June 4, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 2373

Kuwaiti Liberal: No Hope for Reforms in Kuwait

June 4, 2009
Kuwait, The Gulf | Special Dispatch No. 2373

In an April 11, 2009 interview with the Kuwaiti daily Al-Shahed, liberal journalist and political analyst Ahmad Al-Sarraf lamented various ills of Kuwaiti society and politics, including the lack of equality under the law, the preference given to individual and sectarian interests over the good of the state, the prevalence of religious and sectarian discrimination, the "ideological terror" employed by the clerics, and the demeaning attitude towards women.

Following are excerpts from the article: [1]

On Lack of Equality Under the Law

Interviewer: "Do you foresee another crisis [in Kuwait], or is there hope for reforms?"

Al-Sarraf: "In the present circumstances, there is no hope for reforms, because we are a backward people that is becoming more and more backward every day. Whoever thinks that things will improve is deluding himself. The conditions necessary for healthy development are largely absent."

Interviewer: "Does the problem lie in the parliament, in the government, or in lack of awareness on the part of the citizens?"

Al-Sarraf: "All three. The government is failing because of mistakes it has made and because of its [inherent] flaws, which are reflected in [its] poor management [of the country]... The constitution and laws are not applied fairly, because the government cannot apply them [equally] to all... [including] the ruling family, parliament members, and other people of political and financial influence."

Interviewer: "In your opinion, what does it mean to be a [good] Kuwaiti citizen?"

Al-Sarraf: "...It means giving priority to the interests of the homeland over those of the tribe, the sect, and the individual, and having a sense of belonging to the state, just as the Egyptian belongs to Egypt, the American to America, and the Lebanese to Lebanon. We must feel that we belong to Kuwait, internalize [this value], and [give it priority] over all other considerations. This does not mean that one [cannot also] belong to a particular [religious] sect or political party..."

On Religious and Sectarian Discrimination

Interviewer: "Some characterize you as a radical liberal. Do you agree with this description?"

Al-Sarraf: "I believe in secularism... which strives to separate state and religion."

Interviewer: "Does your secularism lead you to [adopt] an anti-religious stance?"

Al-Sarraf: "On the contrary. I regard religion in a positive light. We [Kuwaitis] are the ones who are harming the religion by pressing it into the service of personal and partisan interests... Secularism is a goal for which every state [should] strive, and the difference between [secularism] and liberalism is not great. Liberalism means believing in the right of others to [freely] choose their religion, creed, lifestyle, etc., and to live according [to their beliefs] - whereas secularism has a more prominent political aspect of separating state and religion. In a secular state, all citizens... are equal in the eyes of the law, be they Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims.

"[This is not the case] in all [Arab] states today. Take Egypt, for example... When Christians wish to build a church [there]... the law imposes various constraints and does not allow them to do so. In Egypt today, it is impossible to establish any religious entity without the consent of the government. [Even] renovating or maintaining a church without the government's approval is against the law. In Kuwait, the situation is similar or even worse, and in Saudi Arabia it is certainly worse. To wit, when the Bohra Shi'ites [2] wished to build a mosque [in Kuwait]... the parliament and government intervened and prohibited it... even though the Bohra Shi'ites are Muslims...

"Unless we separate religion and state, and treat all citizens equally and without discrimination, we will continue to be backward in terms of granting the most basic citizen rights."

The Clerics Employ "Ideological Terror"

Interviewer: "What is your way of defending the ideas in which you believe? And what is 'ideological terror' in your eyes?"

Al-Sarraf: "My weapons are my tongue and my pen; this is how I express myself. Ideological terror is when the religious parties excommunicate me for the way I talk, live and raise my children. This is [ideological and] religious terror. Is it not ideological terror when they interfere in the [curricula] of private schools and force them to teach various contents? It is [also] terror when women are prohibited from working after a certain hour [of the day]. [3] It is ideological terror when a [woman] civil servant at a certain ministry is accused of [improper] conduct [just] because she does not wear the veil, and when they refuse to promote her or give her a raise [just] because they think she is immodestly dressed or because her face is uncovered..."

Interviewer: "Do you think that some journalists [also] employ ideological terror?"

