Thursday, June 19, 2008

Kuwait's Salafis

The Christian Science Monitor reports on the Salafis elected to Kuwait's new parliament:
"Since winning control of the legislature in the May 17 polls, not only has the conservative bloc begun pushing proposals calling for the banning of reality TV and private parties in hotels, but they have also created a parliamentary committee mandated to 'study the negative effects of foreign phenomena' in Kuwait.

"Islamist member of parliament (MP) Waleed al-Tabtabae, known for his opposition to female sports teams whose athletes would wear shorts, slammed the popular reality music show 'Star Academy' (the region's version of 'American Idol') when its recruiters came to Kuwait looking for contestants.

"'The recruitment of youth for a program that destroys morals and fights our [Islamic] values is no less bad and dangerous than recruiting them for terrorism or for peddling drugs,' said the fiery parliamentarian in a statement to the press in late May.

"Several Islamist MPs walked out of parliament during its opening session to protest the appointment of two female ministers – one for education, the other for housing.

"Islamist tribal MP Mohammad Hayif al-Mutairi said they were boycotting the opening session because the two female ministers 'were not abiding by sharia (Islamic law).' Neither of the women wear the hijab, the Islamic head scarf worn by many Muslim women."

Although Kuwait is a conservative country, I doubt the victories of these candidates signal an endorsement for their agenda. They mostly came from the tribal districts, and were probably elected primarily as service candidates whose constituents hopes for significant pieces of central government revenue. My guess is that the Salafi movement in Kuwait was able to recruit candidates who were likely to win the tribal seats based on their status within the tribal communities.

Looking at the future, however, I wonder what this means for the future of democracy in Kuwait. One pattern in the contemporary Arab world is for authoritarian central governments to divide social from political reformers by siding with the former. Social reformers often fear that free elections would lead to Islamist victories. Kuwait's royal family has played such a card before, when the late Emir Jaber promoted women's suffrage in the face of parliamentary opposition. The current ruler is no friend of democratic institutions, and may at some point use the Salafi influence to suspend parliament, perhaps with support from a large portion of Kuwaitis.



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