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.

Stephanie McGehee/Reuters
Islamic lawmakers walk out of Parliament in protest of appointed female Ministers Nouria Al-Subaih (l) and Dr. Moudi Al-Hamoud (r).
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

They want to outlaw Xboxes and ban Christmas, do away with the Arab world's version of "American Idol," and keep female drivers off the roads.

Kuwait is seeing a surge in conservative Islamist legislative proposals just one month after the country's Salafi Islamists and tribal candidates gained a majority in its National Assembly. With 29 out of 50 seats, this newly empowered bloc appears to be testing its political capital and could succeed in making an already conservative country even more socially strict.

Their drive comes as the Gulf region debates the pace of social development in a tug of war between traditionalists and modernists. While the oil boom brings in a flood of Westerners and their ideas, traditional local societies are increasingly questioning how much change they'll accept along with the economic surge.

Foreigners now account for 12.5 million people, or nearly half of the 33 million population in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Kuwaitis and other locals are also traveling and studying abroad at greater numbers and returning home with experiences once alien to this arid region of the world.

The impact has indeed angered many here. And some – like the Islamist parliamentarians in Kuwait – are reacting with a vengeance.

Since winning control of the legislature in the May 17 polls, not only has the conservative bloc begun pushing proposals calling for the banning of reality TV and private parties in hotels, but they have also created a parliamentary committee mandated to "study the negative effects of foreign phenomena" in Kuwait.

Islamist member of parliament (MP) Waleed al-Tabtabae, known for his opposition to female sports teams whose athletes would wear shorts, slammed the popular reality music show "Star Academy" (the region's version of "American Idol") when its recruiters came to Kuwait looking for contestants.

"The recruitment of youth for a program that destroys morals and fights our [Islamic] values is no less bad and dangerous than recruiting them for terrorism or for peddling drugs," said the fiery parliamentarian in a statement to the press in late May.

Several Islamist MPs walked out of parliament during its opening session to protest the appointment of two female ministers – one for education, the other for housing.

Islamist tribal MP Mohammad Hayif al-Mutairi said they were boycotting the opening session because the two female ministers "were not abiding by sharia (Islamic law)." Neither of the women wear the hijab, the Islamic head scarf worn by many Muslim women.

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.

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.

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