Salman, Ali (1965–)

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Salman, Ali

Bahraini politician and cleric Ali Salman Ahmad Salman (also known as Abu Mujtaba) is the secretary-general of Al-Wifaq (Islamic National Accord Society, INAS), the largest Shi'ite organization in the country. Salman helped found Al-Wifaq in 2002, which has become the main opposition group in Bahrain, commanding seventeen of the forty seats in the elected chamber. Salman leads Friday prayers in al-Sadiq Mosque, in Manama, the capital of Bahrain.


Salman was born on 30 October 1965, in Bilad al-Qadim, a Shi'ite village on the outskirts of Manama, the capital of Bahrain. A paternal aunt raised him soon after his parents' separation and his father's demise. While studying at the local schools, Salman developed an interest in sports and became a leading player on one of the village's football teams. His preoccupation with football shielded Salman from engaging in the disturbances that gripped Bahrain after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Unlike many of his cohorts, Salman did not take part in any of the political protests that engulfed the country and led to the arrest of scores of young people throughout that period.

Reports on that period by Amnesty International and regional human rights watchdog organizations note that the Bahrain government began a consistent pattern of human rights violations after dissolving its parliament in 1975. Those violations amplified after an alleged coup attempt in 1981. Inspired by the success of the Iranian Revolution two years earlier, many young Shi'ite militants sought to reproduce it in Bahrain. Young Shi'ite radicals began for the first time to openly challenge the "Al Khalifa [the ruling family] conquest" and clamor for the creation of an Islamic republic in the country. The revolutionary rhetoric of the period created a sharp division within the Shi'ite community between those who aspired to reform the regime and those who sought to take it apart. In December 1981, Bahraini authorities announced having foiled a coup attempt planned by the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, a radical group with strong links with Iranian revolution leaders. The bungled coup attempt resulted in the arrest of scores of young people. Many of them were held incommunicado under the State Security Measures of 1974 that sanctioned administrative detention without trial for up to three years. Some were convicted and sentenced to long-term imprisonment. Other suspects were forced into exile with their families.

After completing secondary schooling in Bahrain in 1984, Salman received a scholarship to study mathematics at King Faysal University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. His outgoing personality and passion for football affected his academic performance. After dropping out in 1987, Salman travelled to Syria and later to Iran. There he settled in the religious town of Qom to study in one of its many seminaries. For the following three years, he led an ordinary life—just like the thousands of young and poor men for whom stipends paid by competing seminaries in Qom provided an opportunity to pursue an education and secure a vocation. Like dozens of Bahrainis who graduate from Qom every year, Salman was destined for a secure future, earning his living as a freelance preacher, or, with luck and good contacts, as a civil servant. Salman's prospects of gaining government employment were likely to be strengthened by his distaste of politics and by his efforts to distance himself from rival political groups active among young Bahraini seminarians in Qom.

Life for the young Salman took an unexpected turn in 1991 with the arrival in Qom of Shaykh Isa Qasim. Qasim was the senior Bahraini cleric, the leading Shi'ite opposition figure, who also had been a member of parliament in Bahrain from 1973–1975. Qasim headed to Qom for a stint of voluntary exile following the arrest of some of his associates in Bahrain who had been charged with organizing underground Shi'ite networks. Qasim found in the young and politically detached Salman suitable material for a new protégé who would help him overcome his latest setbacks in Bahrain. From that juncture onward, Salman's career would be shaped by his relationship with his mentor.

Once again Salman interrupted his studies to escort his mentor on Qasim's return trip to Bahrain in early 1992. This was a period of relative calm in Bahrain. Reports by human rights watchdog organizations noted a significant improvement in human rights in the country. Many political detainees were released and some exiles were allowed to return home. For most of 1992, Salman stood humbly behind Qasim and attended all his meetings and sermons. While reluctant at first, Qasim's followers began gradually to accept the young cleric Salman as Qasim's emissary and representative. With the personal backing of Qasim, Salman was gradually becoming a leading figure among religious youths in Shi'ite rural areas. Salman's new role was corroborated further through his appointment as Qasim's stand-in in the prestigious role of Friday prayers leader in Qasim's own village. Salman continued to lead Friday prayers after the departure of Qasim to Iran on another self-exile.