Al-Sarraf: "Some have accused me of doing so, but I do not bother anyone or interfere in anyone's life. I express my beliefs and opinions, regardless of whether people accept them or not. I do not attack or malign people... for rejecting my opinions. The ideological terror in Kuwait takes the form of racial, religious, and sectarian discrimination."

Interviewer: "How can [you say that] you respect the free choice of others when you interfere in their right to seek a religious opinion on matters like dress or food?"

Al-Sarraf: "I have a mind, opinions, and principles [of my own]. I reject [the notion] that someone with lesser powers of understanding, teaching and analysis should force me to act according to his inclinations, and as he sees fit. The clerics and muftis themselves disagree on the interpretation of certain [texts], so do I follow one [interpretation] or the other? I [therefore choose] to follow neither. I am guided by my own conscience and thinking, and by my duty to my country, society, and family.

"[To give an example,] two former [Kuwaiti] MPs [once] disagreed on the interpretation of a fatwa issued by one of the muftis... [In support of his view,] one of them quoted statements by a Saudi religious scholar, while the other quoted a statement [saying exactly the opposite]. So how can I place my affairs in their hands?...

"To give another example, a fatwa has been issued in Saudi Arabia that prohibits drivers from running a red light because it is against the religion. That's lunacy. [Obeying traffic lights] is a basic guideline of everyday life, because if I run a red light I may obviously harm myself, my family, [other members] of society and public property. So common sense should preclude me from doing so..."

Interviewer: "You see yourself as a full-fledged member of Kuwaiti society. But since you no longer wear the [traditional] Kuwaiti garb, many believe that you have renounced your Kuwaiti identify. What is your response?"

Al-Sarraf: "There is no such as Kuwaiti identity [that can be judged by one's outward appearance]. The [Kuwaiti] ID card that I carry in my pocket is what designates [me as] a Kuwaiti [citizen]... [My outward appearance] does not change my identity..."

On the Hypocrisy of Kuwaiti Society and the Demeaning Treatment of Women

Interviewer: "Why don't your liberal ideas resonate in Kuwaiti society?"

Al-Sarraf: "Kuwaiti society has no liberals in the true sense of the word. There are [only] hypocrites... There is a big difference between making statements and implementing them. Some people say and write that they are liberals, but when it comes to their own home, they [do not implement liberal principles but] do the opposite.

"A prominent example is... that of [people] who wish to marry someone from a different social class, tribe or race, and are met with refusal..."

Interviewer: "What is your position on the hijab?"

Al-Sarraf: "What bothers me is that women are forced to wear the hijab because they are seen as [a symbol of] a sexual organ ['awra], and nothing more. The word 'awra appears in the Indian, Pakistani, Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian dictionaries, and is synonymous with the word 'woman.' In these [cultures], a woman is nothing more than that... The veil reflects contempt for the woman's abilities - as though she has no right to exist [because] she constitutes a temptation for the men, and as though she is the source of all evil..."

Interviewer: "What is your opinion of [Kuwaiti] universities, and of the education [system] in general?"

Al-Sarraf: "[They are] bad, bad, bad... [because they are under] the clerics' control..."

Interviewer: "Do you predict that one of the women candidates will win a place in parliament in the upcoming [elections]?"

Al-Sarraf: "No, I do not... though I hope with all my heart that more than one woman will be elected, so as to put an end to the oppression that has been their lot for many years... All the things I've mentioned [in describing] the scope of the plight of women have prevented her from receiving the rights [to which she is entitled]... Society's attitude towards her continues to be unhealthy, inappropriate and completely unfriendly... It's time to eradicate this disease, this cancer - that is, the patriarchal approach [that characterizes our] society."


[1] Al-Shahed (Kuwait), April 11, 2009.

[2] The Bohras are an Isma'ili Shi'ite sect of Egyptian provenance. Today, most of its adherents live in southern India, and many are foreign workers in the Gulf states.

[3] In the summer of 2007, the Kuwaiti parliament passed a law banning women from working between eight PM and seven AM except in the medical sector. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1674 "In Kuwait, Public Protest Against Law Banning Women From Working Nights," August 7, 2007, In Kuwait, Public Protest Against Law Banning Women From Working Nights.

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