Al-Khawaja’s 2009 Ashura Speech: “The Ruling Gang” in US Cable and Justin Gengler’s Book (Part 5)

2016-11-13 - 7:33 p

Bahrain Mirror: (Exclusive): The Chargé d'Affaires at the United States Embassy in Bahrain, Christopher Henzel, sent a cable, classified as confidential, to the US State Department on January 13, 2009. Wikileaks; however, disclosed this document in 2010.

The cable addressed with great concern one of the most significant political speeches in Bahrain's Ashura history. It was an outstanding address that still resonates today. It attracted the attention of many researchers and academics who worked on analyzing its structure, and political and social context.

What political analyst specialized in Bahraini affairs Justin J. Gengler, who conducted a research on the said oration delivered by Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, shed light on the most is that al-Khawaja makes no claim to religious authority. He is a human rights activist who is currently serving a life sentence for his alleged role in the February 14, 2011 uprising.

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja: Manama's 2009 Ashura Orator

Al-Khawaja's fiery speech delivered at the height of Ashura in the Bahraini capital Manama on January 7, 2009 expressed the peak of political frustration and distress and it was without doubt considered one of the primary tools of mobilization used by the Haq Movement led by Hasan Mushaima to stir up the public and pave the way for an (unplanned) uprising.

Al-Khawaja enjoyed a controversial character since his return to Bahrain at the onset of what was known to be the 2001 reform project. He was not an ordinary rights defender, for he possessed a daring revolutionary side. He does not grow weary of confronting oppression and tyranny and history proves that he did not fear any repercussions.

Al-Khawaja as a popular figure became more intimidating than ever, since this oration, through which he made use of his religious cache to speak of the value of sacrifice in Ashura and standing against the oppressor, in the name of Imam Hussain.

Writer and academic researcher Justin Gengler happened to be in Bahrain at the time and personally attended al-Khawaja's oration. He devoted many pages to discuss this speech in the "Religion and Politics in Bahrain" chapter of his published PhD dissertation entitled "Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf".

Gengler translated the entire speech including the Ashura poem recited by al-Khawaja. He documented every part of the oration, analyzing it in the framework of religion's effects on politics and placing it in its political, social and historical context.

Al-Khawaja's Speech in Justin Gengler's Book

Gengler realized that there is a more strictly political side of the Ashura commemoration "in which political rather than religious leaders take the opportunity to address their constituencies, aided by the overflowing emotion and sense of eternal betrayal and injustice stirred up over the course of these thirteen days."

"For those looking to make a real political statement, the venue of choice is the early morning of the tenth of Muharram, in the wake of the almost hysterical mourning at the death of Husain earlier that night," he added.

He further explained that 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 Ashura and of the entire month of Muharram.

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Gengler pointed out the secrecy surrounding the identity of the speaker to deliver an oration from the Haq Movement pavilion on Ashura day. "The keynote speaker was rumored to be ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah, who shortly before 2:30 a.m. duly arrived outside his namesake mosque in the Manama Suq district."

"Despite his being from a prominent Shi‘i family that gives its name to the large and beautifully adorned mosque and attendant ma'tam, al-Khawajah makes no claim to religious authority, his popular following mainly a result of his well-known foundational role with the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and, even more so, for a brazen 2004 verbal assault on the country's prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman," Gengler noted.

The political analyst also highlighted that "it is a testament, then, to his political rather than religious cache that he was able still to command such a general audience as the one that convened on this unusually frigid January night to hear him speak."

The Ruling Gang

Al-Khawaja's address was entitled "How the Sacrifice of al- Husain Exposed ‘the Ruling Gang' and Toppled It from Power."

The speech began by invoking the "anniversary of the martyrdom of al-Husain, son of the Prophet's daughter," and "the anniversary of the Battle of Ashura, wherein the corrupt Umayyad regime carried out the murder of al-Husain and his companions from the House of the Prophet Muhammad."

