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Wednesday , January 20 2021

Kuwait’s own ‘brand’ of pluralism and tolerance

‘Under-appreciated outlier’

KUWAIT CITY, Sept 18: While anti-migration movements grow in other parts of the world, could the Kuwaiti approach serve as a regional example of tolerance, reports Al- Qabas daily quoting opencanada. org

On a Friday morning in February near the Kuwait-Iraq border, a group of expat schoolteachers and locals — including both Sunni and Shiite Muslims — picked strawberries, bought lemongrass tea and sipped on freshly squeezed sugarcane juice while socializing at an organic Kuwaiti farm. In a conflict-stricken region, Kuwait’s religious tolerance makes it an under-appreciated outlier.

Yet, the roughly 35 percent who are Shiite in the majority-Sunni nation openly practice their faith and don’t hide their religious affiliation, something that is often carefully concealed in some neighboring Sunni-led countries.

The reasons are mostly quite ordinary: most visitors come to Kuwait to do business, and religious strife is bad for commerce. Given that Kuwait does not have a tourism industry, it benefits commercially from people coming here from abroad to live and work.

A key factor that draws expats here is the country’s tolerant environment, particularly towards Shiite. Kuwaiti Sunnis have a historical relationship with the Shiite community, and they take the necessary measures to maintain these ties. Some of the ways in which Kuwait protects its religious minorities are by taking legal measures, such as its national unity law that explicitly prohibits “stirring sectarian strife”; providing security and protection when necessary, such as after a 2015 mosque bombing; and promoting social acceptance through messages put out by the government, the media and businesses during times of religious commemoration and celebration. This showing of national unity does not come without its complexities, however.

The Kuwaiti government punishes the publishing of what it deems to be offensive content, including on social media. And, according to a 2017 US Department of State International Religious Freedom report, messages shared by religious clergy are monitored by the government, including those shared within religious minority communities (such as the Shiite community). But Kuwait’s tolerance of its religious minorities is generally regarded as an improvement over the situation in neighboring countries. That tolerance is, for one, reflected in its Constitution, which establishes Islam as the religion of the state yet protects the right to religious freedom. According to the US Department of State report, while the law prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing, it does have a court system that favors citizens who have advocated for “freer public discussion and criticism of religion.”

At times, this protection comes at the expense of freedom of expression for both Kuwaitis and expats. The report states, “The law criminalizes publishing and broadcasting content, including on social media, which the government deems offensive to religious ‘sects’ or groups, providing for fines ranging from KD 10,000 to 200,000 ($33,200 to $665,000) and up to seven years’ imprisonment. Non-citizens convicted under this law are also subject to deportation.” And, yet, this strictness reveals the awareness that Kuwait has of the delicate nature of religious freedom.

“Kuwait has generally been tolerant of other faiths, more so than most of the other Gulf states.” Perhaps one of the most visible displays of how seriously Kuwait takes religious tolerance came hours after the 2015 suicide bombing of the Shiite Imam Al-Sadeq Mosque in Kuwait City by a man affiliated with ISIS. Kuwaiti Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al Sabah, a Sunni, visited the mosque to call for unity among Kuwaitis.

“Kuwait has generally been tolerant of other faiths, more so than most of the other Gulf states, with maybe the exception of Oman,” says Ibrahim Al-Marashi, associate professor of history at California State University. Al-Marashi explains that Kuwaiti Shiite have a long history in the country (most of Kuwait’s Shiite have historically migrated from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and other neighboring nations).

“The Al-Sabah family has had a relationship with Kuwaiti Shiite merchant families that go back several centuries,” he says. “When we’re talking about Kuwaiti Shiite families, we are [often] talking about Iranian families — you can see it from their last names. A good number of Kuwaiti Shiite who have Iranian families…identify with Kuwait but still have the ability to speak Persian that has been maintained over the generations.”

The real transformation, Al-Marashi says, happened during the 1991 Gulf War, when a good number of Kuwaiti Shiite, instead of fl eeing, stayed and joined the Kuwaiti Resistance. “It was their way of striking against the Iraqi army that had targeted their ancestral Iran,” he adds. Fatouma Al-Suwaiti, a school counselor who was a war nurse during the Gulf War, explains that the Kuwaiti government is deliberate about inclusion, and says this is evident within its governing bodies. “Our government is trying to make all of us equal, even [at the] level of Parliament. There are Shiite, Sunnas, Bedouin, and other people. So a Shiite can be a minister… and they can hold positions in our country, and same for Sunnis,” she says.

However, Al-Suwaiti explains, certain positions — such as the ones within the Ministry of Defense or the one that decides the religious laws of the country — are reserved only for those who are Sunni or part of the ruling Al Sabah family. Nevertheless, Al-Suwaiti says that the government’s emphasis on freedom of religion and inclusion comes from the desire to stay united.

“We don’t want these kinds of things to happen to separate us. We don’t want any civil war between us. We want always to be connected. I know there are differences between us, different ways of thinking; marriage is hard between us — even though marriages between us happen — and we don’t prefer it. But, we stick together in one thing: we want to be united in general, for the love of this country.”

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