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KUWAIT: Islamic purists hound education minister

July 23, 2010 |  9:00 am
Nice humoudKuwait’s education chief has run up against the fire and brimstone of puritanical Muslim members of parliament for her recent decision to tone down the incendiary religious content of the nation's school curriculum.

In late June, reports surfaced that Minister of Education Moudhi Humoud met with some of the country’s teachers of Islamic studies to discuss a controversial draft of a ninth-grade final exam. 

In it, two potentially explosive questions were posed regarding the companions of the prophet Muhammad and appropriate behavior at a cemetery. Some accuse Humoud of instructing teachers to cancel both questions on their exams and to consider revising the state curriculum to skip over the issues completely.

Both topics are doctrinal points of contention between Sunni and Shiite religious scholars. The secular Sunni minister may have hoped to contain brimming sectarian tension in Kuwait, which is mostly Sunni but includes a significant Shiite minority. 

Immediately, a storm erupted in Kuwait City. Puritanical Sunni Salafists and other conservative Sunni parliamentarians called for Humoud’s grilling. Not at the stake, but in the halls of parliament.

Grilling is a tradition in Kuwaiti politics in which ministers are intensely questioned by members of parliament. It typically leads to the minister's impeachment, resignation or, at times, the dissolution of the entire government by the emir.

On June 29, MP Mohammed Hayef held a conference at his home in Ferdous. "Our Islamic religion curriculum is not open to political compromises," he said. Hayef argued that Sunni beliefs are core values in Kuwait: "Canceling it from the curriculum is a crime and a threat to the nation’s belief." MPs Ali Al-Ameer and Faisal Al-Muslim joined in the chorus against Humoud.

In the Sunni brand of Islam, the two generations of companions of Muhammad are transmitters of knowledge of the faith, explained professor Ahmad Moussalli at the political studies department at the American University of Beirut. After the Koran and the Sunnah, the companions are viewed as the third- most-legitimate source of revelation.

Shiite Muslims chastise the companions of Muhammad, referring to them as "criminals" and "unbelievers," Moussalli said. For Shiites, the companions prevented Ali from succeeding Muhammad. He pointed to another state exam in Saudi Arabia that may have triggered the controversy in Kuwait when it asked, “What is the religious ruling for someone who insults the companions of the prophet Muhammad?” Well, it depends on the faith of the student.

Kuwait's Sunni Salafists revere the early years of Islam and advocate a growing, radical interpretation of the faith. Salafists and like-minded Wahabbis also strictly forbid going to a cemetery and praying in honor of the dead. However, a key portion of Shiites' collective memory is the martyrdom of Hassan and Hussein. Pilgrimages to shrines are therefore a significant part of the Shiite practice. 

“It’s very much like Catholicism,” Moussalli said.

The Salafists' push is part of a broader sectarian war throughout the Middle East, one that pits Shiite Iran against Sunni Arabs.

“What’s going on in Kuwait is an attempt to pressure Shiites and to put them down," Mousalli said. "I think the Saudi, and in general the [Persian] Gulf, perspective is to try to put down Iran as well. This is probably preparing the groundwork for something to come politically.”

Kuwait edu man

There's also a cultural dimension to the conflict. Salafists in parliament have been gunning for Humoud’s exit since she first took office. She was heckled by some lawmakers during her swearing-in ceremony because she does not wear a headscarf.

Moussalli said that once Salafists grill unpopular ministers, the emir simply nudges them to resign rather than delve into deeper questions.

"The Salafists have been able to impose their issues on society at large," he said. "Now the whole gulf is a hotbed for more Wahhabi and Salafi, and even Al Qaeda, kind of ideology. They are on the rise with the failure of the modern state. The Middle East just isn’t providing secular nationalist movements.”

-- Becky Lee Katz in Beirut

Upper photo: Education Minister Moudhi Humoud addresses the Kuwaiti parliament. Credit: Kuwait Times

Lower photo: Members of the Kuwaiti parliament gather in Ferdous to discuss what to do about Humoud. Credit: Reuters