Manama, Asharq Al-Awsat—Despite the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait’s dominant presence and influential position over Brotherhood members in other Gulf nations, Bahrain was actually the first effective starting point for organizing the Brotherhood in the Gulf. This has been confirmed by observers, analysts and accounts from members of the Brotherhood themselves.
According to the encyclopedia of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan Wiki), Brotherhood activity has been present in Bahrain since the time of the organization’s founder Hassan Al-Banna: “On June 11, 1937, the Muslim Brotherhood’s weekly newspaper stated that the Brotherhood had divided the world into regions and each region into districts assigned to certain people. The eighteenth region was designated for the people of Sudan, the nineteenth for the nations of the Islamic world. Under this division, Bahrain was included in the nineteenth region and assigned to Sayyed Muhammad Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa. The twentieth region was designated for foreign nations populated by a non-muslim majority.”
In May of 1941, the Al-Eslah Society was established, becoming the first organization to represent the Muslim Brotherhood ideology in the Gulf. Meanwhile the first Muslim Brotherhood branch in Kuwait would not be established for another six years. In Bahrain, a number of students at the Al-Hedaya Al-Khalifiya school in Muharraq established the organization adopting the Quranic verse, “I only desire reform to the best of my power” (Surat Hud; Verse 88) as a slogan.
In the beginning, the society was called the Student’s Club. When the organization’s goals and activities widened in 1948, the name was changed to Al-Eslah Club. It kept this name and continued its cultural and societal activities until 1980, when it became the Al-Eslah Society, describing itself as an Islamic civil society committed to Islamic ideology derived from the Qur’an, the Sunna, and based on inclusion and moderation.
Mahmoud Janahi, the director of the ideological forum for the Eslah Society, spoke about the life of the society’s, founder Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Jowder. He said, “Sheikh Al-Jowder was sent to complete his studies in Cairo, where he met Imam Hassan Al-Banna and some of the Brotherhood leadership along with other members. He observed the social and cultural activities and programs that the Muslim Brotherhood were working on at the time. He was affected by what he saw there. It took root in his heart and soul and guided him when he returned to Bahrain.”
He added, “In the early 1950s, Jowder and others established the Al-Muharraq Library. They began collecting and importing books and letters from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon while publishing and promoting Islamic writings. Young people read these works and supported the Islamic movement. After two or three years, Abdulrahman took over the library and named it the Library of the Arts, which for a long time remained one of the largest Islamic libraries promoting Islamist ideology in Bahrain. Abdulrahman Jowder was a founding member of the council for mosques of the Muslim World League and a founding member of the Islamic Charitable Organizations based in Kuwait.”
Bahraini author Ghasan Al-Shehabi believes that mosques were an ideal venue to attract youths through religious courses, activities and trips, in order to strengthen their membership base.
Shehabi believes that the Eslah Society were particularly successful in this regard. Their old headquarters were packed with the large number of young men and women joining the society in the late 1970s and 1980s. However, in addition to attracting youth, the Muslim Brotherhood was also driven by a desire to instill their values in society.
In a paper entitled “The Muslim Brotherhood in Bahrain: Seven Decades of Transformation,” Shehabi wrote: “There is a lot of evidence of elements of the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrating positions in the ministry of education in administrative and educational capacities. In many instances, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to infiltrate the educational system and control the ministry through centers of power in the system.”
In addition to political activity before the 2002 National Action Charter, the Eslah society made their political positions clear through statements, conferences and visits with officials in Bahrain. During the events known as the 1990s uprising, the society published a work entitled “This is Our Statement,” clarifying their political position. The Muslim Brotherhood in Bahrain was not interested in the political action taken by other opposition forces including the nationalists, leftists and socialists, which often ended in confrontation, clashes with the government, exile, imprisonment, and sometimes death.
The Brotherhood focused on educational and charitable work. Their goal was to groom pious young Muslims and strengthen the Muslim family, while also focusing on broader Islamic issues, especially those facing other nations.
The Brotherhood did have one unique political experience when Abdulrahman Al-Jowder ran in the 1973 elections: In a clear indication of the Brotherhood’s low popularity at the time, Jowder only won 73 votes.
In 2000, the Emir of Bahrain formed a council to draft a national charter in the hopes of starting what has locally been termed the Reform Project. Among the 40 participants in drafting the charter was Isa bin Muhammad Al Khalifa, who lent his political and legal experience to the process, adding an Islamic aspect as much as possible. For the first time, the Eslah Society proposed an alternative charter stating their general vision regarding political and national issues.
At this point, the Muslim Brotherhood followed the other movements and moved into politics. A political arm was established under the name Al-Menbar Islamic Society. The Muslim Brotherhood stated that the Al-Menbar Islamic Society is “a Bahraini political society representing Islam in the Kingdom of Bahrain built upon the clarity of our vision and our goals, the values derived from Islamic teachings, our political and academic leaders, and our long history in service to the nation and its citizens, seeking to lift the nation, its progress, security and stability.”
The political society was able to win seven parliamentary seats in 2002 and another seven seats in 2006. Ghasan Al-Shebahi believes that the Muslim Brotherhood in Bahrain possess a high level of flexibility and knew how to avoid embroiling themselves in catastrophes: “The Brotherhood did not clash with the government. Many observers considered them different from the Brotherhood members in other Gulf nations. The Muslim Brotherhood in Bahrain works with government sharing benefits and achieving important positions in official agencies. Now it is too late to go back and notice the steady and measured infiltration of Brotherhood elements in these agencies.”