The Narrative of Resistance - Bahrain and Iraq
Shi'a leaders in Iraq appeal to Muslim solidarity and present themselves as supporters of the oppressed in the Arab and Muslim worlds, while simultaneously portraying Saudi Arabia as a puppet of American and Israeli policies8. It was therefore no surprise when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani warned of the possible repercussions from Saudi military intervention9 in Bahrain and accused the kingdom of fueling “sectarian violence,” rather than promoting political stability. Other religious leaders, such as Sheikh Abdel Mahdi Al-Karbalai, a representative of Iraq's top Shi'a religious leader, similarly aligned their religious ideology to that which views the unfolding events in Bahrain through the prism of “social injustice,” where “revolutionaries” seek “salvation from injustice and political tyranny.” Such a perspective is framed in the path of orthodox Shi'a martyrdom.
Looking to Najaf and Karbala
At the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bahrain was already restless. Young Shi'a, jobless and resentful, echoed the demands of their coreligionists in Iraq. Revolutionary fervor gave way to democratic hope in Iraq after Sistani began to clamor for “one person, one vote,” and the Shi'a won the Iraqi elections in January 2004. As a measure of how closely Bahrainis followed Iraq, in May 2004 large crowds protested the fighting between U.S. troops and the Mahdi Army in Najaf and Karbala. Most Bahraini Shi'a took to heart the example of Iraq and demanded real democracy, which would mean a transfer of power to Shi'a and not just a “House of Lords” to legitimate the Sunni monarchy. They sought what their numbers warranted, that is to rule Bahrain just as their co-sectarians were now ruling Iraq.
Noting the close link that exists between Iraqis and Bahrainis, American diplomats concerned by the growing Iranian influence in Bahrain suggested in Washington-bound cables reintegrating Iraq in the Arab fold in order to offset Iranian influence10. Iran’s policy of sectarian polarization to satisfy its regional ambitions nonetheless materialized in the narrative promoted by Shi'a parties and media outlets in Iraq.
When Iraqi Shi'a cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr called for mass demonstrations in Baghdad and Basra in support of mainly Shi'a demonstrators in Bahrain a few days after the military intervention by the GCC, the discourse of solidarity “with their brothers in Bahrain” to support “innocent revolutionaries” and stop having the “blood of martyrs flowing,” significantly galvanized Iraq’s own Shi'a community11. Notably, the use of the words “revolutionaries12” and “martyrs”, which directly pertain to Shi'a eschatology, echo previous uprisings that have fueled identity politics in Iraq.
Enshrined in the narrative of martyrdom and jihad, Al-Sadr and his supporters appealed to popular sympathies to rally their “brothers,” chanting that they were "ready to volunteer to defend the land of Bahrain." At the same time, they tried to discredit Saudi Arabia by association with Israel, carrying banners reading “Al-Saud and Israel are two sides of one coin," and "No God but Allah, Al-Saud, the enemy of God."13
Al-Sadr’s martyrdom imagery and call for solidarity echoed a symbology used during the Islamic revolution, the Lebanese Civil War, the 1990s unrest in Bahrain, the uprising in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the Houthis in Yemen, and now by the Bahraini demonstrators. Overall, Iraq remains a wild card in the settlement of the current crisis in Bahrain, mainly due to its own internal political disaccords and sectarian tensions.
Furthermore, it should be noted that Iranian influence in Iraq can be felt among the fragmented Iraqi political leadership, whether it is through Iranian proxies such as Al-Sadr or ambiguous characters such as Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri-Al-Maliki. Iran has through the years been able to increasingly exert influence in Iraq through financing political factions across the spectrum and with ideology skillfully delivered through sophisticated media and intelligence. If Iraqi Shia do not necessarily align themselves with their Iranian co-religionists, some rapprochement has definitely been made among the political elites, and the ambiguities persist.
2 Though an Iraqi Shi’a Marja, he resides most of the time in Qom, Iran
7 The National Action Charter of Bahrainis a document put forward by King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain in 2001 in order to end the popular 1990s Uprising and return the country to constitutional rule.
12Insofar that historical and cultural symbols of Shi'ism appeal to the sentiments of the masses and have often been used by religious leadership to foment uprisings.
14 Cf. work by Mohammed El-Nawawy & Adel Iskandar, The Story Of The Network That Is Rattling
Governments And Redefining Modern Journalism
16 Ibrahim Al-Marashi, ”The Dynamics of Iraq’s Media: Ethno-Sectarian Violence, Political Islam, Public
Advocacy and Globalization,” Open Society Institute, 2007.
27 The Fedayeen was a paramilitary organization loyal to the former Ba'athist government of Saddam Hussein. The name was chosen to mean "Saddam's Men of Sacrifice".