Samia Nakhoul | Kuwait | November 11
Reuters – Islamist protests in Kuwait have forced the government to ban pop concerts, while at hospitals devout women surgeons are refusing to operate on men saying it is religiously forbidden for them to see their genitals.
At a Kuwaiti hotel Sheikh Ali Abu al-Hassan holds an audience spellbound with his talk about “the pleasures of heaven”, a paradise where true Muslims will enjoy virgins, eternal bliss and bounty.
Down the road at Kuwait’s university, women and men are brought down to earth with the reality of life in the oil rich emirate. They are segregated to prevent them from “sin”.
In the past, men and women mingled and dated in Kuwait. The country had mixed beach clubs for nationals. No longer. Most now have separate swimming days for women and men.
Like other Gulf states, Kuwait is witnessing a rising tide of fanatical Islam. More and more women wear the veil and more men grow beards to display their religious fervour.
Islamist extremism indoctrinated by the Sunni Salafi and Wahhabi movements is spreading from Saudi Arabia to neighbouring Kuwait, influencing its youth and affecting all aspects of life.
Many Kuwaitis, like other Arabs, denounce the United States and its allies for backing “corrupt” rulers and what they see as Washington’s war against Islam and plans to control their region’s oil wealth.
“Kuwait was a relaxed place 30 years ago. If people choose to be more Islamist you can hardly stop them from doing that,” said a Western diplomat with long experience of the country.
“There is a significant number of people who believe in the (Muslim) fundamentalist approach. There is also a significant number of people who hate the Americans and Europeans,” he said.
Other diplomats point to an alarming rise of sympathy among young Kuwaitis for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The Islamists’ won their foothold in Kuwaiti society through schools and universities. That served as a springboard to more influential posts and eventually to parliament from where they are now imposing their views through the law making process.
“They brainwash children at a young age. Dancing is banned, concerts are banned, we’re heading to dark times. Anything pleasurable is deemed un-Islamic and immoral,” said Leila Othman, a liberal Kuwaiti writer.
“I am sad. We lived golden days in Kuwait in the past. The Kuwait I lived in is not the one I can identify with now.”
Othman, most of whose books are banned because of their progresssive ideas, has her own experience of the Islamic transformation.
“I have a daughter who is veiled, she belongs to the salafis. My son is a religious extremist. This pains me because at home we didn’t have this zealousness. It was the school and university. These were the dens of indoctrination. Our children regressed,” she said.
The Islamists pushed through parliament a law that forced universities to segregate the sexes, causing tremendous inconvenience for faculties which did not have the staff to meet the demands of double classrooms.
One of the solutions was that girls would sit in class in front of a screen, listening via a microphone to a male professor lecturing boys in another room. The girls would take notes and ask questions via the screen.
“This segregation led to chaos. It has no benefit at all and won’t change things. What was so bad when we had boys with us in the same room? Nothing happened. They used to sit on one side and us on the other,” said Huda Yahya, a 22-year-old chemical engineer.
“MIXING IS SINFUL”
But for female pupils who believe in strict Islamist tenets segregation is demanded by sharia law which forbids unrelated women and men from mixing.
“There is danger when classrooms are mixed that boys and girls would become distracted and their minds would wander to lustful thoughts. It could lead to sin,” said Abeer al Onaizi, 19, a mechanical engineering student.
“It is wrong to be in the same room. This is one thousand times better,” said Mona al-Ajami, a 21-year-old student.
Academics say radical change did not happen overnight.
“The change did not come suddenly,” said Seham al-Furaih, a professor of Arabic literature for 20 years.
“The university is the mirror of society. While teaching I saw the number of my students wearing the veil growing steadily. The number increased more with every and each term. Now I can count the girls who are not veiled in my class,” she said.
Academics questioned the wisdom of separating men and women in classrooms when in the workplace they would have to mix.
“Women have always worked with men. Taking a decision to separate them at university is contradictory,” Furaih added.
Kuwaiti liberals accuse the government, a leading U.S. ally, of capitulating to Islamist demands, citing the recent banning of the Arabic pop show “Star Academy” in response to protests by Islamists who denounced it “indecent and immoral”.
As in other Gulf states, some of Kuwait’s elite lead a quasi-Western lifestyle. They buy Western clothes, have parties and discos at home, sometimes with alcohol which is forbidden by the Koran.
“The constricting religious atmosphere is generating frustration and leading the young to live two kind of lives — an underground hedonistic one or another obsessively religious life,” Othman said.
“All the Arab world is looking for salvation from the grip of these religious tentacles that have spread everywhere. This is a catastrophe. How many years would it take us to break free of this? It is a tragedy,” she added.