The Middle East Channel

Ahistorical Kuwaiti sectarianism

Sectarian violence in Bahrain has led many to nervously speculate about the potential for these events to set rapidly into motion a downward spiral of Sunni-Shia relations in the rest of the Gulf, and the catastrophe that could arise should the violence pit the regional religious rhetorical powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran against each ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Sectarian violence in Bahrain has led many to nervously speculate about the potential for these events to set rapidly into motion a downward spiral of Sunni-Shia relations in the rest of the Gulf, and the catastrophe that could arise should the violence pit the regional religious rhetorical powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran against each other. One vital question is how much weight will the turmoil in Bahrain have over other Shiite communities in the Gulf, namely the large Shia population in Kuwait, perhaps the U.S.’s strongest regional ally and strategic partner in the region?

Fortunately, in Kuwait sectarianism has always been a non-starter. Though aware of sectarian differences, these were never highly politicized. The Shia in Kuwait have been an integral part of society before there was even a polity to speak of. They make up roughly one half of the country’s merchant class, and around 30 percent of the population. Unlike in Bahrain, the Shia hold high government positions and 9 of Kuwait’s 50 elected members of parliament are Shia. Although some neighborhoods are becoming more homogenously Shiite, contrary to the situation in Bahrain, the vast majority of Sunnis and Shia live beside each other — and have for decades as houses generally stay within families. Simply put, the Shia are fully Kuwaiti, and have long been regarded as such by the government and Kuwaiti Sunnis. And yet, events in Bahrain have provided fuel for those in Kuwait who wish to make waves.

The open Kuwaiti media has proven itself to be an incessant instigator of sectarianism and a forum for outlandish comments that were previously only said in private and often written off as nonsense. Bahraini government as well as predominately Shiite news channels have also been influential in stoking the flames. Kuwaiti Sunnis and Shia alike have commented that once the TV is on, there is no escaping sectarian discussions (indeed, many TVs these days sit muted in the background). The state of Kuwaiti newspapers is similar.

There are two issues for which talking heads have raised unfounded questions; namely Shia origins and loyalty. Polemical comments about "weird things Shia do" have played into deliberate othering tactics in efforts to drive a wedge between Sunni and Shiite communities, and have unfortunately been picked up by the masses. Setting aside the historical fact that many Kuwaitis of Arab origin are Shia and Kuwaitis of Persian origin are Sunnis, many programs are propagating an idea that Shia have Iranian origins and are thus an alien presence. This has seeped into common rhetoric and fostered suspicion amongst some Sunnis that they don’t really know who their neighbors are anymore. One Sunni women from a merchant family explained that, "In school we used to know all of our classmates. Now their are lots of families who say they are Kuwaiti, but we don’t know them." Initially thinking she was speaking about Bedouins, I asked if that was who she meant. "I don’t know," she said. "They’re from Iran, these kinds of places."

Furthermore, the notion of Shiite religious authority being centered in Iran (although many Kuwaiti Shia are followers of Ali al-Sistani, the senior Shia cleric in Iraq) has conveniently lent itself to polemics which aim to demonstrate that the loyalty of Kuwaiti Shia is first to Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran and second to Kuwait. Shia themselves however are under no false assumptions about Persian affinity for Arabs. One Kuwaiti woman who lived in Qom for many years while her husband was in seminary school put it very plainly: "Iranians hate Arabs. I only go back for pilgrimage." Many other Kuwaiti Shia echoed her comments. Much of Iranian animosity toward Arabs stems from the long war with Iraq in the 1980s, but it seems that Kuwaitis themselves have carved out a unique impression. In colloquial Farsi, the word "Kuwait" has become an adjective describing something "requiring very little effort." In essence, Iran is not a place where Kuwaiti Shia feel particularly welcome (although some do make short vacation trips during the summer). Iran may be home to important sites of religious pilgrimage, and distant relatives, but it is not a country to which they feel any particular political loyalty.

