Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
While the census does not differentiate between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, the Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI) estimates that around 30 per cent of Kuwaiti citizens are Shi’a (Ahmadis and Ismailis are included in this designation).
Kuwaiti Shi’a population have played a key role in building the state of Kuwait since its early history, playing a prominent role at crucial moments when the country was under threat, from the Battle of Jahar in 1921 until Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Nevertheless, Shi’a have periodically experienced difficulties in the wake of wider developments across the region, including the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the overthrow of its Shah by a Shi’a theocracy. The Iranian government was subsequently accused of alleged involvement in various militant activities in neighbouring states, including a failed assassination attempt in Kuwait in 1985. These developments led to doubts among some members among Kuwait’s political elite about the perceived loyalty of Kuwaiti Shi’a, with various restrictions imposed on the community in the ensuring years. In 1990, Shi’a played a prominent role in the defence of Kuwait and resistance to the Iraqi occupation.
In the 2000’s, despite the growing influence of Iranian involvement in neighbouring Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussain, the Kuwaiti government did not launch a campaign of oppression against the country’s Shi’a. Nevertheless, incidents of anti-Shi’a violence have occasionally erupted, often triggered by events outside the country. In October 2005, for instance, a crowd of Sunni youth attacked Shi’a worshippers, shouting insults and setting fire to a car in Jahra, west of Kuwait City. This led to some concern about the radicalization of Sunni youth in Kuwait. More recently, a June 2015 bombing of a Shi’a mosque subsequently claimed by Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) killed 27 people and injured hundreds of others. The attack was notable, however, for the widespread expressions of solidarity and unity from among the rest of the Kuwaiti population.
To prevent communal violence and maintain religious ties, the government of Kuwait has actively promoted religious inclusion. The National Unity law explicitly prohibits stirring sectarian strife, and authorities have taken measures to ensure the community’s protection at moments of strife. Though the Shi’a community has been targeted on occasions with hate speech by extremists, including online, authorities have often been swift to respond and punish perpetrators.
Shi’a enjoy many religious freedoms. They are able to maintain their have their own mosques, choose their own clerics without state interference and maintain a separate court system for domestic cases in Kuwait. However, community members have reported barriers relating to slow registration of new mosques, limited facilities and restrictions on the observance of major ceremonies such as Ashura in open public spaces. Shi’a are also not allowed to organize religious courses in public high schools or establish religious training centres within Kuwait. All Islamic education courses – mandatory for Muslims – use the Sunni interpretation of Islam.
Shi’a women in Kuwait do not have the same rights as men, and like other Kuwaiti women face a range of restrictions and inequalities in their everyday life. In October 2003, the government approved the creation of a Shi’a Court of Cassation to oversee cases relating Shi’a personal and family law. While Shi’a women, unlike Sunni women, are allowed to marry without the consent of their guardians, they face other restrictions: for instance, according to Article 189 of the Personal Status Act, in the event of divorce, Shi’a women are only granted custody of girls up until the age of seven and boys until the age of two (Sunni mothers can have custody of girls until they are married and of boys up to the age of 15).
Although Shi’a have the same legal rights as Sunnis and access to education, health care and other state benefits, they are often perceived as being lower on the social scale and marginalized in religious, economic, social and political terms. For example, while Shi’a are able to work in the public sector without restrictions, in practice some Shi’a have reported discrimination and barriers preventing them from obtaining senior leadership positions. Similarly, while there are no laws or formal practices preventing Shi’a from participating in political life, their current share of seats in parliament (6 out of 50 seats) is significantly lower than their share of the population as a whole.