Islamist political movements have been sweeping the polls in post Arab uprisings that were sparked not by religious fervor and ideology, but by demands for democracy and freedom. Revolutionaries, who succeeded in toppling dictators such as those in Egypt and Tunisia, resent that Islamists who had little to do with their popular secular rebellions are now reaping the fruits of their efforts and being crowned as victors. More importantly, they are alarmed by the prospects of the formation of religious autocracies similar to those in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Islamist movements boast of better organizational skills and have for decades been in close contact with the poor, providing them with social, educational, and other charitable services. In doing so, they have built a strong and popular power base among the masses that make up the majority of the population who did not necessarily take part in the different uprisings.
Such frustrations and resentment, however, do not run deep in Kuwait. There, Islamists and their allies triumphed in the National Assembly elections this past February—gaining thirty-four seats in the fifty-member parliament—and handed a severe blow to women who failed to win a single seat. Yet, the small Gulf state and its relatively progressive and reformist government has not been touched by any major protest seen in other Arab countries. Located at the top of the Persian Gulf and flanked by powerful neighbors—Saudi Arabia to the south, Iraq to the north, and Iran to the east—Kuwait has long prided itself on having a competitively elected parliament with legislative power and a lively debate (the earliest modern elections were held in 1921). Its parliament is the first in the Gulf and unique in a region ruled by autocrats who tolerate little, if any, dissent.
Opposition MPs openly criticize the Al-Sabah family—which has ruled since 1752—and were able to bring down the last prime minister, Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah. The Emir, Shaykh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, called the February elections after months of political showdowns and the dissolution of parliament over allegations that government officials funneled payoffs to bank accounts outside the country. The main challenge to the Islamists’ rising influence comes from the ruling family that tries to hold some of their more radical agendas in check. The most powerful and popular of the Islamist movements is the Muslim Brotherhood—or the Ikhwan, though not officially known by that name—which has penetrated every layer of Kuwaiti society and changed the dynamics of the small Gulf state since its inception in 1952. Over the years, Kuwaiti society—like other Gulf Arab states—has become increasingly conservative and religious. The once outspoken seculars and liberals have all but lost their voice.
Even though political parties are technically banned, Kuwait’s Muslim Brotherhood first became active as the Islamic Guidance Society, an Islamic cultural body inspired by Egypt’s Hassan al-Banna, a schoolteacher who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Influenced by its parent Egyptian organization, Kuwait’s brotherhood attracted the country’s religious elite. Following independence from Britain in 1961, the movement’s name changed to the Social Reform Association.
After president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s crackdown on Egypt’s Ikhwan in 1954, many of its leaders and members fled to the Gulf states, including Kuwait, whose economy was rapidly developing thanks to its newly found oil. Among those who came to Kuwait were schoolteachers whose pedagogy was heavily influenced by the Ikhwan ideology. Shortly thereafter, as in other Gulf states, they helped rewrite school curricula. Also, many Kuwaiti students who returned from Egyptian universities in the following decades set out to organize a student movement in Kuwait University. Their National Alliance won the student union elections in 1979, which they hold until today. A year later, two Brotherhood candidates won seats in the parliament.
The Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel handed the Ikhwan a golden opportunity to recruit more people to a religious alternative to socialism and pan-Arab nationalism, both of which had dominated the political landscape of the region. At the insistence of the Ikhwan, university classes were segregated in 1974, the group’s first major victory in impacting public life. The Al-Sabah were too happy to accommodate the Islamists in their efforts to weaken the then more threatening nationalist and leftist opposition. In the early 1970s, the government began building mosques and opening doors to Islamist activities that were affecting the social life of the country.
