Islamists, secularists at odds over soul of Kuwait

Decade after gulf war, political debate stirs

November 28, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait - The politician loves America and loathes the war in Afghanistan. He extols democracy yet pushes for an Islamic state.

Most important, Naser al-Sane says, he wants America to listen, not just to his views but to "the street," to ordinary people he claims are clamoring for change.

"America will always be a friend to Kuwait," says the head of the parliamentary Kuwaiti-American friendship committee. "The point is, our friends in the United States will have to listen to the voices in the world."

A decade after being liberated from Iraqi occupation by a U.S.-led coalition, unquestioning gratitude to America has given way in Kuwait to sober reflection and fresh political debate.

Several thousand U.S. troops are based here, and pro-American sentiment remains strong despite a vocal backlash against America's global war against terrorism. But beneath the anti-terror debate, local politics swirl, with ample issues to be thrashed out.

Should the country's laws be more conservative, and strictly adhere to Islamic principles, as Islamists want, or should there be more democracy and economic openness, as liberals are urging?

And what of the ruling Al Sabah family, which has presided since the mid-18th century over this speck of land that holds 10 percent of the world's oil supplies and is wedged in a volatile neighborhood?

Kuwait's 75-year-old emir was recently hospitalized for nearly two months in London after a brain hemorrhage. The 71-year-old crown prince has also been in frail health in recent years. Younger family members are making their marks in key government posts.

"There is a fight in Kuwait, a struggle," says Abdulla al-Nibari, a liberal legislator who says Kuwait is "half a democracy and half a nondemocracy."

"The decision-making is still in the hands of the ruling family," he says. "They let us talk whatever we like, and they do whatever they like."

Yet the country boasts the stately white halls of the 50-member National Assembly, the editorial pages of newspapers, and the nightly gatherings of a political and social institution known as diwanias, where men come together to discuss current events.

America's war against terrorism dominates the discussions. Liberals want the country's political leaders to be more outspoken in their support of the U.S. war against terrorism. Islamists oppose the U.S. anti-terror campaign, but many have also voiced outrage over the Sept. 11 terror attacks against the United States.

"The region is telling America that they have to use peaceful means to bring to justice those criminals," al-Sane says.

Dressed in a traditional white gown and sandals, and sipping coffee at a Starbucks, al-Sane offers this message to America: Don't fear Muslims, and don't misunderstand Islamic law.

The kind of country he envisions, he says, is democratic and well-developed, with legislation shaped under Islamic law.

"If we are doing our job properly, people will be convinced on this model," he says. "I want the model to be applied gradually by the will of the people."

Differing opinions

There are differing opinions about what the Islamists want. When Slaiman abou-Ghaith, who used to preach at a Kuwait mosque, emerged as a spokesman for Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks, his words alarmed the country's fundamentalist community.

"The Islamic groups here in Kuwait were shocked and embarrassed by it," says one former associate of abou-Ghaith.

Islamists here contend they seek to create change by democratic means. But liberals claim that if the Islamists get their way and adopt religious law as the nation's basic legal code, it would make a mess of the legal system and empower clerics to issue edicts.

"I consider the Islamist movement to be socially and culturally pulling the Kuwaiti society backward," says Khalil Ali Haider, a liberal writer. "The ideology and thinking is very conservative, very dangerous. They are against personal freedom and against democracy."

He says Islamists have grown stronger in the National Assembly, where they hold 11 seats, and claim a power base in student organizations.

A trip to Kuwait University's sprawling campus vividly illustrates the country's two faces - the secular, commercial side fueled by oil revenues, and the religious, spiritual side fired by individual passion. Sport utility vehicles fill parking lots. Students, some dressed traditionally, others in designer jeans and baseball caps, gather in immaculate courtyards between classes.

Inside the classrooms is where the main difference between Kuwait University and the typical American university can be seen.

In co-ed classes, women sit on one side, and men on the other. The sexes are also separated in a library reading room and a cafeteria, where men dine on one floor and women on another.

A vision of separation

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