If you ever talk to Kuwaiti Shias over 40 years old about discrimination against the Shia in their country, they might mention how they have been mistreated, on different levels, during the Iran-Iraq War. Then they would quickly tell you how the Shia proved their detractors wrong when they became part and parcel of the Kuwaiti resistance during the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. That the Al Sabah government was deeply betrayed by Saddam Hussein, whom they had supported in his war with Iran only a few years back and because of which they had oppressed their own Shia citizens, only strengthens the case of Kuwaiti Shia loyalty to their country.
Sectarianism has always existed in Kuwait in multiple areas and forms and among different classes; however, no one expected it to reach the alarming levels witnessed in the aftermath of the mass uprising in Bahrain. Some Shia politicians blame particular Sunni Islamists for instigating the current sectarian clashes by appearing on Bahrain state television and other television channels and supporting the Bahraini regime against the popular mass protests there. They also accuse the same Sunni Islamists of going too far in submitting a parliamentary request to question the prime minister for not sending ground troops to participate in the Peninsula Shield Forces that entered Bahrain on March 14th, 2011.
On the other hand, Shia politicians have organized sit-ins in support of the protesters of Bahrain, ones which were attended by several Sunni Kuwaiti leaders. Further, a group of Kuwaiti academics and activists, including the notable Sunni Kuwaiti opposition leader and former parliament member Dr. Ahmad Al-Khatib, a well-known leftist, have issued a statement to show their support for the people of Bahrain. Most of the signatories, however, are clearly Shia—as gleaned from their names— with a few secular Sunnis on the list.
The protests in Syria only exacerbated the situation in Kuwait. At first, Kuwait’s Sunnis were asking why the Shia would support Bahraini protests and not the anti-regime protests in Syria or Iran or even the Ahwaz protests. On the other hand, Parliament members such as the controversial Walid Al-Tabtabai, did not hesitate to accuse Bahraini protests of being run by pro-Iran spies and then accuse the Syrian regime of being criminal. Similarly, another controversial parliament member, but this time the Shia Hussein Al-Qallaf, supported Bahraini protests and the Syrian regime.
On April 20th, Kuwaiti Salafis gathered to speak about the Iranian danger on Kuwait and the Gulf. They pointed out different aspects of their side of the story, saying Bahraini protests were planned by an Iranian diplomat and that Iran has planted sleeper cells all around the Gulf to support its project for regional expansion. Salafis, therefore, suggested that the Gulf countries support the 10 million Ahwaz and the Iranian opposition to topple the Iranian regime and that the Kuwaiti government treat the thousands of Iranians working in the country with suspicion. They also called on the government to punish those Kuwaiti soldiers who refused to participate in the marine force sent from Kuwait to Bahrain.
These sectarian signs have transcended the political discourse and are alarmingly playing themselves out on the streets and in everyday life in a country that has rarely witnessed such flagrant displays of sectarian hatred, let alone violent acts. On May 1st, for example, Shia Parliament member Hussein Al-Qallaf received a death threat for his support of Bahraini protests and the Syrian regime. According to Al-Qallaf, the threat stated that he is one in a long list of many Shia personas that this person intends to assassinate. Two days later, Shia parliament member Faisal Al-Duwaisan also received a similar death threat. Al-Duwaisan is a former Sunni TV anchor who converted to Shia, ran for elections in a district that has a large number of Kuwaiti Shia, and won.
On May 4th, Thawabet Al-Shia group announced in a statement that anti-Shia books are being distributed in public places and some were found in Al-Amiri public hospital. Three days later, a group of men entered a Husainiya and vandalized its properties in Abdullah Al-Mubarak area, and on the same day in the Mubarak Al-Kabeer area, disrespectful sentences were written about Prophet Mohammed`s wife Aysha on the wall of a mosque. The latter incident was met with around 500 Sunni protesters in front of the neighborhood’s police station asking for immediate action against the person who disrespected Aysha, a sacred religious symbol.
In the same week, on May 10th, two Shia teenagers were beaten by a Sunni man for entering a Sunni mosque and praying the “Shia way.” He kicked them out saying they should go to their temples and pray. They replied, “We are Muslims and a mosque is a house of Allah” but he insulted them and then a group of men started beating them. On the 13th of May, another Husainiya was vandalized, this time in Mubarak Al-Kabeer area, after which new derogatory phrases on the walls of Kuwait University`s College of Education in Shamiya stated, “Iran is invading us” and “God curses those who have woken up the sedition.”
The GCC countries are entering a dangerous era of publicly promoting Shiaphobia. State officials and their supporting media do not necessarily have to directly attack their own Shia citizens; condemning the mass-based social movement in Bahrain as an Iranian scheme to meddle in the affairs of a GCC member state suffices. Media outlets, politicians and public leaders have been sending the message, even if indirectly, that the predominantly Sunni GCC states are under attack by a Shia Iranian project for regional hegemony, pitting Arab Shia as potential suspects and fifth columns in their own countries. That the authoritarian regimes of GCC member states are manipulating the Iranian threat to undermine any real or potential threats to their own monopoly on power from local popular opposition movements is largely missing from all analysis.
The attendant dangers of this renewed sectarian trajectory put the Shia, once again, under the same suspicious spotlight they had experienced previously during the Iraq-Iran War. However, this time, it is spurred by the legitimate and popular political demands that the “Arab Spring” has reignited that seem to be the actual threat to the illegitimate regimes of the region, beyond long-standing Arab-Iranian rivalries. This should highlight, again, the importance of having a detailed and clear set of anti-discrimination laws and actually applying them. Some argue the Kuwaiti constitution clearly criminalizes discrimination; however, Kuwait, as with the rest of the GCC countries, lacks a legal framework that would punish the sectarian statements made by parliament members and politicians, many of which could lead to a sectarian war.