But it was not until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 that the Islamists established a strong foothold in Kuwaiti society. During the seven-month occupation—in which the Emir and his family, the entire government, and nearly half of the population fled the country—young Brotherhood activists helped organize resistance against Iraqi forces. They also practically ran the country by forming committees that distributed food, humanitarian relief, and money to the people who remained. As a result, the younger activists gained respect and prominence over the older generation of the movement, many of whom had also fled during the occupation. The occupation permanently changed the movement’s political role, leading to the creation of the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood made up mostly of Kuwaiti youths. The ICM broke ties with the international Muslim Brotherhood after the latter backed Iraq’s invasion and failed to provide sufficient support to liberate Kuwait.
The US-led war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein rallied Islamist activists against Western intervention in their region, especially the stationing of US military bases on Saudi soil. Among these was Osama bin Laden, who had fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s with the help of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. To them, the presence of US troops in holy Muslim lands was sacrilege, driving many of the so-called Afghan Arabs to form and join extremist groups such as al-Qaida. With the ending of the Iraqi occupation and return of the Kuwaiti government in 1991, the Ikhwan and the more hardline Salafis joined the government, putting to test for the first time their intentions and ability to participate within the political system.
The Kuwaiti Ikhwan—as in other countries—have a remarkable capacity for pragmatism and often dilute their Islamist agenda to sooth outside fears. “On the outside, [Kuwait’s] Ikhwan portrays its movement both as Islamic and constitutional, focusing on gradualism and revision of laws through democratic legislative process that have led to practical results,” wrote Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in a report on the Brotherhood. “While it supports liberal political reforms, it draws the line when liberalization leads in a cultural direction. Thus, in the 1990s, it supported reform of the press law to diminish licensing requirements but also insisted that publishing material offensive to religious values be legally prohibited with criminal penalties, not merely fines. The party argued that justice had to come before freedom,” he added.
Advocating the introduction of sharia and a general conservative agenda, the Ikhwan use mosques as a primary recruiting ground, while the younger members of ICM draw support from university campuses. However, the movement also has support among tribes in areas surrounding urban centers. But when it tried to amend the constitution to make the sharia the primary source of legislation, it met with government resistance. Since, it has often bended its ideologies for the sake of long-term goals and has settled for making the sharia a source rather than the source of legislation, while insisting that any new legislation should not violate Islamic law. To make sure this happens, they have pushed for a committee formed by the ruler to oversee that laws are in compliance with religion.
In addition to advocating for the implementation of the sharia, the Ikhwan have also launched a conservative social agenda with a religious undertone, though one not always based directly on Islamic law. The Kuwait government, which generally favors social freedoms, has bowed to pressure by tightening controls on public concerts and banning all forms of dance. The constitution bans men from mingling with women in stadiums, sport galleries, hotels, and health clubs. Renting apartments is prohibited to unmarried Kuwaitis, and recently, the display of naked mannequins and lingerie in shop windows have also been banned.
The Islamists have, in addition, imposed strict censorship on television programs, films, and literature and banned material that is considered immoral and/or insulting to Islam. Journalists and writers who criticize these restrictions could be prosecuted. Islamists have filed at least five lawsuits against lawyer and human rights activist Hassan al-Essa for his writings in a newspaper column that criticized the sharia-based laws in Kuwait. “There is a conflict between Islamic laws and human rights,” Al-Essa said in an interview. “We have a terrorism of thought, and I believe this trend will increase, going farther than in Iran,” he said, citing as examples bans on cinemas, concerts, and other celebrations.
No doubt, Islamists’ influence will be further strengthened following their victory in the February elections. Already, they have introduced a new bill in parliament known as the Decency Law, which seeks to impose other restrictions such as a ban on swimsuits on beaches and on plastic surgery. Last week, parliament provisionally passed amendments to the penal code, making the death penalty the punishment for those who curse God or the Prophet Mohammed and his wives. The move follows the arrest of a Kuwaiti Tweeter for allegedly cursing Mohammed, his wife, and some of his companions.