He went on to say that "when the orders came from Yazid bin Ma‘awiyah to his governor in Medina," he continued, "that he should take an oath from al-Husain or else lop off  his head, al-Husain proclaimed his political disobedience and refused to swear allegiance, and [instead] prepared himself for his own sacrifice, and for that of his family." And this political defiance, al-Khawajah said, was not aimed at the person of the Umayyad ruler, Yazid, "but at the entire Umayyad regime. So when al-Husain addressed the enemy's army he referred to them, saying, ‘O! Partisans of Al Sufyan!' and did not say ‘partisans of Yazid.' " Accordingly, the introduction concluded, "the result of the sufferings of al-Husain in the Battle of Karbala was the fall of the Umayyad Empire, a regime that would last no longer than 90 [more] years, inundated by [Shi‘a- led] revolutions brought on by the Movement of al- Husain."

"On this great occasion," he appealed to "all who are free"- "from every stream or sect," "from any social class, whether rich or poor," to "men, women, and the elderly"-he called upon them all as he called upon himself, to "stand together, to demand reform, to support what is right, to promote virtue and prevent vice, all in the name of the martyr al-Husain ibn ‘Ali."

He beseeched his listeners "to disengage psychologically from the unjust regime, and to refuse to give it allegiance or to allow it to rule on the necks of the people," "to break promises . . .  and humiliate the people, to employ mercenaries [brought in] from everywhere in order to impose itself on the necks of [its] subjects."

Who are the Shia of al-Hussain and who are the Parisians Yazid?

The next section of the speech, titled "Sectarian Alignment and Political Alignment," cautions listeners against assuming they are part of the solution, participants in the Movement of al-Husain, simply because they happen to be Shi‘a. "Know," he said, "that the Shi‘a of al-Husain's Movement are they who stood by him and supported him against political and social injustice, and not all those who identified with ahl al-bayt historically or doctrinally or psychologically": "for you may be of the Ja‘afari sect doctrinally speaking, or of Twelverism ideologically speaking, but at the same time you might be one of the partisans (shī‘ah) of Al Sufyan, or of any ruling gang who enslaves [its] people and sheds [their] blood."

Gengler further highlighted that al-Khawaja warned in language that mirrored almost exactly the controversial quote by Sheikh Isa Qassim regarding the "Hussain camp and the Yazid camp."

"The differentiation of people in our society today between Husainis (ḥusayniyyīn) and Yazidis (yazīdiyyīn) is not based on the sect inherited from [their] fathers and grandfathers, nor the school of jurisprudence they rely on in their individual worship, but rather on [their] political and social stance embodied by the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice: commitment to those who are true and good, and repudiation of oppressors and the people of vice," stressed al-Khawaja in his speech.

"For ordinary people in their dealings with any ruling gang are of two types: there is the one who puts principle and values fi rst but perhaps is involved with the oppressor in earning a living or in his political and social activity; yet there is on the other hand the one who puts his own self-interest first, even at the expense of what is right and the interests of the people. And each of them will reveal his true nature when the injustice . . . and the bloodshed becomes too much, and then he either will be of the Shi‘a of al-Husain in his opinions and sacrifices, or he will be of the Shi‘a of Al Sufyan," he added.

Gengler considered that this statement is what might be called the thesis of the entire address.

The Umayyad and the Al Khalifa States

Abdulhadi moved on to his longest and most substantive section: "The Ruling Gang and the Necessity of Uprooting it from Power Whatever the Cost in Effort and Sacrifices."

Here the subject "the ruling gang" transitioned naturally from the corrupt Umayyad dynasty, in which the right to rule "moves within one family from father to son, and which looted booty and lands, and which made God's wealth [i.e., natural resources] into a state, and enslaved the people"-all this he equated to the contemporary Al Khalifa "ruling gang" that plunders Bahrain and which claims to rule on the same basis of hereditary succession.

