Wikileaks: 2007-2008 US Embassy Cables: Ashura in Bahrain, Desire to Express Shi’a Identity to Fullest

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SHAFAQNA IN COLLABORATION WITH THE BAHRAIN MIRROR – In addition to the United States’ keen interest in following the commemoration of Ashura in Bahrain reflected in the US Embassy annual reports, the former US Ambassador Adam Ereli attended Ashura commemorations in central Manama in January, 2008, accompanied by Embassy officials, as part of the post’s outreach to the Shia community in Bahrain, according to a US Embassy cable.

On February 1, 2007, the US Embassy sent what can be considered the third annual report on the commemoration of Ashura in Bahrain, since the Embassy started demonstrating interest in this religious occasion in 2005. This report was signed by the then Deputy Chief of Mission at US Embassy in Bahrain, Susan L. Ziadeh, who currently serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Peninsula Affairs.

On January 27, 2008, the US Embassy sent its annual Ashura report, signed by Ambassador Ereli, who had been assigned recently at the time.

Looking at both cables sent in 2007 and 2008, it is safe to say that the tone of the reports towards the Bahraini Shia slightly changed.

250,000 Participants and Humble Television Coverage

The 2007 report stated that an estimated 100-150,000 people crowded into downtown Manama to participate in or observe processions commemorating the “death of Imam Hussein, a
Shia martyr and hero, in Karbala in 680 AD.”

There was a surprisingly large number of Saudi and Kuwaiti Shia participating in the processions, the report added.  “There is a matam (Shia community center) in  Bahrain that caters to Shia from two particular areas of the Saudi Eastern Province, and Shia from other areas are free to participate in activities organized by any of the Bahraini matams.”

However, the 2008 telegram stated that an estimated 200-250,000 people crowded into the narrow streets of central Manama, noting that participants in Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Emirati dress were numerous.

The 2007 telegram reported a knowledgeable observer who pointed out that Bahrain television devoted minimal coverage to the processions. At most, some video clips were shown during the news bulletins. However, the “Zahra” satellite station, which focuses on Shia religious issues and has part-Bahraini ownership, featured non-stop coverage of events in Bahrain and in Karbala.

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No Overt Anti-Americanism or Displays of Iranian Leaders

The 2007 report stated that in contrast to previous years’ organizers, there were no overt displays of Iranian leaders, in particular Sayed Al-Khomeini and Khamenei or any displayed photos of Hezbollah Secretary General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah. The report; however, mentioned that television monitors set up along the highly traveled routes played the speech delivered by Nasrallah.

Most of the nailed flags and banners were for Bahraini religious leaders.

The report added that missing from this year’s event was overt anti-Americanism. Speakers mostly avoided explicit criticism of the United States, although there was much talk of an unspecified “enemy.”

The 2008 report highlighted that organizers succeeded again this year in ensuring that zealots did not display posters lionizing Iranian or Hezbollah politicians, yet it was reported that there were large posters of Khomeini and Khamenei inside a number of ma’tams. In past years, Sunni media commentators pointed to such displays during the Ashura celebration and questioned the loyalty of Bahrain’s Shi’a.

Sheikh Isa Qassim in 2007 and 2008 US Cables

Even the embassy’s view with respect to Sheikh Isa Qassim seems to have changed in these telegrams.

Bahrain’s most prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, in a January 29 sermon, swore that he would never accept the oppression of any Sunni and that he would fight alongside Sunnis “to regain their stolen rights anywhere in the world.”  He complained that divisions among Muslims resulted from the policies of the United States and Europe, reported the 2007 cable.

However, the 2008 telegram said that Sheikh Qassim, the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shi’a community, led a silent procession of imams, including Al-Wefaq parliamentary bloc leader Sheikh Ali Salman, through the winding streets. Spectators along the route fell silent as they noticed Qassim at the head of the group.

Politics during Ashura of 2007 and 2008

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The 2007 report noted that the Shia Clerics Council distributed a pamphlet calling for national unity and understanding, regardless of one’s sect, during a time of increasingly strained sectarian relations in the region.