The issue of loyalty to Kuwait is particularly pertinent as the Gulf War is still very fresh on the minds of Kuwaitis, and stories of the families who aided Saddam are widely circulated. Ironically the group whose loyalty was most in question during that time, those of Bedouin origins, are the very ones at the forefront of the accusations about Shia loyalty. Sunni merchant families, having built the Kuwaiti state alongside the Shia, are less willing to buy this rhetoric, but ideas about the "strangeness" of Shiite practices is increasingly prevalent.

Anti-Shia sentiment has come at a particularly delicate time for the Shia in Kuwaiti national politics, as they must juggle their relations with the populous and the government, who are themselves at odds. The ruling family, with whom they have a very good relationship, continues to front a very unpopular prime minister, leading to countless stalemates within parliament. Although Shiite MPs are now in solidarity with those who wish to oust the "corrupt" prime minister, the initial reluctance of some to do so (and potentially jeopardize relations with the ruling family) was identified as proof that the Shia do not really want what is best for Kuwait.

This othering and at least rhetorical marginalization is obviously not very helpful, and in many ways is a problem because it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Shia are made to feel separate from the rest of society, the community will inevitably become more insular and particularist. Already insignia of Shiite identity are on the rise, such as the wearing of a particular kind of ring. Sunnis are keenly aware of these expressions of Shiite identity, particularly since some of them — such as car decals bearing the names of the Prophet’s family in a font mimicking dripping blood — are found offensive. One woman from an urbanized Bedouin family was keen to note this change in attitude. "When my father was young, he lived in Bayan. There are so many Shiites in Bayan, but there were no problems between them. At that time everyone was just Kuwaiti, no one displayed their differences."

Some Shia have discouraged these practices that distinguish them from the Sunnis, especially in the wake of the current tensions. Others however are less concerned and remain confident that their strong position in business and politics will protect them. Indeed the ruling family and Kuwaiti government has reassured the Shia of their respected position, both by sending a delegation of Shiite officials to Bahrain in attempts to arbitrate (which was turned down by the Bahraini government), and by refusing to send any Kuwaiti troops in the GCC coalition to intervene in the situation. The information minister however, did take legal action against Al- Dar newspaper, which labeled the GCC intervention a "Saudi invasion" into Bahrain, stating that, "The government will never let any extremist from the opposite ends of the spectrum to achieve a political gain at a cost to the national unity."

This line has been a fairly consistent theme from the Kuwaiti government in recent years, whose regional security strategy is (quite necessarily) a practical one. In a closed meeting in 2008, a high-ranking MP explained that Kuwait cannot take a hard-line position against Iranian nuclear ambitions because, "They are our neighbors, they always have been neighbors and they always will be neighbors." Being a small country wedged in between two powerful and often at odds neighbors, Kuwait certainly has a vested interest in keeping the neighborhood peace and moderating polemical rhetoric.

Kuwait’s open society and political system does have the capability to absorb this potential crisis, and will likely do so. Shiite presence in society and their relatively equal access on an institutional level educationally, professionally and politically does not afford any Kuwaiti a context devoid of members of the other sect. This helps to maintain an integrated society where people know one another and are thus less likely to vilify members of the other group. However, a continuation if the sectarian polemics could translate into more discriminatory hiring practices and a breakdown of this integration essential to sectarian harmony.

Kuwait will not become Bahrain in terms of outright violence, but if media in Kuwait continues to draw lines in the sand between the sects, these lines could very well become perforations over time, and perhaps more quickly if tensions in Bahrain continue to escalate. For a country located between the poles of Sunni and Shia Islam, a weakening of Kuwaiti national unity could translate into unwanted meddling and a loss of autonomy for the whole.

Lindsey Stephenson is an M.A. student at the Aga Khan University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Cultures and was a Fulbright fellow in Kuwait in 2007-2008.

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