Name: Ali Salman

Birth: 1965, Bilad al-Qadim, Bahrain

Family: Wife, Alia; one son, Mujtaba

Nationality: Bahraini

Education: Secondary school in Bahrain. King Faysal University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Seminary at Qom, Iran; 1992; Shari'a


  • 1992–1995: Member of underground Shi'ite networks
  • 1996–2002: Political refugee and activist, United Kingdom
  • 2001–present: Secretary-general of al-Wifaq (Islamic National Accord Society)
  • 2006: Elected member, Bahrain's Chamber of Deputies (December).

In 1991–1992 after Kuwait's liberation from Iraqi occupation, expectations by political activists were boosted by what they made out as a push by the United States and its allies for democratic reforms in the Persian Gulf region. Reports by human rights groups noted a significant improvement in human rights in Bahrain. Encouraged by signs of a political relaxation, intellectuals, human rights lawyers, members of the disbanded parliament, and other political activists were engaged in discussions on ways of moving forward. This was also obvious in the articles published overseas that circulated in the country. The movement culminated in 1992 in what became known as aridat al-nukhba, or "the ELITE'S petition." Fourteen prominent Bahrainis—including clerics, businesspeople, and other political activists—drafted and signed the 1992 petition. It appealed to the emir, Shaykh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, to reinstate parliament, abrogate the Decree on State Security and other Emergency laws, and revert to constitutional rule. The emir refused to meet with signatories or receive their petition.

On his return to Bahrain in 1992 and with personal backing by Qasim, Salman became actively involved in community affairs and soon assumed a leading role among young religious activists in Shi'ite rural areas. But his political fortunes changed dramatically toward the end of 1994. Salman and other young activists were called on to mobilize popular support for a second petition calling for political reforms in Bahrain. Later events pushed Salman beyond local community politics and helped him carve a national political role for himself.

The 1994 petition, known as al-arida al-sha'biyya, or the "Popular Petition," was put together by the same network of prominent Bahrainis who planned to deliver it to the emir as "signed by the masses." Using code words as before, authors of the 1994 petition pressed the government to concede that the country is "facing a crisis resulting from dwindling opportunities and outlets, growing unemployment, mounting inflation, losses in the business sector, problems triggered by the citizenship decrees and preventing many of our children from returning to their homeland."

The task of collecting signatures was entrusted to networks of local youths in various neighborhoods and townships. Salman, a leader of one of the many village-based networks, assumed the task of coordinating the joint activities of these networks, such as organizing demonstrations by mostly unemployed Shi'ite youths who demanded jobs. While his mentor, Qasim, has consistently refused to share in any overt political action—including putting his signature on either the 1992 or the 1994 petitions—Salman was uncharacteristically openly immersed in the signature-collecting campaign.

On 5 December 1994, Salman was arrested with two other young clerics and accused by Bahraini authorities of inciting violence against participants in the annual marathon that passed through Salman's village. Opposition groups charged the arrests were a preemptive move by the security forces. They noted the arrests were made only days before National Day on 16 December, also the date set by the petition committee to deliver its document to the emir.

The arrest of the three clerics sparked a wave of protests culminating in riots. Violent and largely uncoordinated demonstrations erupted in parts of the capital and in most villages, demanding the release of Salman and his colleagues. Within a fortnight—on 17 December—the first death was reported.

Together with Shaykh Hamza al-Dairi and Sayyid Haydar al-Sitri, Salman was deported to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, on 15 December 1995. Bahraini authorities may have reasoned the three would travel to Qom where they would remain as hushed and politically harmless as their mentor Qasim. The three clerics, however, decided to move to the United Kingdom where they sought political asylum. Their request was denied, but they were granted leave to stay in the United Kingdom. On arrival in London, Salman associated himself with the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement (BFM), the most active among Bahraini Shi'ite groups. He became part of the organization's public relations and information sections.

Salman's life in exile was not productive, eventful, or happy. His poor English skills prevented him from fulfilling a plan to continue his academic studies. His relationship with leading BFM people and other Bahraini exiles in London was marred by petty conflicts. He complained that he was sidelined by leading members of BFM and that they limited his access to the Bahraini community in the United Kingdom and to the London-based Arab media. However, his close ties with Qasim in Qom eased his drift toward the more welcoming non-Bahraini Shi'ite community in the United Kingdom.

