WikiLeaks: Fareed Muftah to US Ambassador in 2006: Sunni Salafists Organize Provocative Shows in Ashura (Part 3)
2016-11-07 - 6:03 p
Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): Starting from 2005, the US Embassy in Manama's report on the commemoration of Ashura became a routine report, even if the occasion was event-free, or had no repercussions on ground. Since then, Ashura in Bahrain itself became an event that had to be observed, monitored, and reported by the Embassy.
In 2006, two cables mentioned this Shiite religious occasion. The first comprised an annual report that was to become a "US Embassy tradition", and the second was a report on an interesting meeting held between the Under Secretary of the Bahraini Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Fareed Muftah, and US Ambassador William Monroe. The meeting was set for the latter to look into the Ministry's Islamic ecumenical efforts, in particular, aimed at recovering the unity among Sunnis and Shiites, including efforts during the season of Ashura.
Ashura in 2006 was calmer than that before. The majority of the Embassy report talked about the fact that it was free of tensions and acts of violence, let alone that groups of Shiites took on the task of maintaining security and safety in the areas where religious procession were held across the Bahraini capital Manama. There were no official security forces deployed in these areas. The US Embassy on this matter quoted in its telegram a source saying, "For ten days each year, we control the area. The government does it during the remaining 355 days."
The cable also included a report about the activities of "The Haq ("Right") Movement" during Ashura, and a report about the controversial banner that quotes Shaikh Isa Qassem as saying, "that Bahrain is divided into two camps, that of Hussein and that of Yazid." Also, the report noted the political situation surrounding the events, on top of which was the arrest of a group of youths at the Bahrain International Airport, following a rally they staged in protest of Shaikh Mohammad Sanad's arrest.
The Embassy said, "An estimated 150,000 people participated in Ashura of 2006, some from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait."
In February 2006, the US Ambassador in Manama, William Monroe, sent his report, discussing the commemoration of Ashura in Bahrain.
The report starts off with mentioning the number of individuals who took part in Ashura religious rituals in the old Manama city, a number estimated by the Ambassador to be 150,000. "By all accounts, activities went very quietly and smoothly with no reports of violence or confrontations", the report states.
In other words, the report describes the rituals of Ashura again, saying "the event was marked by large groups of (mostly young) men, sometimes numbering in the thousands, marching in unison on a several-kilometer circuit while rhythmically beating their chests with their fists or striking their backs with strands of chain-link attached to wooden handles."
"The groups were organized by the many Shia religious/social halls in the area, called matams," the report further reads.
The report also lists other activities that take place during Ashura, under the title: "Something for Everyone During Ashura". This part of the report talked about "the manned booths offering free food and drink", the "art association exhibition", "blood drives", "lectures in English on the subject of Ashura and its meaning", in addition to "a play re-enacting the battle of Kerbala".
"There were many displays similar to Christmas nativity scenes scattered throughout the area depicting aspects of the story, some bordering on gruesome in their attention to detail," the report states.
The report did not fail to also mention the mourning processions led by marching bands.
Moreover, the report quotes Hussein al-Alawi, the Processions Committee President, who said, "Thousands of Kuwaitis and Saudis came to take part in the activities."
Flags and Photographs in 2006
In reference to the flags and photos crisis witnessed in 2005, the report said, "EmbOffs (Embassy Officials) observed no participants carrying posters or flags of foreign leaders such as Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei or Hizballah SecGen Nasrallah." "EmbOffs saw a permanent billboard with a painting of prominent Bahraini Shia cleric Shaikh Issa Qassem positioned next to that Nasrallah, and a few matams placed televisions on the street broadcasting speeches and sermons, including those of Nasrallah," it went on to say.
"Flyers were taped to walls with photos of Ayatollah Sistani and quotes that were entirely religious (vice political) in nature," the report indicated.
Absence of Security Forces While Shiites Controlled Central Manama
"EmbOffs noticed no/no uniformed security presence in the area with the exception of traffic police controlling the flow of vehicles on the perimeter of the old town area. Volunteers associated with the matams, wearing large numbered badges and carrying radios, were deployed inside the processions zone and actively engaged with those present to provide information and assist those in need," the US Embassy's report explains.
The Embassy quotes one of its contacts saying, "Ashura was a period of tremendous freedom and liberation for Bahrain's Shia: "For ten days each year, we control the area. The government does it the other 355 days."
Political Situation during Ashura of 2006
Furthermore, the report mentions the political situation that occurred during Ashura, highlighted by "convicting 12 Shiite youth who took part in a protest in the Bahrain International Airport, following the arrest of prominent religious cleric Sheikh Mohammad Sanad (December 2005). The report notes that "the harshness of the sentence angered many in the Shia community, and it was a steady topic of conversation in the downtown area during the final two days of Ashura."
The Embassy Officials, according to the report, "observed a crowd of some 500 people listening to a speaker denouncing the government for the conviction. Despite the tension, there was no violence or clashes."
The US Embassy's report says, that "the most disturbing sight was a group of about 20 young men in military style headbands, t-shirts, and camouflage pants jogging slowly in unison chanting Death to America, Death to Israel, Death to Denmark." It went on to add, "in a twist unique to the 2006 event, marchers in the processions walked over 10-20 boards that were nailed into the street and painted as the Danish flag. This was in addition to a collection of boards painted in the colors of the American and Israeli flags."
