Islamists Take Firm Grip On Kuwaiti Politics

Article Summary
Sunni Islamists have become the strongest force on the Kuwaiti political scene, writes Haifa Zaaiter, because their control of parliament has allowed them to use public institutions to raise private funds. But as sectarian tensions rise, the nation’s liberals are left unrepresented.

Mohammad Dalal, a representative from the "Development and Reform" bloc within the Kuwaiti National Assembly, has proudly stated that the Muslim Brotherhood managed to submit around 1,200 grilling session requests and bills in just a short period of time.

Dalal has refused any attempts to assess the experience of the Islamic parliament, which is only three months into its establishment. He added that the Assembly is facing a negative campaign from parties which are difficult to satisfy. "If we ask for parliamentary grilling sessions, they accuse us of exaggerating. If we ask for investigation committees, they accuse us of being too lenient," he told Al-Safir.

Since they came to power in early February, 2012, the Islamists have have done more than raise hot topics. They have also insisted on amending the constitution and defying all of those who oppose their initiatives. According to Dalal, these people argue that “the constitution stipulates that it is amendable. However, this was decided when the Kuwaiti population amounted to only 250,000.”

Given that they hold a parliamentary majority, the Islamists were able to start working on pushing through several controversial laws. Most notable is the recent law which allows for the execution of all those who disrespect the Prophet and his wives.

The expansion of Islamist influence in power has raised many concerns, mainly relating to the impact that their new laws will have on Kuwaiti society. In fact, their expansion of power indicates that they will soon be stepping beyond the limits of parliamentary power, if they have not done so already. There are also indicators of increasing sectarian and doctrinal tension threatening Kuwaiti society.

Prior to any attempt to monitor the Islamic experience in Kuwait, let us first take a look at the composition of parliament. Five seats are held by the Brotherhood, another five by the traditional Salafists and 12 by the independent, mostly tribal, Islamists. Shiites hold seven seats, while the liberals only hold two. There is also a total absence of female representation.

It is necessary to note that not all Islamists fall under the same classifications. In fact, Shamlan al-Essa, a "long-time" political oppositionist and professor of political science at the University of Kuwait, told Al-Safir that "tribal MPs are currently siding with Islamists to serve their own interests, as they are not Islamists at heart.

The same applies to the Shiites. However, they all oppose the government and are seeking to achieve political gains," he said. "The only consensus among the majority revolves around the Islamization of laws."

To further demonstrate his point, Al-Essa tells the story of his brother Khaled Sultan Al-Essa, who graduated in the US and returned to Kuwait with his American wife to suddenly turn into a Salafist, becoming an MP in the National Assembly.

Kuwait's Islamists and "The Key to Paradise"

Sultan's story may be a simple example of Islamist mechanisms in Kuwait, but it is very similar to the approach adopted by Islamists across the Arab world. This approach posits that religion is an invincible weapon; he who rejects it is an unbeliever and he who advocates it will certainly find “the key to paradise."

Upon their ascension to power, the Islamists first sought control over the Ministry of Education in a bid to fully amend the school curriculum. They also established more than 135 religious (and political) institutions to raise money for "charity." Taking advantage of the country’s abundant oil reserves, these institutions raised hundreds of millions of Dinars. The money collected was not controlled by the government.

There is evidence of how much was raised, but proof of how it was spent has been hidden under the two pretexts of "confidentiality" and "the non-exposure of the secrets of needy families."

The "Zakat House," which is the only governmental institution involved in charity, is also run by the Muslim Brotherhood Association.

The situation above answers whether the Islamists are self-sufficient or in need of a particular external resistance to survive, which would imply foreign agendas. In addition to controlling the financial factor, Kuwait's Islamists have many other strengths. Foremost among these is the support of the regime. Along with this support comes "Kuwaiti privacy," which is imposed by the nature of the regime. The regime does not have a party to pass its laws or to fulfill its needs in the National Assembly, so it benefits from the Brotherhood’s representation.

A solid relationship was established between both parties when the Kuwaiti regime used the Brotherhood to face the nationalists. The Muslim Brotherhood did not take long to deeply entrench itself within public and private institutions. They became so entrenched that it would now be very difficult for the regime to get rid of them, even if it wished to do so. Among other crucial strong points which consolidated this relationship, one must mention the rumors regarding Saudi Arabia’s support of the Salafist movements across the Arab world.

Kuwait’s Shiites: The Sectarian War

Shiites are an inherent part of the fabric of Kuwaiti society, constituting almost a third of the population. They are active in politics and have a strong economic presence. Their religious rights are mostly safeguarded. Like Sunnis, Shiites have benefited from the distribution of oil wealth, and occupy a distinct economic status. Many Shiite families, such as the Al-Wazan, Bahbahani and Dashti are considered among the most prominent trading families. They also obtained licenses to open mosques and Husseiniyahs [a congregation hall for Shiite commemoration ceremonies] and in 2006, they held their first Husseini procession.

However, the sectarian tensions that flared between Shiites and Sunnis as a result of the Iraq war have gained additional momentum over the past year, especially after the crises that broke out in Bahrain and Syria.

A brief recounting of the historical relation between Shiites and Sunnis in Kuwait shows that during the 1980’s the relationship was strained due to the success of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. As a result, the Kuwaiti government started to discriminate against the Shiites, for fear that the Iranian revolution might have an effect on Kuwait.

In light of Shiite sectarian sentiments and distinction, the Kuwaiti government dug in its heel and supported Iraq in its war against Iran. However, the Shiites rejected the Iraqi invasion, which started a new phase of national integration.

Nevertheless, the invasion by Iraq came to stir up tensions once again between both parties. What’s more, Shiites made matters worse when they demanded that the Day of Ashoura be recognized as an official holiday, and that the Jaafari doctrine be part of school curriculum.

However, the greatest tension lies in the current situation of the country, with deep divides between officials regarding domestic and regional issues.

Although, Kuwait has managed to avoid the sectarian clashes which have erupted elsewhere in the region, the government acknowledges the possibility of escalated tension between Sunnis and Shiites. In 2010, a Shiite cleric had his citizenship withdrawn because he was accused of insulting Sunni Islam. Earlier this year, the Kuwaiti government suspended the daily newspaper Al-Dar for fomenting sectarian strife.

When Kuwaiti lawmakers voted in favor of a law which would consider applying the death penalty for insulting the Prophet, Shiite MPs rejected the law. They demanded that the legal amendment also include the penalty for insulting the twelve Imams. However, their demands were rejected by the Sunni majority.

Tensions escalated with the deteriorating events taking place in Syria, Bahrain and the eastern region in Saudi Arabia and Iran. According to Shamlan al-Essa, “Crises in Bahrain and Iran have incited Kuwaiti society.”

What about Kuwait’s Liberals?

Today, Kuwait lacks parties representing non-religious individuals. The government is responsible for the lack of such a party’s emergence. Many pro-opposition members in the country speak of large numbers of liberals in the Kuwaiti street who remain silent, unable to make their voice heard.

In the same vein, it has been said that efforts are underway to prepare a list of the thousands of liberals’ names to be sent to the Prince to prove that it has become imperative for the government to represent them.

Found in: syrian crisis, syrian, shiites in kuwait, shiites, shamlan al-essa, sectarian tension, sectarian, kuwait’s islamists, kuwaiti politics, kuwaiti liberals, bahraini crisis

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