The sudden death in March 1999 of Shaykh Isa bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the emir of Bahrain, signaled the beginning of a new period in Bahraini politics. Soon after assuming power, his successor, Shaykh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, made several conciliatory gestures towards the opposition, including the release of several of its detained leaders. The new emir also reiterated publicly his commitment to universal suffrage and to a dialogue with representatives of all social forces in the country. Salman was not included in the direct and indirect talks on future reforms between the BFM and emissaries of the new emir. These talks, and parallel ones inside Bahrain proper, encouraged Shaykh Hamad to present to the public the National Charter, his blueprint for the impending political reforms. Supporters of the National Charter hoped it would help transform Bahrain from a tribal autocracy to a modern constitutional monarchy. These hopes—together with the lifting of the State Security Law, the release of political detainees and prisoners, and the return of all exiles—helped convince the skeptical public. This was manifested in the massive turnout, including women, at the plebiscite held to approve them and in the reported 98.4 percent vote in favor.

Salman was among the first batch of London-based exiles to return to Bahrain, where he was united with his mentor Qasim. Soon after his return, Salman joined junior clerics and other Shi'ite political activists to found al-Wifaq in 2002 as an exclusively Shi'ite political organization. Open backing from Qasim dissuaded other contenders from competing with Salman for the leadership of the organization. He since has been re-elected twice as secretary-general of al-Wifaq.

Three smaller opposition groups—al-Amal (Shi'ite Islamist), Wa'd (leftist), and al-Tajammu al-Qawmi, (Ba'thist)—and al-Wifaq decided to boycott the 2002 elections. Their decision was motivated by their frustration at what they perceived as the king's unwillingness to listen to their views on the substance, pace, and direction of the reform process. The opposition also charged that the monarch reneged on a central component of the proposed reforms when he rewrote the constitution to give himself sweeping powers. Among the controversial amendments were those about the bicameral National Assembly, whose chambers share equal legislative power with the king himself. Organizers of the boycott charged that the forty members of the Shura (Consultative) Council appointed by the monarch would render the forty elected members of the Deputies Council powerless.

Salman and other Bahraini opposition leaders negotiated with royal advisers and finally appealed to the king to postpone the elections. But the king did not concede. Frustrated by the monarch's one-sided decisions, Salman and other opposition figures called for a vote boycott but stopped short of questioning the credibility of reforms or the legitimacy of the emir and the ruling family.

The boycott campaign was only partly successful. While most Shi'ite voters heeded the boycott call, some 53 percent of the electorate went to the ballot box on 24 October 2002. The opposition readily conceded that the government had scored a major success although that figure pales in comparison with the more than 92 percent turnout at the February 2001 plebiscite. Salman, Qasim, and other senior clerics were not in favor of the boycott but had yielded to popular mood and the overpowering sentiment among the rank-and-file members of al-Wifaq.

Salman and other leaders of the opposition, having already accepted that the process of political reforms in the country is a royal privilege—a royal grand gesture toward his people—failed to capitalize on the size of the boycott or keep the momentum. For the next four years, their tactics seemed haphazard—moving from organizing sit-ins and addressing petitions to the monarch to sponsoring seminars and launching regular but small demonstrations. The ad hoc coalition of the four boycotting groups introduced a "Constitutional Conference," holding annual meetings to present and debate opposition demands for a new and consensual constitution. At the same time, opposition leaders continued regular contacts with the king's advisers.

In addition to working in the public space, Salman became fully preoccupied with the tasks of reorganizing al-Wifaq, expanding its membership within the Shi'ite population, and building it up as a potent opposition force. He spent great effort in consolidating personal and organizational ties with other opposition groups, particularly the secular Democratic Action Society and its leftist leaders.

In May 2005 al-Wifaq and its coalition partners decided to engage in the 2006 elections. To overcome protests within al-Wifaq, Salman mobilized the support of nearly all senior Shi'ite clerics in Bahrain. In spite of strong backing, several prominent former members of al-Wifaq called for continuing the boycott. Supporters of Salman also sought "guidance" from the leading Shi'ite authority in Iraq, Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani, who called on people to participate in the vote. Salman and his group won the day. Seventeen candidates on al-Wifaq's ticket, including Salman, were elected to the Chamber of Deputies. A liberal Sunni candidate backed by al-Wifaq also won. Despite their impressive number, the eighteen members of the al-Wifaq bloc can do little without coordinating with the remaining twenty-two members, most of whom are pro-government.