In public, however, the Ikhwan prefer to talk about practical programs. “Corruption is a burden” and delays development projects, ICM’s secretary general Naser al-Sane said in an interview a day after elections results were announced. “We have to meet with political groups,” he said as he constantly interrupted the interview to receive phone calls from groups trying to form alliances in the government. “Now the challenge is how to solve the problems, conduct business even better… We have an agenda in parliament, looking for better development. Of course we want Islam to be our social norm and the government to respect Islam,” he said. Those problems, he explained, included delays in projects that have taken years to finish because “some checks won’t be handed to companies unless bribes are paid.” He blamed the former prime minister for the corruption. Al-Sane said it is not easy to identify specific people involved in corruption, but what is clear is that the “former prime minister corrupted MPs, paid money to get votes” for his supporters in parliament.” On the social side, he added, the Ikhwan should not be feared because they do not seek to marginalize women in society, nor interfere in personal lives. There is always fear because of the experience of Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan, all of which are managed by Islamic groups, Sunnis and Shias,” al-Sane said.
Khalid Sultan, a leader of the Transitional Salafi Islamic Association [Al-Tajammu’ al-Islami al-Salafi], known as the more socially-oriented and moderate traditional Salafis, said the tribal system in Kuwait makes it necessary to make alliances with various Islamists in order to reach a common goal. With modernization and urbanization, the traditional system, however, is moving farther away from the tribal system. “You can’t force people into something. You have to create it by educating people,” said Sultan, who criticized some of the existing legislations that still do not meet sharia requirements and that date back to the early 1960s prior to the Islamization of the legal system. “We still have legislation that is liberal in certain aspects. For example, if a wife is caught in the act of adultery and the husband accepts to drop the charges, she can go free. This is not sharia. This will encourage adultery,” said Sultan, a wealthy entrepreneur.
Kuwait adopted Islamic legislation in 1981. Islamists, however, will be closely monitoring all the legislations that have been passed since many are not being thoroughly put to practice. It is true that university classes are theoretically segregated, but the rules are not being strictly enforced in new universities, Sultan complained. According to him, on the social level, Kuwait remains an open country where co-ed social interaction is still in place, be it female and male students mingling in university campuses or “importing dancers, singers, and holding public appearances for them.” The priorities of the opposition—the Salafis, Ikhwan, and others that make up the Islamic Bloc—were to put forward a program for reform and development: expand education services and launch an aggressive development drive of the private sector to absorb 320,000 Kuwaitis who are unlikely to find jobs otherwise, Sultan, who is deputy speaker of parliament, said. “The opposition outlined its priorities: independence of the legislative body, cleanup of the media, and follow-up on corruption scandals and the investigative committee.”
Sultan explained that the political structure of Salafis in Kuwait does not use the Saudi version as it model. While the Salafi doctrine is based on dawa [religious call] to “enlighten people to the right Islam,” Sultan said, politics only has a supporting role. The Ikhwan, on the other hand, focus mainly on the political path. “That’s why they are better organized [politically] than the Salafis.” He said the Salafi movement in Kuwait was founded in the early 1960s and is active in charities, heritage committees, relief work, and building schools, hospitals, universities, orphanages, and mosques. Not everyone is impressed though. “I don’t see much difference between the Ikhwan and the Salafis, both of whom are tribal and more attached to Kuwaiti tradition,” said al-Essa, a secular Kuwaiti citizen. “I don’t trust them in the long run. Why do Ikhwan build coalitions with Salafis if they don’t have the same program? They belong to the same bloc, the Islamic bloc.” He continued, saying, “At the same time, there is division between tribal and urban factions.” The urban groups are those who originally settled in Kuwait and no longer ascribe to tribal politics, whereas the majority of Salafis continue to belong to nomadic tribes. Polarization exists between urbanites and tribes and between Shias and Sunnis,” he said. “It’s scary for the liberals.”