Another section of the report discussed that capitalizing on a chance to connect again with constituents, there were signs and posters of recently elected Shia members of parliament hung around the downtown area.

There also were some banners recalling a saying of Imam Hussein about the refusal to live under suppression or repression, interpreted locally to mean the situation of Shias living under a Sunni government.

The most pressing local issue was the imminent decision in a court case involving two Shia activists charged with possessing and distributing illegal pamphlets during the pre-election period last November. The pamphlets carried a reprinted article by Shia exile and London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement leader Saeed Al Shehabi calling for an election boycott and questioning the legitimacy of the Al Khalifa regime. Supporters of the two called for their release and hung posters publicizing their plight.  On January 30, the court sentenced one of them to one year and the other to six months in prison.

Shia neighborhoods and villages were expected to revert back to the control of government police and security after the occasion. The embassy also anticipated that friction and misunderstandings will inevitably reappear.

“Shi’a clerics, and leaders of the ma’tams who organized the processions, worked closely with government authorities and their own memberships to keep politics out, mentioned the 2008 report. However, it stated that “both government authorities and Shi’a community leaders had been concerned that the Al-Haq movement, which most here view as connected to December’s street violence, might use the occasion of Ashura to instigate a new round of unrest with protests over the death of Ali Jassim Mekki,” it added.

Al-Haq did set up shop outside the Al-Khawaja mosque (a longtime epicenter of Shi’a political dissent) and at three other locations seeking signatures for a petition calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation. “While some people were stopping to sign, response seemed to be moderate at best,” the report highlighted.

“Haidar” in the US Embassy’s Cables: Less than 10% Support the Practice

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The 2007 cable recounted that a group representing a Kuwaiti “husseiniyah,” or matam, put on a particularly fearsome display as about 100 men marched carrying long swords and chanting “Haidar, Haidar,” the term for cutting one’s forehead in symbolic re-enactment of the death and beheading of Imam Hussein. A contact stated that less than 10 percent of Bahraini Shia support the practice of “Haidar”.

The third part of the 2008 report entitled “Haidar! Haidar!” read that probably the most notorious feature of Ashura processions is “tatbir,” during which parades of bare-chested men flail themselves bloody with chains or swords. This practice is becoming less common as mainstream clerics denounce the practice each year and urge Shi’a to instead donate to blood drives.  In this context, thousands of Bahrainis responded this year and donated blood at local hospitals.

“However, a few ma’tams still practice “tatbir” with gusto, and appeared to do so as much out of machismo as out of devotion to the Imam Hussain.” The embassy employees saw several group of people striking their foreheads with swords to exuberant chants of “Haidar!  Haidar!” led by drummers and specialist Iraqi cleric.

Mingling between the 2 Sexes

The report highlighted that volunteers sectioned off areas of the sidewalks with black cloth to create segregated viewing areas for women, but this did not deter the teens and twenty-somethings who viewed the gathering as an opportunity to see and be seen.

According to sources, Shi’a youth use the Ashura celebration to mingle with the opposite sex. An embassy observer saw one teen boy toss a small, crumpled piece of paper (presumably with his mobile phone number) toward a group of four girls who giggled and moved on.

According to a contact, one of the most important jobs the organizers have is making sure that rowdy young men do not harass any of the women present, the 2007 report explained.

The Shiite Identity

Once again, both 2007 and 2008 telegrams noted that despite the police cordoned off the area to control automobile traffic, they remained outside the perimeter. The whole organization was at the hands of the Shia volunteers.

The embassy believed in its 2007 report that “Bahraini Shia intentionally projected a benign image while commemorating Ashura, perhaps in an attempt to show the government and security services that they deserve and are ready for greater responsibility in society.”

At the end of 2008 report, the embassy said that “this year’s Ashura commemorations were a success due to the mainstream Shi’a leadership and the security services’ low profile,” stressing that there were no protests and no violence. “Most attendees seemed content to enjoy the opportunity to express their Shi’a identity to the fullest,” it further stated.

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