitimize their discourse that Bahrain’s opposition would use democracy to install a Shi¤a theocracy. This further tied into the regime’s mantra that the Al Khalifa were a moderate and secular bulwark to theocratic and sectarian extremism (Whitaker, 2014), a tactic that has succeeded in a climate fuelled by increased fears of global Islamic terrorism
Qasim’s speech has not been forgotten, and many of his detractors are today circulating pictures of dead policeman in Bahrain, or clips from his ‘crush them’ speech.
The recent decision of Shia clerics to boycott Friday prayers, ostensibly due to a lack of security, but in reality in protest at the closing of al Wefaq, riled the government, who denounced the boycott.However, the recent clampdown, seen within a larger context seems to be happening for a reason. Justin Gengler mused on Twitter that ‘There must be an unpopular economic announcement coming for Sunnis’. This sentiment reflects the idea that potentially angering Sunnis must always be sweetened by commensurate repression of the opposition. Indeed, Mohamed al Binateej wondered whether a sales tax on tobacco and soda undertaken in Saudi could be rolled over into Bahrain. This is possible, given recent cuts to subsidies on fuel and meat.
Interestingly, much of this recent crackdown followed British MP Philip Hammond’s visit to Bahrain, and preceded Mohammad bin Salman’s trip to the US. This has led, understandably, to accusations that either the UK or the US has given the green light to launch a crackdown on the opposition. Potentially true, but it could also be that the governments are upping their repression game to seek political leverage, or show defiance in the wake of strained US-Gulf relations. However, speculation is dangerous. I mean sometimes the Bahraini authorities do things because they believe they are easy to get away with, or they are feeling vindictive. In one archival source I read, the police tended to do unpopular things in the summer, as it was less likely to cause problems. In another example, the Prime Minister actually ordered harsh measures to be taken against the Shia when they had not caused problems during Ashura.
Either way, the reason for the denationalisation is not quite clear. Naturally, taking the MOI’s claims at face value will be hard to stomach by many, given that the government rarely enforce laws that might weaken them or their support base. One person, for example, tweeted a picture of Bahrain Islamist MPs breaking bread with Syrian rebels (Naturally these guys were not prosecuted).Indeed, in a classic, but potentially revealing faux pas, the British Ambassador to Bahrain was recently photographed with one of those MPs (Adel al Mowada) at his majlis.
While there could be multiple variables contributing to the recent crackdown, the pertinent fact remains that the government are strengthening their efforts to quash the opposition. Although the US are only ‘alarmed’ by the decision, journalist Bill Law quoted Human Rights Watch, saying that the move against Qasim suggests the Bahrain Government are ‘shutting the door on political reform’. Slamming the door is probably more appropriate, although I am sure they would disagree…