The Brotherhood, said senior parliament official Khalid al-Ali, is the “product of the environment and the country they live in. Traditions, customs, values, myths, and the heritage of every place is different.” The various Ikhwan branches in the region differ in their political views. “Ikhwan is not static, but dynamic. You can see how differently it operates from Morocco to the Gulf,” said al-Ali, who is also a member of the Ikhwan. In Tunisia, he said, the Ikhwan belong to a liberal and secular culture. “There’s no way society would accept radical Islamist thinking there,” especially when it is economically dependent on tourism. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the alliance between the state and the Salafi (Wahhabi) movement is so deep-rooted that it has become part of Saudi Arabia’s heritage, making it very difficult for the regime to breakaway from it. According to al-Ali, Egypt’s Brotherhood leaders, have urged the Ikhwan in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to approve women’s participation in politics, but those pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Al-Ali said he was attracted to the Ikhwan because of its focus on political reform and corruption. Members can criticize it without being reprimanded. “I find the Ikhwan the most suitable for Kuwait.”
Indeed, the Ikhwan have sent out mixed messages. Some rare voices of moderation include Tariq al-Suwaidan, a prominent leader of the Kuwait Brotherhood who warned that if Islamists become tyrants they would be overthrown just as their secular predecessors were. “If Islamists start to become tyrants in the countries that were hit by the Arab Spring, we will revolt against them,” he said. The Ikhwan’s sectarian affiliation influences its position on foreign policy. For instance, it supports the Syrian opposition—made up overwhelmingly of Sunnis, including the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamist groups—against President Bashar al-Assad, who is from the minority Alawite sect that is a branch of Shia Islam. Salafis have a far less tolerant view of Shias than the Ikhwan. The tense relationship between Kuwait’s Shia political factions and Sunni Islamists has forced them to side with the ruling family for protection.
Unlike most Brotherhood branches, the position of Kuwait’s Ikhwan is mild toward the United States—which has a massive military presence in Kuwait and to whom Kuwaitis are indebted for liberating them from Iraqi occupation. The Ikhwan have not been critical of the security relationship between Kuwait and Washington and its leaders often meet with the American ambassador and European officials. While United States diplomats and intelligence officials prefer engaging the Ikhwan in order to isolate the more extremist Islamists, United States federal agents have the group under watchful eyes. The Ikhwan support the Palestinian resistance group Hamas against Israel. However, some members have expressed support for a US or Israeli attack on the nuclear facilities of Iran, seen more of a threat to its security than Israel. The Salafis view Iran, compared to Israel, as an immediate threat to the region.
“Israel is continuously dangerous, it is a long-term enemy. Iran is in and out. Danger comes from the expansionism of the Revolutionary Guards and they form a danger to the Gulf states.” Although the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) found no evidence of Iranian meddling in Bahrain’s uprising, Sultan continues to believe that Iran is intervening in Bahraini affairs. He says, “You’ve seen what happened in Bahrain. Iran is behind it, it is financing it.” Saudi influence in the Gulf, on the other hand, poses no danger according to Sultan.
Senior parliament official Khalid al-Ali believes otherwise. He thinks that, “Our problem is the Saudi wave” that is impacting the Gulf area. “Give the Ikhwan a chance to be tested. Their performance in Egypt will be their test. Will they allow the system to remain democratic and free elections to continue? Or will they turn their back to newly achieved political freedoms and become autocratic?” But he believes today’s economic globalization will force newly installed Islamist governments to be more flexible; to build commercial and economic ties with the world for the welfare of their countries. But al-Essa is not so optimistic. The current frictions among the various groups and between Sunnis and Shias are recipes for trouble in Kuwait, similar to Bahrain. He blames Islamists’ success on the “fake liberals” who failed to win the hearts and minds of the masses. “Liberals deal with people from above, from their towers.” Their interests lie more with the business community, money, and the ruling family. “Kuwait in the 1960s and 1970s was the jewel of the Gulf. It was the first country to have a constitution, to have modern laws, commerce … and has ended up like this. There’s nostalgia for the past,” said al-Essa.