Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 May 2012
Issue No. 1099
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salafis in Kuwait

Scheherezade Faramarzi interviews Khaled Sultan, leader of the powerful Salafi religious movement in Kuwait

Khaled Sultan leads a powerful Salafi movement, which, along with other Islamist groups, advocates some of the most restrictive Sharia-based and conservative laws enshrined in Kuwait's constitution.

These have helped turn this once-dynamic and relatively liberal Arab state into a conservative society, where university classrooms are segregated, public entertainment is banned, and women are denied political rights despite their strong support for the Islamists.

The Islamists, including the Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood and tribal candidates, swept the polls in last February's parliamentary elections in Kuwait. Salafis, so-called puritanical Islamists, won 14 seats and emerged, along with their Muslim Brotherhood allies, as the main opposition in the new National Assembly.

Sultan, an incumbent, grabbed 4,778 votes and is now deputy-speaker. Women candidates failed to win a single seat.

"The Islamists will have clean hands," said Sultan, 72, a wealthy businessman who heads the Transitional Salafi Islamic Association, known as more socially oriented and moderate Salafis.

Kuwait has long been blessed with an elected parliament, and the earliest modern elections were held in the country in 1921, the first in the Gulf region. It is also one of the most politically stable states in the region, and it has a relatively free media.

It is the only Arab country in the region that has had almost no political prisoners, no opposition in exile, and no history of political violence, and it could be a model for the Gulf region. It has also acted as a sounding board for ideas that have shaped Arab politics over the last half a century.

However, little attention has been paid to its almost unique political climate and history, or to the relationship between the ruling family, the opposition and the people, the overwhelming majority of whom do not seek regime change, though support is strong for a constitutional monarchy and the election of the prime minister, traditionally from the ruling Al-Sabah family, rather than his being appointed by the ruling emir.

Nor has Kuwait, with its relatively moderate government, been touched by the major protests seen in other Arab countries.

Yet, today opposition MPs, mostly Islamists, openly criticise the ruling Al-Sabah family, which has ruled since 1752. Their anti- corruption efforts succeeded in bringing down the last prime minister, Nasser Mohamed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, leading to the dissolution of parliament over allegations that government officials had funnelled payoffs to bank accounts outside the country.

Even though Kuwait adopted Islamic legislation in 1981, Sultan said many of the laws do not go far enough in implementing Sharia law, and those that do are not followed to the letter. University classrooms are theoretically segregated, he said, but new universities are still co- educational.

He also complained that Kuwait remains an "open country", where male and female students interact, if not in classrooms then on university campuses, and foreign dancers and singers are invited to the country to entertain them.

Yet, Sultan's own private life seems incongruous with harsh Salafi doctrine, since his household, like many Salafi households, leads a modern lifestyle while retaining a puritan religious philosophy.

Dressed in a grey robe and white skullcap, Sultan explained Salafi history in Kuwait, which he said was founded as a movement in the early 1960s, while sitting in his villa in the affluent neighbourhood of Shwaykh in Kuwait City.

The Salafi doctrine, he said, was based on daawa [religious call] to "enlighten people to the right Islam," with politics only having a supporting role. The more moderate and powerful Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, focuses mainly on politics. "That's why they are better organised than the Salafis," he said.

"Kuwait was a more Salafi country in the early 19th century," he said. The Salafis also support charities preserving heritage, building schools, hospitals, universities, orphanages, and mosques, he added. His daughter, Mona, runs the Sultan International Academy for special-needs children.

After obtaining a bachelors degree in aviation engineering, Sultan went on to pursue his MBA at Washington University in the US, where he met and married his American sweetheart in 1966.

His daughter Mona, 44, said she had learned English from her American mother, Candra, 69, a Christian from Indiana who has remained true to her faith and attends church regularly. Mona does not wear the Islamic veil.

In the interview, Sultan was non-committal on the subject of the veil, which some Muslims claim is religiously required. Sultan said there were more urgent issues that needed to be attended to than debating making the veil compulsory by law in Kuwait, as it is in Iran or Saudi Arabia.

"You can't impose the hijab," he said. "It has to be adopted by conviction, not by force. Islamists don't have the majority to legislate such a thing." The government, which allots 16 of the 50 seats for itself in parliament, would also likely reject such a bill. "I don't think this is a priority," Sultan added.

His daughter, a divorcee, said that she covers her hair and face in public even though her father has made no such demands on her. "I choose to do so out of choice," she said.

However, her younger sister, like her mother, has chosen not to don the hijab, though she does perform the five-times daily prayers. Sultan has four daughters, two sons and two grandchildren.

In public, Sultan's views are more radical, and he has advocated forbidding Muslims from celebrating Christmas and other non-Muslim holidays. "Muslims are prohibited from sharing the Christians' and other infidel faiths' holidays in any form, whether by attendance or exchange of gifts or expressions of joy," a statement he and other Salafis released in 2004 said.

The 1970s saw the rise of the Islamists to power in Kuwait, first the Muslim Brotherhood and later the Salafis, with tacit government support and very little opposition from liberals. In fact the government encouraged Islamist movements in order to counter liberals and nationalists who had demanded political reforms.

The Brotherhood has since penetrated every layer of Kuwaiti society, changing the dynamics of the Gulf state since its inception in 1952. The movement got a boost after the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser cracked down on Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in 1954, forcing many of its members to flee to the Gulf states, including Kuwait, whose economy was rapidly developing thanks to oil.

Like the majority of Kuwaitis, Sultan is grateful to the US for ridding Kuwait of the Iraqi occupation in 1991. Yet, he also blames the US for supporting and allegedly giving the green light to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait in 1990.

He has no harsh words or antagonism towards US President Barack Obama, whom he considers "intelligent... but working against the system." Obama's mistake in Iraq, Sultan said, was to deliver the country to the Shias and Iran.

Al-Qaeda leaders, such as the late Osama bin Laden and Ayman El-Zawahri, are "true to their beliefs," Sultan says. "They are good people as far as their theology is concerned, but they have missed their path. In Afghanistan, they could have trained their energy on developing a modern Islamic state and making it a success."

Sultan's 20-year-old granddaughter Reem does not mince her words when giving her opinions of the social restrictions in Kuwait. "We're restricted from a lot of things [because of] traditions. Islam is present, so everyone should take it for what it means. Being a man is easier. Women must think who their friends are. Men can go out and come home anytime they like and they can travel alone," she said.

"As a woman, I accept my situation and find ways to enjoy myself without doing anything wrong," she said. University campuses are mixed in Kuwait, but classes and cafeterias are segregated, though tutorials are mixed. "The disadvantage is that we miss out on good teachers," because the priority goes to male students.

She said she didn't know very much about Salafism. She did, however, vote for Salafi candidates in the February elections, though not because of their ideology. "I feel their goals for the country are better," including ridding it of corruption, a general complaint shared by many Kuwaitis.

What Kuwait also needs is entertainment, said Reem. "Tourists don't have anything to do. There's nothing I can do either," she said, except go to university, read and attend family gatherings.

Her goal is to have her own business, though she is not sure yet what it will be, perhaps something that does not keep her away from the family a lot, something like what her American grandmother does, running a dessert shop in the neighbourhood.

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