Religious intolerance is on the rise even in Kuwait, America’s best friend in the Arab world.
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It’s not the same as an Islamist takeover in, say, Pakistan, or even what might happen in Egypt. Kuwait is a small society in which most everyone seems to know or is otherwise connected with everyone. Many Islamists, including some who I met, were seen more as moderate government critics than intolerant crusaders.
Yet it didn’t take long for the new majority to press for policies contrary to Kuwait’s record of openness. The Islamist group — formal parties do not exist — proposed amending the constitution to make Sharia the source of law. The Emir said no, but he did accept legislation to impose the death penalty on Muslims for blasphemy (non-Muslims remained subject to a fine and imprisonment).
Worse, just a couple weeks after the election MP Osama Al-Monawer proposed drafting a law to turn Al-Asheikh’s pronouncement into law. Explained Al-Monawer: “Kuwait is an Islamic country where churches are not permitted to be built.” An Islamist cleric in Kuwait, Sheikh Saleh Al-Ghanem, backed the parliamentarian, arguing that according to Mohammed no non-Islamic “religion may be practiced in the Arabian Peninsula.” And Al-Asheikh endorsed the proposal, explaining that “Kuwait is part of the Arabian Peninsula, and [countries in] the Arabian Peninsula must demolish any churches” because “the Prophet instructed us that there is no place for two religions” in the Peninsula. If such a measure was enacted, Kuwait would suddenly look a lot like Saudi Arabia.
Al-Monawer’s threat may have been triggered by the issuance of the construction permit to the Catholic Church. Rumors also circulated — though they are impossible to confirm — that a member of the ruling family had converted to Christianity. In any case, Al-Monawer’s initiative was greeted with substantial criticism. Kuwaiti religion minister Al-Shabab explained that “the constitution of Kuwait guarantees its citizens [freedom of] religion and worship, and Islam is well known as a tolerant religion. Demolishing churches and forbidding the members of the Christian community from worshipping contravenes the state laws and regulation.”
Commentators ranging from political to academic to journalistic criticized the proposal on theological and legal grounds. Some also made the obvious point that Kuwait and other Islamic nations could hardly complain about Western strictures against Islam if Muslim nations were destroying Christian churches.
Under pressure Al-Monawer backed down slightly, limiting his proposal, advanced by the new Al-Adala or “Justice” Bloc in parliament, to a ban on the construction of any new facilities. A fellow MP explained that “Kuwait already has an excessive number of churches compared to the country’s Christian minority.” Kuwait would avoid the PR disaster of demolishing churches while sharply constricting the Christian community and rolling up the welcome mat for believers, who form an important part of the large foreign work community.
However, without government approval the measure was doomed. In March Al-Adala tabled the proposal, though Al-Monawer indicated that he wanted to question the religion minister over the new church permit. Another Bloc member, Mohammad Hayef, said the approval was “a mistake” which “will not go unnoticed.”
Although Kuwaiti Christians reacted with relief to the legislation’s apparent demise, they remained cautious. Bishop Ballin refused to be interviewed out of fear of speaking to the press. Bishop Paul Hinder, who heads the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, explained that the situation in Kuwait has “become critical.” He added that Bishop Ballin was “in a particularly delicate situation. People should remember we are living here and have to proceed very carefully.”
For now, at least, the threat of actual religious persecution in Kuwait has passed. The government deserves credit: the ruling family remains committed to a forward-looking and open country. Long noted for its generally free press and fair elections, Kuwait remains a tolerant society as well.
Nevertheless, unsettling popular currents are running strongly through a population that remains very friendly to America. The fact that the most powerful parliamentary faction contemplated passing legislation to shut every Christian church — and had the votes to do so — offers a warning if Kuwait eventually becomes a full parliamentary democracy, as some Kuwaitis desire. If final political decisions in Kuwait were made by an elective prime minister rather than a hereditary emir, every Christian church in the country might have been demolished by now.
Kuwait remains Washington’s best friend in the Persian Gulf. However, shared interests do not guarantee shared values. And a lack of shared values could end up threatening shared interests. As with Saudi Arabia.
The latest parliamentary election results should serve as Thomas Jefferson’s famed “fire bell in the night.” The Islamist tide in Kuwait is likely to recede, as it has done before. If not, however, Kuwait could turn into Saudi Arabia-lite. Americans can ill afford another nominal ally that promotes the forces of violent intolerance worldwide.
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