Kuwait's empowered Islamists question all things Western
After an Islamist victory in Kuwaiti elections, lawmakers' new agenda reflects a regional debate over the pace of social change as economies surge.
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The rise of the Salafis, members of the austere branch of Sunni Islam that has its origins in Saudi Arabia, came in large part because of a new electoral system and growing frustration with institutionalized corruption. The parliamentary polls were held after an electoral redistricting that divided Kuwait into five districts, permitting 10 MPs to be elected from each district, for a total of 50 seats.Skip to next paragraph
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Two of the districts are fully tribal, ensuring 20 seats for tribal MPs. In the first and second district, an additional three tribal MPs won seats. The tribal MPs either tend to be members of the Salafi group or openly sympathetic to their agenda.
"The problem is that the tribal [MPs] are also being infiltrated by the Islamists, especially the Salafi and especially in the fifth district. There are actually candidates who stood on a tribal basis, but within that they are actually affiliated with the Salafi," explains Ayad al-Manna, a Kuwaiti political analyst.
While some Salafis have said they don't want to turn Kuwait into Saudi Arabia, liberal groups in Kuwait are fearful that the Islamists will use their new power to set up bodies like Saudi's religious police. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also called the mutawa, patrols the streets, shops, and public spaces of Saudi Arabia and arrests anyone suspected of indecent behavior. The mutawa have come under pressure recently in Saudi Arabia due to several cases where suspects died in custody or when trying to flee arrest.
"I'm not actually worried about the Salafis when it comes to politics. I'm worried about them when it comes to social life," says Mr. Manna. He's not the only one. Seventeen nongovernmental organizations in Kuwait have come together to protest the parliament's "foreign influences" committee and to combat what they label as the ideological agendas of the Islamists.
The greater Salafi influence in Kuwait, however, is not likely to affect Kuwait's strategic alliance with the United States. It could make it more difficult for the US to find sympathy and support for its regional agenda here. It may also put pressure on the US military stationed in Kuwait to keep a lower profile and to maintain a high degree of decorum in public.
Recent unconfirmed reports of US soldiers firing rounds from their weapons last month during a traffic altercation with a Kuwaiti citizen may be exploited by Salafi politicians to further stoke anti-US sentiment, which has grown considerably since 2006, mostly as enthusiasm for the US-led occupation of Iraq has waned. About 25,000 US troops are stationed in Kuwait.
The combination of tribal power and Salafi Islamist orientation may equal trouble for staid Kuwait. The government and parliament have already spent the past two years battling over nearly every bill and failing to pass nearly every significant piece of economic reform legislation that would allow Kuwait to match developing powerhouses Dubai or Qatar.
The coming summer break, and then Ramadan, should cool things down in the short term. Parliament will recess June 26 until the end of October.
In their first month in power, however, Salafi Islamists and tribal MPs have begun work on fundamentally redefining social behavior in Kuwait to fit their ideological and religious interpretation.