Ri Insights

Reducing Sectarianism

By Geoffrey Martin

Rai Insights Contributor

Kuwait: “Sectarianism has been getting worse” in the Gulf has been the mantra of political scientists, journalists, and politicos since the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979.


Every time something “sectarian” happens in Kuwait, such as vandalism at mosques, closure of newspapers (such as Al Dar or Al Watan) for instigating inflammatory statements about different sects, or more recently the arrest of former Shia member of parliament Khaled Al- Shatti, who criticized Kuwaiti participation in the war in Yemen, this is an “unusual and telling” event that somehow relays an increased level of discord and thus potential conflict on an identity basis. In particular, the June 2015 mosque bombing  marked significant rise in rhetoric about sectarianism, as “even Kuwait” was feeling the changing climate.


There has been a whole slew of academic books by Frederic Wehrey, Toby Mattieson, Lawrence Potter, Brigette Marchal, and Fanar Haddad to name a few, that have recently described the rise of sectarianism in the Gulf and the decline of the status quo. Generally speaking, they attribute the rise in sectarianism to a rise in political repression, historical marginalization of minorities, and the rise of transnational Islam.


Arab commentators usually attribute the rise in sectarianism to the role of Iranian meddling, the rise of Salafi ‘televangelist’ clerics, or as a product of American interference in the Islamic world. In the most recent times blowback from the Syrian conflict is also to blame, as the interventions of external actors and Assad’s policies politicized sectarianism to a greater degree than in the past.


In particular, I and others argue that the distorting effect of social media has “amplified the salience of sectarian identities in the Gulf” which has created a “vast echo chamber for sectarian strife”. This being said, we shouldn’t pretend that this process is any different than in other parts of the world as the continuing fiasco of the Trump presidency tests the boundaries of the uses of social media and its impact on ideological forces. The rise of ‘fake news’ has also exacerbated the conflict, as citizen journalists spread new stories without any sort of proper sourcing or credential.


But in Kuwait I would argue that the domestic sphere is very stable and any worries about serious sectarian conflict are overdrawn. The Shiites of Kuwait, who make up 25 to 30 percent of the population, have equal access to welfare benefits, and are considered to be loyal towards the government. Since 1936, (except for a brief period in the 1980s), the Shia minority has been a key faction and important social, economic, and political community. Since the 2000s, accommodation for the Shia minority has increased, with Kuwait navigating the regional tensions in Bahrain, Saudi, and Syria in a way that ensures that its sectarian minority feels supported. In fact, the Kuwaiti government has become increasingly proactive, providing medical care during Ashura or postponing exams at Kuwait University on Shia holidays. When tensions have risen the government has used the new National Unity Law 2012 to prosecute sectarian instigators which include members of all sects and although there is much rhetoric coming out of the National Assembly much of this is mere rhetoric and is not emblematic of the everyday lives, practices, and rules of law that govern the country.

The major problem of understanding these sectarian tensions for outside observers take such a one-dimensional view of the very complex nature of identity in the country. Sectarian identity is only one of many identities, and most of the time it is not the priority. The sectarian split coexists with many other affinities, including national citizenship, tribe, ethnicity, class, generation, and urban versus rural. In particular, urban and rural identity divides need to be taken more seriously to explain potential conflict in Kuwait. Many times, what seems like a sectarian issue is more accurately explained by some of the other variables or socio-economic factors. The biggest issue is that outside observers to Kuwait, especially some of the most prominent scholars, have never been in the country for more than two weeks. You can’t understand any identity conflict without being submersed in the environment. Anthropologists understand this in ways that political commentators never probably will.


So with all the dire predictions of rising sectarianism where does Kuwait stand at the present?


While short term developments cannot be predicted and it is likely that regional spillover will impact Kuwait on a positive not, there are two key factors that are likely to stabilize and continue to reduce sectarian tensions in Kuwait in the long term.


Most importantly there has been a huge change in generational values among the youths of the country. Whether Shia or Sunni, most youths see themselves as post-sectarian, largely as a result of Western education and the mixed public and private schools in the country, which bring together all different identity groups from a young age. This is far different than past generations. Furthermore, the memory of the Iranian Revolution and the instability caused by the rise of a revisionist Shia state is less relevant to members of the younger generation, who see life after oil, development of a private sector, and pressures on welfare subsidies as more pressing issues.


The second factor is that splits within Sunni Islam may eventually overshadow the Shiite-Sunni divide. The growing strength of Salafism has bred a new type of sectarianism that divides the Muslim Brotherhood from Salafists. The very aggressive Muslim Brotherhood strand of activism comes in direct contradiction with the quieter strand of Salafism in the Gulf and the disagreements between the factions could lead to much more open conflict in the future.


Most important to these two factors is that the Kuwaiti government by and large is committed to protecting the minorities in the country. As long as the rule of law stays in place and sectarian incidents are treated for what they are, isolated crimes and not part of some grand conspiracy, then the threat of greater sectarian conflict, like other sorts of socio-economic, social and class conflicts will remain sealed.  I for one am confident in Kuwait’s record in this respect. Although implementation of anti-sectarian laws has been uneven at times potentially inflammatory situations have been defused in a way that mitigated a cycle of sectarian conflict.

* Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and currently is a visiting researcher at the American University in Kuwait. He currently resides in Kuwait.

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