Kuwait has seen a years-long political struggle between liberal and moderate religious circles on the one hand and Islamist and Salafi streams on the other, over the character of the Kuwaiti society and state. The struggle recently intensified as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi forces increased their power in several Arab countries in the wake of the Arab Spring – including in Kuwait itself, as reflected by their winning nearly half of the seats in the Kuwaiti parliament (23 out of 50) in the February 2012 elections.
One of the manifestations of this political struggle has been a fierce debate over the rights of Kuwait’s religious minorities. After the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs granted the Catholic Church a permit to erect a new church in the country, recently elected MP Osama Al-Munawar, of the Salafi stream, announced he would submit a bill calling for the demolishment of all existing churches in the country and banning the construction of new churches. Al-Munawar later recanted in part, saying his bill would apply only to new churches, whose construction contravened the Islamic shari’a as well as an explicit fatwa on the matter by the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs. He added that he intended to question the minister of religious endowments regarding the issuance of the permit to build a new Catholic church in violation of this fatwa.
Al-Munawar’s initial statements were positively received by Kuwaiti Islamist preacher Sheikh Saleh Al-Ghanem, who said that, according to the Prophet Muhammad, “no religion [but Islam] may be practiced in the Arabian Peninsula” (which means that non-Islamic houses of worship must not be built, and that any existing ones must be destroyed).Saudi Mufti ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz bin ‘Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh responded in a similar vein in an interview with the Kuwaiti daily Al-Anba: “Kuwait is part of the Arabian Peninsula, and [the countries in] the Arabian Peninsula must demolish any churches that exist [within their borders], because… the Prophet instructed us that there is no place for two religions in [the Peninsula].”
Kuwaiti Minister of Religious Endowments Jamal Al-Shahab to Al-Munawar’s was more reserved in his response. He said that Al-Munawar had the right to express his opinion, but stressed 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 [according to their belief] contravenes the state’s laws and regulations…”
Political and civil society organizations, as well as various public figures and writers, criticized Al-Munawar’s statements, their main argument being that his stance is contrary to the Kuwaiti constitution and to the principles of democracy. For instance, Dr. Badr Al-Dihani, president of the University Alumni Association, said that “demolishing churches contravenes the Kuwaiti constitution, which has never discriminated among the country’s citizens.”
The debate revived a larger dispute over the extent to which the Islamic shari’a should serve as the basis for Kuwait’s constitution and legislation. Addressing the issue, Yousuf Al-Shaiji, secretary-general of the Democratic Platform organization, called to curb the ambitions of Kuwait’s Islamist streams “to change the constitution… and introduce an article banning legislation not in accordance with the principles of the shari’a.” Khaled Al-Khaled, secretary-general of the National Democratic Alliance (a liberal political bloc), claimed that Al-Munawar’s proposed bill was an expression of religious extremism, and that the national forces in Kuwait, which was and would remain a civil state, would prevent any Taliban-like takeover of the country.
Kuwaiti liberal journalist Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib, who is a columnist for the daily Al-Jarida,discussed the likely impact of Al-Munawar’s proposal on the status of Kuwait’s Shi’ites, Christians and non-Salafi Sunnis: “…Anyone calling for a religious state is, point blank, a sectarian striving for the implementation of a single religious way of life throughout the world… The MPs calling for the implementation of the Islamic shari’a, [who are] against Kuwait’s democracy and constitution, can be expected to advance laws… that will isolate not only the [non-Muslim] religions and sects, but also the Sunnis and all [other] Muslims who are not Salafis… Salafi legislation does not apply only to the rights of Kuwait’s Christians to build churches, but [also to the rights of others]. MP Osama Al-Munawar’s [proposed bill] is just the first swallow, signaling that, at best, the Salafis will grant [the Christians] the status of dhimmi [protected second rate citizens], knocking them down from the status of citizens to that of ‘guests’ who are required to pay the jizya [poll tax] in order to stay in the country…”
Other critics said that Al-Munawar’s proposal did not reflect the true Islam, which is a religion of moderation and tolerance. Walid Al-Rajib, who writes for the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai, stated: “In the period of early Islam, all the religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism – coexisted, without anyone wanting to demolish [anyone else’s] houses of worship.” The head of the Kuwaiti Women’s Cultural Society, Shaikha Al-Nisf, said: “The Prophet’s relations with his dhimmi neighbors were good. Where is the Islamic tolerance in [Al-Munawar’s] call – especially considering that Christianity is a monotheistic religion?”
Hamad Naif Al-‘Ghazi, a columnist for the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida, presented four examples from history reflecting the tolerant nature of Islam: the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who allowed the Christians of the Arabian Peninsula to pray at his mosque; the example of the Muslim rulers of Malta during the Middle Ages, who gave the Christians a guarantee that their churches would not be harmed; the example of the Second Caliph, ‘Omar bin Al-Khattab, who prayed at the Church of the Sepulcher in Jerusalem after he conquered it; and the example of Muslim commander ‘Amr Ibn Al-‘As, who guaranteed freedom of religion to the Christians of Egypt after conquering this country in the seventh century.
The opponents of Al-Munawar’s initiative also mentioned the harm it would do to Kuwait’s image, as well as the double standard employed by the Islamic streams, who want to limit the freedom of minorities in the Arab world, but at the same time demand complete freedom of religion for Muslims living in the West. Saudi liberal columnist and thinker Turki Al-Faisal wrote on his Twitter account on March 20: “[Regarding] the fatwa recently issued by the honorable [Saudi] mufti, [stating that] churches in the Arabian Peninsula should be demolished: What [would he have said] if [the West] had done the same thing and demolished our mosques in American and Europe? Wouldn’t he have condemned it?”
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