Neither state, he said, "was founded around a single person but rather around a gang bound by tribal or familial aṣabiyya, [one] that uses bribery and intimidation to gain support and allegiance from the self-interested," then, this support secured, "dominates [its] subjects by force." This is why, he continued, the Imam Husain "left  Medina and then Mecca fearful because he refused the political oath [of Yazid]," and left  with "no supporter and no certainty . . . was murdered, and the women from ahl al-bayt taken captive." A regime such as this, he concluded, "chose not to accept conciliation and compromise, and thus there is no use but to uproot [it]: and al-Husain's own sacrifices as well as those of his family were the means of uprooting that state, of overthrowing the gang running it, even if [it took some time]."

Gengler then stated the al-Khawaja arrived finally at what the listeners had been anticipating the entire night. "The ruling gang in Bahrain," he boomed, "is embodied in the Supreme Defense Council comprised of fourteen of the elites from the ruling family, and they are: the king, the crown prince, the prime minister, the royal court minister, and others of the top ministers and officials" from the ruling family. Among them, he said, "there are not any [ordinary Bahrainis] from the Sunna or the Shi‘a, as they don't trust anyone but themselves. And since the establishment of this council there have issued from it all of the conspiracies hatched against the people: the appropriation and gifting of lands (especially reclaimed seaside lands) by the Al Khalifa; al-Bandar's report and "the strategy of sectarian cleansing" that it revealed, including of course the related program of political naturalization; the use of "tens of thousands of mercenaries from various [countries]" that "violate the sanctity of our homes and of our mosques"; and abuses of human rights and the use of torture in dealing with political activists, among whom he named one who had been recently killed in a confrontation with riot police.

For all such offenses and humiliations perpetrated by the ruling Al Khalifa gang, he directed, "the primary order must be to bring it down from power by all means of peaceful civil resistance, and by the willingness to suffer sacrifices for the sake of it, just as the result of the sacrifices of al-Husain was to bring down the Umayyad gang from power." To this end, he continued, "there must be a coordination of efforts, a putting aside of sectarian and factional differences, and an avoidance of supporting the regime's institutions or participating in them." For, he said, "we are the generation of anger and sacrifice, and from our sacrifices will come a generation that assumes the responsibility of selecting the system of government that suits it, [one] far removed from injustice, corruption, and sectarian discrimination."

It is humiliation enough for one to be forced to live.

Al-Khawaja ended his long oration with a poem: "When al-Hurr bin Yazid al-Riyahi demanded of our Imam al-Husain to go back whence he came or else be killed- just as we [i.e., Bahraini dissidents] perhaps may be killed-al-Husain answered, saying:

"I will go on, and death is no shame for a man,

if he sought the good and strove [jāhid] as a Muslim,

consoled the righteous through himself,

shunned disrepute, and was at odds with a criminal.

I offer myself up- I don't wish to remain-

to face [Yazid's] colossal host in the desert.

For should I live I wouldn't be blamed, and should I die I wouldn't be disgraced.

It is humiliation enough for one to be forced to live."

When reciting the second verse, al-Khawaja added "in the palace" after "criminal", in reference to the Bahraini King. Gengler said that these final words were met with chants of "Let's bring down the ruling gang!" and, though more muted, "Death to Al Khalifa!"

Gengler further stated that al-Khawaja's address in the early morning on the tenth of Muharram, attended by perhaps a thousand listeners from all over Bahrain, from Manama as well as the villages, appeared by all measures to be nothing short of a call to arms against the ruling Al Khalifa in the very image of Husain's rebellion that culminated in the events of 680 CE.

In a critical sense, Gengler said that beneath this religious imagery and bombast lies a far more measured policy prescription: political and "psychological" detachment from the state, a coordinated rejection of "the regime's institutions" in both word and deed. In this sense, the "sacrifices" of which al- Khawajah speaks are, in contrast with the overall tone of the speech, quite pragmatic and modest.