Like most residents of rural areas in Bahrain, Salman's childhood and youth were shaped by poverty and the result of decades of misrule, human rights violations, and ethnic segregation. Like most children in Shi'ite villages, Salman's worldview was colored by folktales of the pillage, rapes, forced labor, and other atrocities allegedly perpetrated two centuries earlier on their Shi'ite ancestors by the ruling Al Khalifa family and its tribal Sunni allies. In 1980–1981, as a young teenager, he witnessed some of the worst violations of human rights in the country following an alleged coup attempt. Hundreds of young people, including teenagers from his village, were arrested or forced to flee the country. This may have led him to shun underground politics and to focus on his studies and football team.

However, the single most important source of influence on the adult Salman is his association with the senior Bahrain cleric Isa Qasim. An ex-member of the Iraqi Da'wa Party since his student days in Najaf, Iraq, Qasim is a devoted follower of the deceased Iranian cleric Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini and his concept of vilayet-e faqih (or guardianship of the jurisprudent). Salman has, more openly since 2004, followed the path of his mentor in many ways. In a sermon in December 2005, published on his website (, Salman argued that vilayet-e faqih is a caring system of governance superior to any other. Democracy, he noted, has many positive aspects, but it also produced Hitler, was responsible for World War II, and is tolerating the death through famine and disease of thousands of African children every day. Salman also follows Qasim's focus on sermons, short articles, and fatwas. Unlike other prominent Shi'ite clerics in Bahrain, Qasim and Salman have until now avoided publishing a lengthy account of their thoughts on political, social, or theological matters.

Salman differs from Qasim in an important aspect that may influence his political career, either negatively or positively. Unlike his mentor, Salman has developed good working relations with other members of the Bahrain opposition. Significantly, he has devoted notable energy and time to help candidates, including a woman, from the leftist Wa'ad. Salman's outlook on women's political rights and public roles is at variance with Qasim's. While Qasim is conservative, Salman often has expressed his support for women to share in all spheres of public life.


Salman's public statements and activities since he returned from exile in 2001 have defined him as a moderate among Shia clerics in Bahrain. He maintains a close relation with several leading figures within the secular opposition groups and networks. This and his views on women's rights have cost him support among more conservative clerics. Salman's nonconfrontational approach has earned him public praise from both the king and prime minister of Bahrain, as well as other government officials, but it also has led to alienating certain younger followers and more radical figures within the Bahraini opposition. Both sides found confirmation of their views of Salman in his handling of the 2006 parliamentary election campaign. Before the invasion of Iraq, Salman participated in antiwar demonstrations in front of the United States embassy in Bahrain. At the same time he maintained close working relation with local representatives of the American National Democratic Institute, NDI, encouraging members of his organization to attend lectures and workshops organized by the NDI. This may have influenced the Bahraini government's decision to close the NDI office in Manama.


Salman's years at the helm of al-Wifaq have not been trouble-free. His decisions often have been questioned. At least twice, public discord has led disgruntled factions to leave the organization. In 2002 several leading members of al-Wifaq fell by the wayside protesting its decision to boycott the parliamentary elections held that year. In 2005 another group of leading of al-Wifaq members left the group protesting its decision to participate in 2006 parliamentary elections. Despite these and other serious challenges to his authority, Salman has managed to hold his leadership position. He has publicly recognized that his authority and the legitimacy of al-Wifaq stem from its adherence to Qasim's guidance and public backing. However, Salman's open advocacy of vilayet-e faqih may cost him the support of liberal Shi'ite activists and the increasingly vocal followers of the Akhbari school. The Akhbari school opposes ijtihad, or establishing jurisprudence using reasoning based on the Qur'an and Sunna rather than legal precedent, while the Usuli school uses ijtihad. Because of this difference, there is a deep rift between the two schools. In Bahrain, whose religious thinkers are predominantly Akhbari, the Akhbari-Usuli schism has often led to violent confrontations between adherents of the two schools. The tension at least partially explains the frequent splits within the ranks of Shi'ite activists in Bahrain.

The good working relationship Salman has kept with other opposition figures since his 1995 deportation shows his penchant for pragmatic politics. As the leader of the al-Wifaq parliamentary bloc, his ability to search for the middle ground without angering either his more fundamentalist seniors or the liberals within al-Wifaq's constituency will continue to be put to the test.


We are not against women becoming (elected) deputies as they are capable of having similar or better legislative achievements than men, but our decision would be determined according to the public's acceptance of women candidates as after all we want to win.

We are an Islamic movement and we are looking for Islam to be in society, but the kind of Islam that does not force itself on people. We are not going to push people to become Muslim, but we will try to explain the Islamic way of life and the choice is theirs.



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                                            Abdulhadi Khalaf