Rise of Islamists veils liberalism

A decade after Iraq's invasion, some say Kuwait is more democratic for men, less for women.

During a recent debate on labor law in the Kuwaiti parliament, lawmakers seized their latest chance to rail against corruption and nepotism.

"Let's talk about who takes these senior positions!" bellows Musallem al-Barrak, an opposition member of Kuwait's 50-seat body. "The government should have some standards regarding who takes them, other than what family the applicant belongs to or what his last name is!"

This sleek white building - shaped like a nomad's tent in homage to Kuwait's not-too-distant ancestors - houses the only elected parliament among the Gulf Arab states. Inside its walls, a filibuster can be as feisty as any on the floor of the US Congress.

In almost a decade since Iraq invaded this tiny oil-rich nation in August 1990, sparking its liberation by a US-led coalition seven months later, some say Kuwait has gradually grown more democratic. Politicians even grumble over the shortcomings of this constitutional monarchy.

Outside the parliament building, too, much has changed.

The influx of American influences is propelling a conservative backlash and driving an increasingly vocal Islamic movement's attempts to impose stricter religious codes on a society that has long been known as one of the region's more tolerant nations.

"My highest priority in the parliament is to fight these foreign social influences on Kuwaiti life," says Walid al-Tabtubai, a leading Kuwaiti parliamentarian.

With a large contingent of US troops stationed in the Persian Gulf, the beachfront that winds around much of Kuwait City has mushroomed with Fuddruckers and Chili's. Fast-food chains and stylish malls, non-existent until a few years ago. These locales draw packs of teenage boys in jeans and girls without hijab, the traditional head covering that is widely worn, but not required, in this Muslim emirate.

But locals also point out that more women are wearing veils today, than a decade ago. And two weeks ago, a college student was beaten for not covering in Islamic fashion. The campus of Kuwait University, where students have always enjoyed coed classes, is likely to be segregated this fall, unless administrators can find an argument to defer the mandatory separation Islamist legislators pushed through parliament three years ago. Last November, legislators voted down a bill to give women the right to vote after the Emir, Sheikh Jaber Al-Sabah, issued a decree in June supporting women's suffrage.

"The [center] shrank and people started to take sides," says Nasser Sanea, an Islamist parliamentarian. "During the invasion, the parliament was dissolved. We agreed that when we get our country back, we have to return to two principles: Islam and democracy."

Though some - including many women - applaud the Islamists for carrying the banner of family values, the more secular-minded complain that there was a day when a woman could go to the beach in a swimsuit. Now, by contrast, women are forbidden to go to a male hairdresser. Women's salons cannot operate on street level, because women are required to remain out of sight to male passersby while having their hair done. The Western-educated set of young Kuwaitis gripe that police wait outside mixed parties to make sure that prohibitions on alcohol and pre-marital sex are not violated.

An increasing number of things that were once socially acceptable, or at least ignored, are being deemed haram, or forbidden, says veteran painter Thoraya al-Baqsami.

"The word 'haram' - we see it everywhere now," says Ms. Baqsami. " 'Don't listen to music, don't read, don't go to films.' We are continuing to feel the fundamentalists' influence, and that is more difficult for the new generation, because they can't understand why they can't do the things we did in the 60's."

Public entertainment has become something of a battleground. Islamists, particularly those in the Salafi movement, an offshoot of the Wahabi sect of Sunni Islam that predominates in neighboring Saudi Arabia - have tried to ban public concerts. The Salafis closed down the "Ramadan tents" that used to be offered by hotels as nightly entertainment after a day of dawn-to-dusk fasting, because they deemed the merrymaking to be in violation of the spirit of the Islamic holy month.

But even in religious circles, many Kuwaitis snicker that some of the Salafi legislators are going overboard. Salafi lawmaker Dr. al-Tabtubai, tried to outlaw women from smoking the popular Middle Eastern nargila, or water pipe. He is also proposing bans on Internet material and recently made an issue out of a new invasion: the arrival of Valentine's Day into Kuwaiti pop culture.

But Abdal Razzak al Shaygi, a sort of spiritual mentor to the less austere wing of the Salafis, says that most Kuwaitis don't want a regime so strict that they can't attend a concert. But the name Salafi, which comes from an 8th-century movement that strived to get closer to the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, means "ancestor," suggesting a reactionary ideal.

"There is a battle here over the character of society - we want to Islamicize it and the liberals want to secularize it," says Dr. al Shaygi, assistant dean at the School of Sharia at Kuwait University. "The liberals want to bring American values to Kuwaiti society, and this contradicts our norms. It will be difficult for us to allow the culture of boyfriend and girlfriend here," he says, describing dating as an unacceptable precursor to marriage.

Observers say that while the ruling al-Sabah family has supported liberalization, its hand-picked Cabinet of appointed ministers wants to avoid any show-downs with the Islamists. "The Salafis are pushing as hard as they can on social issues, and the government doesn't want too much conflict with them," says one Western official.

Nor, it seems, do they want voices of dissent to grow too loud. Three things are still unofficially off-limits: comments that are an insult to the Emir, God or the Prophet Muhammad. Those who are deemed to have overstepped the limits are subject to heavy fines and imprisonment. Though the press here is considered one of the freest in the Arab world, papers have been closed for short periods of time, and the feisty Qatar-based satellite channel, Al-Jazeera, had its local bureau here shut down last year for over a month.

"We have a free press, but the final word rests with the royal family," says one Kuwaiti politician. "And until we can control who is at the head of government, it's not really a democracy."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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