Moreover, the leaked telegram further addresses the meeting between "Minister of Interior LTG Shaikh Rashid bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Processions Committee President Al Alawi, Shura Council member Fouad Al Haji, and Council of Representatives (COR) member Issa Hassan bin Rajab to review security for the occasion." "The meeting occurred at the same time that community leaders in [Shiite Towns] were accusing police of pulling down the black flags that blanket Shia areas to mark Ashura (...)" an issue that provoked the condemnation of Northern Municipal Council members, the report adds.
Haq Movement Activity: The UN Petition
The cable also discussed an activity practiced by "The Haq ("Right") Movement" in Ashura (This was its first activity since it was established in 2005):
"The Haq ("Right") Movement, a hardline splinter group from leading Shia opposition society Al Wifaq, issued a press release February 6 announcing a petition to be presented to the UN calling for a new "democratic" constitution drafted by a council of elected representatives. Petition supporters set up tables and booths in several sections of the downtown area and, outside the largest matam, showed a video about Shia poverty in Bahrain. Organizers announced their goal of getting 100,000 signatures, almost 25% of all Bahraini citizens, on the petition during Ashura. To date, there has been no announcement about the number of signatures, but knowledgeable sources say the group likely reached its goal," the report indicates.
Shaikh Isa Qassem's Quote: Hussein's Camp and Yazid's Camp
The said telegram documents one of the most important events that took place during Ashura, which is the event when a banner was raised by the Islamic Taw'iya (Enlightenment) Society, quoted an old saying by Shaikh Isa Qassem, which triggered vast controversy amongst pro-regime sides. This eventually led to the authorities removing the banner, and launching an aggressive campaign against Shaikh Qassem and Taw'iya Society in the press, as well as statements and comments made by government officials.
The leaked telegram said, "The greatest controversy flared more than a week after Ashura ended."
The Al-Watan daily, which is reported to have ties to the country's Sunni Salafi community, published an article February 18 attacking a quote on a billboard sponsored by the Shia Islamic Enlightenment Society. The quote by Shaikh Issa Qassem says, in elliptical fashion, that Bahrain is divided into two camps, that of Hussein and that of Yazid (whose army killed Hussein and his followers in Kerbala)," the report clarifies.
"While a generous interpretation of the quote is that Qassem was referring to the differences between good, pious, observant Muslims and lapsed Muslims, most understand the reference to be to Shias (Hussein's camp) and Sunnis (Yazid's camp)," it further comments.
The telegram narrates the repercussions of the aforementioned case, indicating that senior officials, members of parliament, and columnists quickly dove into the controversy. It notes that the "Cabinet condemned posters and slogans that threaten national unity, saying this is a misuse of democracy and freedom," while adding how in another statement the Prime Minister criticized the banners calling them "offensive". Meanwhile, then Parliament Speaker Khalifa Al Dhahrani, in the presence of the Prime Minister, condemned the slogan and said the billboard was a "balloon launched to test the limit" of acceptable speech. Minister of Social Development Fatima Al Balooshi threatened to take measures against the Islamic Enlightenment Society for posting a banner, while on his part Salafist MP Jassim Al Saeedi called for removing all banners that cause division in Bahraini society, according to the leaked report.
The pro-regime columnist Sawsan Al Shaer, with several other writers who echoed her comments, wrote an article condemning what they dubbed "politicizing religion with the purpose of harming national unity." In addition, the report quotes Editor-in-Chief of Al Wasat newspaper Mansour Al Jamry, asserting that "slogans that send mixed messages should not be posted so as to avoid instigating any conflict (...) [even if] other religious societies also posted religious-political banners previously that scared the other side."
The Embassy's Final Note on the Report
"Given the backdrop of intermittent clashes between Shia youth and police since late November 2005, Ashura was marked by a distinct lack of tension or violence. A Shia MP assured EmbOffs that there would be no violence at the event, saying Shia want to show the government and all Bahrainis that they can police themselves when given the opportunity. Now that Ashura is over and Bahrain's security services control the streets once again, those seeking to provoke confrontations no longer feel the peer pressure to behave like they did during the holiday. While the scene has been mostly quiet since the end of Ashura, a charged atmosphere could return as supporters of the 19 jailed youth take to the streets and the timing of the municipal and legislative elections draws closer."
2006 Under Secretary at Islamic Affairs Ministry: Hussein is for All Muslims
Another telegram dated February 19, 2006, documented a meeting between Under Secretary of Islamic Affairs Fareed Muftah and US Ambassador William Monroe, on February 7, 2006.
During the meeting, Muftah told the Ambassador that "his Ministry was trying to spread awareness between Sunnis and Shias in the run up to the occasion of Ashura. The Ministry had arranged for Sunni and Shia scholars to appear together on Bahrain TV programs to discuss coexistence, tolerance, understanding, and respect for others' cultures."
On this level, the report stated that Muftah said "the audiences were mostly receptive to these messages. Some Sunnis say that Ashura is not their holiday, so they cannot address it. His response is that Imam Hussain is for all Muslims, not only Shia. He can serve to unify Muslims in the face of global challenges."
The report further states that Muftah noted that some Sunni mosques, particularly those following the fundamentalist Salafi interpretation, organize TV programs to emphasize their Sunni identity during Ashura. To counter these potentially provocative actions, the Ministry promotes engagement between Sunnis and Shias during Islamic occasions. He organized the visits of Sunni scholars to matams during Ashura to show understanding and to minimize suspicions."
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