Why Islamic State bombing in Kuwait was an attack on tolerance

Kuwait has long been heralded for managing its Sunni-Shiite divide peacefully. But that task is getting harder, and the Islamic State took aim at it Friday.

Jassim Mohammed/Reuters
Kuwaiti Information Minister Sheikh Salman al-Humoud al-Sabah (c.) consoles worshippers outside the Imam Sadiq Mosque after a suicide bomb attack following Friday prayers in Kuwait City.

As of Friday afternoon, the Islamic State had claimed responsibility for only one of the three terrorist attacks that struck the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe nearly simultaneously.

While it is possible – perhaps even likely – that the Islamic State inspired the terrorists who carried out a massacre of dozens of tourists on a Tunisian beach and beheaded a worker outside Lyon, France, the organization itself says it directly planned the suicide bombing that killed at least 25 in a Shiite mosque in Kuwait.

The target is significant. In the past, Kuwait has been held up as a model for how to manage the sectarian Sunni-Shiite tensions that are seen as the primary fault line of violence in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia on the Sunni side and Iran on the Shiite side. The attack, it seems, is an attempt to undo that work and push the country into the sort of sectarian chaos on which the Islamic State feeds.

Kuwait's ability to manage its split sectarian population peacefully is, on some levels, what the United States has been hoping will evolve in Iraq, where sectarian divisions are deep and have driven some minority Sunnis into the arms of the Islamic State.

In Kuwait, by contrast, the state "has fully integrated [minority] Shi’ites into the economic, social, and political fabric of society," says a 2013 report by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. The "vast majority" of Kuwaiti Shiites – thought to be about 30 percent of the population – "consider themselves Kuwaitis first and foremost."

But the same report wonders if Kuwait has "reached the sectarian tipping point."

High birth rates among tribal Bedouins, who trend more conservative, are tilting the country not only more Sunni, but away from the liberal traditions of Kuwait's urban elites, the AEI report argues. Meanwhile, the emir – long heralded as a regional model of progressivism – has taken some small but significant authoritarian steps since the Arab Spring, argues political scientist Madeleine Wells on The Washington Post's "Monkey Cage" blog. 

In this context, Friday's suicide bombing could be more than simply an attempt to kill Shiites, whom the Islamic State sees as apostates. It appears to also be an attempt to further drive a wedge between the country's Sunni powerholders and its Shiite minority.

The rhetoric of sectarianism has been growing in Kuwait in recent years, driven by domestic debate over the Syrian civil war and, ironically, the country's relative liberalism – its democratic elections and free press. "Sectarianism can be a useful tool for populist politicians, however corrosive it can be to society," the AEI report says. "Kuwait’s relatively free press and social media ironically can exacerbate tension, especially for those seeking to publish religious incitement."

The Islamic State has already begun to try to incite Shiites in neighboring Saudi Arabia, though the Shiite population there is smaller – perhaps about 15 percent – and less influential. It bombed a Shiite mosque near Qatif, Saudi Arabia, last month.

With the bombing in Kuwait, the Islamic state is showcasing its increasing reach beyond Iraq and Syria into the Gulf.

“Ever since I heard about Qatif and the Shiite mosques there, I just had this feeling that we were next,” Bodour Behbehani, a Shiite graduate student in Kuwait City, told The New York Times.

Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah visited the mosque immediately after the attack, and the cabinet convened an emergency session.

But a Sunni former lawmaker, Abdullah al-Neybari, said the Kuwaiti government "is not doing what it should be doing to fight extremism in the country," according to the Associated Press. "This is a wakeup call to fight harder."

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