Al Wasat today has an interesting interview with Shaikh Isa Al Jowder (in Arabic), a traditional Sunni cleric from Galali who has been active in the movement for democracy in Bahrain since the country’s independence. I’ve been wanting to speak with him for an interview since last year, but I never got around to it, and now Al Wasat has beat me to it. Anyways, let me just write a few words about why I find Shaikh Isa such an interesting character.
From his appearance you might presume him to be just another typical old conservative Sunni cleric. His long white beard, his ankle high thobe, and his ghutra always worn without an ‘igal. However he stands out from almost all other Sunni clerics in his demands for a democratic constitution, which has frequently put him in opposition to the government. Most notably, he was a signatory to both the 1992 and the 1994 petitions calling on the then Amir to reinstate the authority of the 1973 elected parliament (dissolved by Amiri decree in 1975). What marks him out even more is that even after King Hamad’s pseudo-reforms, Shaikh Isa Al Jowder continued his opposition to the regime in demanding a democratic constitution that would give power to the people. Meanwhile, most other Sunni Islamists were looking forward to the Mercedes they would receive as members of the new parliament.
This video (Arabic) contains clips of him (and many other opposition figures) speaking about the period from the 1990s petitions until a couple years ago. Skip to the following times to see Sh Isa’s clips: 7:35, 27:55, 30:15, 39:30, though the whole video is an interesting watch.
Maybe the most encouraging aspect about Shaikh Isa Al Jowder is his strong opposition to sectarianism, in both his words and his actions. He is a sign that the Sunnis and Shias of Bahrain can sincerely work together, and that they don’t necessarily have to be part of the elite Westernized anti-religious section of society for this to happen. Sh Isa participated in the 1990s petition movement, even though it was being maligned as an extremist Shia movement. And he often refers to Sh Abdulamir Al Jamri (the main Shia Islamist opposition leader at the time) as “shaikh al mujahideen”.
This attitude has continued until today, as he is now one of the leaders of the Haq Movement and its campaign for a UN-backed constitutional referendum in Bahrain. And this is very interesting. The Haq Movement is usually described in the press as being a splinter group of Al Wefaq, implying that it is also a strictly Shia Islamist group. It might be true to say that the majority of Haq’s supporters belong to the Shia Islamist tendency, however this does not seem to be the exact image that Haq is trying to portray. So for example, when Haq and Al Wefaq met in late March to discuss issues, the public face of Haq was represented by: Hassan Mushaime (Shia Islamist), Ali Rabea (secular nationalist) and Shaikh Isa Al Jowder.
Photo source: BahrainOnline.org
You might recall that this is exactly the type of strategy that I was hoping someone in Bahrain would replicate a while ago. So while I’m not sure about Haq’s policies yet, and I don’t think a UN referendum in and of itself will achieve much (although the campaigning process may be very effective), the fact that Haq is the only group in Bahrain that is making any attempt to reach over traditional community boundaries is something worth keeping in mind.