Gengler also highlighted that "when ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah, after already having spent some two decades in exile and in prison, can stand in the streets of Manama and call for the overthrow of the Al Khalifa "by all means of peaceful civil resistance, and by the willingness to suffer sacrifices for the sake of it, just as the result of the sacrifices of al- Husain was to bring down the Umayyad gang from power"-when such a one is prepared to take this action with the knowledge that arrest and probable bodily harm will not be too far away, then it is clear 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.

Gengler's Interview with Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja: In a democratic system Al Khalifa could not continue in power

Justin Gengler met with Abdulhadi al-Khawaja four months after the speech; i.e. after he was released by a royal pardon, since he was detained following this Ashura oration.

During the interview, al-Khawaja emphasized the need for ordinary Shia to avoid political cooptation. "In a democratic system the Al Khalifa could not continue in power, so the goal is to preclude the emergence of such a system, or to co-opt enough Shi‘a so that they have an outlet for political participation without really challenging the status quo."

It is noteworthy in this context what Gengler mentioned in the book's notes about the release of al-Khawaja and 178 other activists by a royal pardon. He said that one Sunni member of parliament with whom he spoke claimed that the prime minister personally opposed the action, as did Saudi Arabia, where the premier visited the very day before the pardons. According to this account, the Saudi king made his displeasure known in a letter to King Hamad, and then by temporarily halting the passage of some 300 trailer trucks bound for Bahrain at the Saudi side of the causeway.

WikiLeaks: Urgent and Confidential Cable

Al-Khawaja's oration did not only attract the attention of political researchers and analysts like Gengler but was also the focus of the US Embassy's cable sent to the US State Department. The cables disclosed by Wikileaks have shown that the US Embassy in Bahrain closely follows the commemoration of Ashura in Bahrain and issue annual reports considering the religious occasion to be equally political.

In his cable, the Chargé d'Affaires at the United States Embassy in Bahrain at the time, Christopher Henzel, said that activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja called for the overthrow of the Al Khalifa family.

In the section entitled, Ruling Family "Gangsters", the report said that "the radical Shia opposition Haq Movement used the large annual Ashura processions January 6 in Manama's old town to denounce the Al Khalifa family. As Ashura processions attempted to pass through the narrow, crowded streets, speakers at a Haq pavilion harangued a thousands-strong mix of supporters, curious penitents temporarily distracted from their religious tasks, and many who were just stuck in the traffic-jam in the packed street."

"Haq leader Hassan Mushaima denounced the "sixteen gangsters" running Bahrain, naming the King, Crown Prince, Prime Minister, and other Al Khalifas.  Mushaima, who did not explicitly call for the overthrow of the government, said that oppositionists should appeal to foreign governments and international NGOs for support."

"Overthrow the Gangsters"

The cable stated that "Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, former president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and current Protection Coordinator for the Middle East at the international human rights NGO Front Line, also spoke from the Haq pavilion. Econ FSN and local media reported that Al Khawaja described the government as "corrupt, oppressive gangsters," and said, "Our first demand is to overthrow them and get rid of them...we must root out these gangsters.""

The cable added that throughout his speech, "al-Khawaja made reference to Imam Hussein's battle against the Umayyad caliph Yazid in a thinly veiled appeal to Bahraini Shia to stand up to the Sunni government. He finished with a threat: ‘They lost the chance for peace.'"

The US Embassy's Comment: Why al-Khawaja's Speech?

The Embassy noted in a comment at the end of the cable that the Haq Movement inspires the youths who frequently skirmish with Bahraini riot police.

"Haq appears to be spoiling for a fight following the government's attempt to link Mushaima's son to the alleged national day plot.  Al Khawaja's January 6 speech may have been calculated to provoke the authorities to move against him, a development which would increase sympathy for Haq in the Shi'a community. The government has so far resisted the urge to lock him up," it added.

The comment concluded that "the moderate Wifaq party remains more popular among Shia than Haq. In order to retain its lead, Wifaq needs to persuade the GOB to deliver the housing, jobs, and steps against discrimination that the Shia street demands."

Arabic Version    


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