Among Kuwait's Salafis, a rejection of violence

Inside a desert tent, Islamists speak benignly of US and of ways to thwart attacks.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In the corner of the tent, a television silently broadcasts a soccer match. But the young Kuwaiti men who have gathered for the diwaniya, or evening meeting, in this lonely spot in the desert are not interested in soccer.

Sitting on cushions, they are deep in discussion about a young man some of them knew named Amer Khleif al-Enezi and how this once unremarkable Muslim turned into an angry extremist whose struggle against the United States and the Kuwaiti government ended with his death, apparently from "heart failure," in a police cell last week. Mr. Enezi's story is not unique in the Arab world, a tale of resentment against the US combined with harsh treatment by his own government yielding potent results.

Like Enezi, most of the dozen or so men gathered in the tent are members of the austere Salafi sect of Sunni Islam. But there the similarity ends. For these men strongly condemn the emergence of Islamic radicals in this small, wealthy desert nation that has spurred a bloody security crackdown over the past month.

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"All the Kuwaiti people are against terrorism and its destructive actions," says Abdullah Fadli, a student of the Koran with a long straggly beard and wire-rimmed glasses. "Those who call themselves radicals are nothing more than criminals and deviants."

In contrast to the pervasive anti-American sentiment found in many Arab countries, most Kuwaitis tend to have a benign view of the US, a legacy of Washington's role in driving Iraqi occupation troops out of their country in 1991. They reject the brutal insurgency in Iraq and regard the presence of some 25,000 American troops in Kuwait as a necessary bulwark against external threats.

"The resistance in Iraq are all followers of Saddam Hussein and have nothing to do with jihad and Islam," says Mubarak. "We support stability and it is very important for the American forces to stay for the time being."

Abdullah agrees.

"The interests of Kuwait are related to the interests of America," he says. "The position of Kuwait is very different to other Arab and Islamic countries."

Journey to militancy

There are exceptions to this accommodating view of the US. One of them was Enezi, who was arrested following a gun battle with Kuwaiti police on Jan. 31. Before his death eight days later, the former mosque preacher confessed that he had been planning to attack US military convoys in Kuwait.

Yet the Enezi that captured the headlines over the past week was a very different person from the schoolboy whom Ibrahim al-Shimri remembers from his childhood in Jahra, 20 miles north of Kuwait City. "He was kind and quiet. He was never in any kind of trouble," he says.

In 1994, Mr. Ibrahim says, Enezi grew religious and enrolled at Kuwait University's College of Sharia and Islamic Studies. He graduated in 1998 and took a job as a volunteer preacher at the Malik Ibn Auf mosque in Jahra. Enezi was popular and respected by those who attended his mosque. But with the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Enezi's anti-American views began to harden. Events at the Abu Ghraib prison last year sent Enezi over the edge, his old friends say.

"He began to publicly criticize prominent preachers who spoke out against jihad in Iraq, accusing them of cowardice," says Jamal.

In October, Enezi resigned from the Dar al-Koran, an institution that teaches the Islamic holy book to young Muslims, and disappeared. He reemerged last month when the Kuwaiti authorities named him as one of three militant ringleaders plotting to carry out attacks against US forces and the government.

While the group of Kuwaitis at the evening meeting agree that Abu Ghraib was the trigger that turned Enezi into a militant, they all maintain that the treatment he received from Kuwait also contributed.

Indeed, some analysts say that domestic security organizations play a significant - and underrated - role in driving some young Muslims into the arms of Islamic extremists.

"I am convinced that the best explanation for much of the Islamist violence and terror that we have witnessed recently is explained by the deadly, dehumanizing combination of indignities people suffer at home from their own government and parallel anxieties due to policies of the US, Israel, or other foreign parties," says Rami Khouri, a Jordanian political analyst and columnist for Beirut's Daily Star newspaper.

Kuwait's minister of Islamic affairs, Abdullah al-Matouq, told Al-Anbaa newspaper last week that Enezi had been warned several times about calling for a holy war in Iraq, which Enezi denied. The minister described the preacher, who allegedly went to Iraq to fight US forces there, as "contradictory and cowardly."

Accusations that Enezi was tortured have been denied by Kuwait. "There are no signs of torture on his body, and the cause of death is heart failure," Interior Minister Sheik Nawwaf Al Ahmed Al Sabah said Monday, the Associated Press reported. "I don't know why some people are casting doubts."

Desert forum

Inside the tent, a charcoal brazier and a gas heater keeps the interior warm from the chill night air. A servant squats beside a low metal table filled with the trademarks of Arab hospitality: tiny handleless coffee cups, thin glasses for tea, conventional cups and saucers for serving hot creamy milk. A tall brass coffee pot with a long thin spout is used to pour traditional pale brown cardamom-flavored coffee.

The traditions are timeless, but there are modern conveniences, too. A generator hums noisily outside, providing the electricity for the two lights and the television.

The Kuwaiti men gathered here say they are shocked by the unprecedented violence of the past month and have no shortage of ideas on how to confront the specter of Islamic extremism.

"One of the main reasons for terrorism in Kuwait are the religious websites," says Abu Turki. "Young people log onto these websites and absorb misguided ideas about Islam. The government has to close all the religious websites."

Fighting extremism

The Kuwaiti government has blocked in the past week two websites belonging to a radical preacher and is planning to launch an awareness campaign against Islamic extremism.

Jamal blames Al Jazeera for what he says is the satellite channel's tacit support for the Iraqi insurgents and serving as a platform for Osama bin Laden.

"It's the responsibility of the family," says Abu Gharah. "Parents have to monitor the behavior of their sons." Otherwise, he adds, they could turn out like Enezi.

"When I was his student, Amer [al-Enezi] was teaching us the history of the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him," says Abdullah. "But Amer never understood that Islam is a religion of peace and rejects violence. Amer didn't represent Islam, he only represented himself."

Wire reports were used in this article.

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