KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT — Many of America's biggest security threats
emanate from its nominal allies, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Without them neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda would have been nearly
These countries also are hostile to religious minorities. Other malefactors
include Iraq, where the government is a creation of U.S. invasion,
and Afghanistan, where the government survives only with allied military
Religious intolerance is on the rise even in Kuwait, perhaps America's
best friend in the Arab world.
Until now Christians have worshipped freely in the Persian Gulf
state. However, growing threats to religious minorities reflect
public attitudes which could undermine the heretofore close
Saudi Arabia long has promoted the worst forms of religious
intolerance. Spiritual liberty simply doesn't exist. The country
is essentially a totalitarian state. The government claims the
right to decide the most fundamental questions involving every
The State Department's latest report on religious freedom observed: "The
laws and policies restrict religious freedom, and in practice,
the government generally enforced these restrictions. Freedom of
religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and
is severely restricted in practice."
At best non-Sunni Muslims can hope to be left alone when they worship
privately. The group Open Doors placed Saudi Arabia on its "World
Watch List," noting simply that "religious freedom does not
exist in this heartland of Islam where citizens are only allowed to
adhere to one religion."
Earlier this year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
tagged the kingdom as a "country of particular concern." The
Commission found that "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations
of religious freedom continued despite improvements." A decade
after 9/11, "the Saudi government has failed to implement a number
of promised reforms related to promoting freedom of thought, conscience,
and religion or belief. The Saudi government persists in banning all
forms of public religious expression other than that of the government's
own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam."
Although Saudi Arabia is the most important Gulf State, it is uniquely
intolerant. Most of its neighbors, like Kuwait, allow greater diversity
of thought and action. That relative liberality does not go down well
in Saudi Arabia.
The Wahhabist Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al-Asheikh
oversees every Sunni Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia. He recently stated
that it is "necessary to destroy all the churches of the region."
This judgment came in response to a question from a Kuwaiti delegation
of the Wahhabist "Revival of Islamic Heritage Society." Al-Asheikh
cited the Hadith, an oral commentary on Mohammad's life, which includes
the Prophet's injunction that "There are not to be two religions
in the [Arabian] Peninsula." Al-Asheikh's opinion has not been
publicized in Saudi Arabia, but his pronouncement already is law there.
No Christian churches exist to be torn down.
This is not the case in the rest of the Persian Gulf. "Christian
churches, Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines are found in Kuwait, Bahrain,
the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Yemen," noted Irfan
al-Alawi of the Gatestone Institute. In Kuwait there were three churches
-- Catholic, Coptic, and Evangelical -- within two blocks of the hotel
at which stayed. A few years back I interviewed ministers at all three.
In general their relations with the government were very good. The
late Jerry Zandstra, then the senior minister at the National Evangelical
Church, told me, "We've never had any serious interference at
The government recently granted a permit to the Catholic Church to
construct a new facility. Bishop Camillo Ballin, head of the Apostolic
Vicariate of Northern Arabia, noted that he had "never experienced
enmity" while acting in Kuwait.
Of course, not all is perfect. The State Department reported occasional
problems and explained: "The constitution protects freedom of
belief, although other laws and policies restrict the free practice
of religion." Most important, religions "not sanctioned in
the Qur'an," such as Buddhism and Hinduism, "could not build
places of worship or other religious facilities," reported State,
though worship in private homes was allowed.
When asked about Al-Asheikh's recommendation, Jamal Al-Shahab, Kuwait's
Minister of Religious Endowments, responded that "the constitution
of Kuwait guarantees its citizens [freedom of] religion and worship" and
that "Demolishing churches and forbidding the members of the Christian
community from worshipping contravenes the state's laws and regulations."
The issue was not even mentioned when I visited in February to cover
the National Assembly election. Government officials obviously were
committed to a society that was both open and Muslim.
However, the election delivered a new Islamist majority in parliament.
The Emir is head of state and chooses the government, but the 50 member
National Assembly passes laws and interrogates ministers. Charges of
corruption led to the resignation of the prime minister and dissolution
of parliament. Western-leaning liberals were decimated while 34 Islamists
It's not the same as an Islamist takeover in, say, Pakistan, or even
what might happen in Egypt. Kuwait is a small society in which most
everyone seems to know or is otherwise connected with everyone. Many
Islamists, including some who I met, were seen more as moderate government
critics than intolerant crusaders.
Yet it didn't take long for the new majority to press for policies
contrary to Kuwait's record of openness. The Islamist group -- formal
parties do not exist -- proposed amending the constitution to make
Sharia the source of law. The Emir said no, but he did accept legislation
to impose the death penalty on Muslims for blasphemy (non-Muslims remained
subject to a fine and imprisonment).
Worse, just a couple weeks after the election MP Osama Al-Monawer
proposed drafting a law to turn Al-Asheikh's pronouncement into law.
Explained Al-Monawer: "Kuwait is an Islamic country where churches
are not permitted to be built."
An Islamist cleric in Kuwait, Sheikh Saleh Al-Ghanem, backed the parliamentarian,
arguing that according to Mohammed no non-Islamic "religion may
be practiced in the Arabian Peninsula." And Al-Asheikh endorsed
the proposal, explaining that "Kuwait is part of the Arabian Peninsula,
and [countries in] the Arabian Peninsula must demolish any churches" because "the
Prophet instructed us that there is no place for two religions" in
the Peninsula. If such a measure was enacted, Kuwait would suddenly
look a lot like Saudi Arabia.
Al-Monawer's threat may have been triggered by the issuance of the
construction permit to the Catholic Church. Rumors also circulated
-- though they are impossible to confirm -- that a member of the ruling
family had converted to Christianity. In any case, Al-Monawer's initiative
was greeted with substantial criticism.
Commentators ranging from political to academic to journalistic criticized
the proposal on theological and legal grounds. Some also made the obvious
point that Kuwait and other Islamic nations could hardly complain about
Western strictures against Islam if Muslim nations were destroying
Under pressure Al-Monawer backed down slightly, limiting his proposal,
advanced by the new Al-Adala or "Justice" Bloc in parliament,
to a ban on the construction of any new facilities. A fellow MP explained
that "Kuwait already has an excessive number of churches compared
to the country's Christian minority." Kuwait would avoid the PR
disaster of demolishing churches while sharply constricting the Christian
community and rolling up the welcome mat for believers, who form an
important part of the large foreign work community.
However, without government approval the measure was doomed. In March
Al-Adala tabled the proposal, though Al-Monawer indicated that he wanted
to question the religion minister over the new church permit. Another
Bloc member, Mohammad Hayef, said the approval was "a mistake" which "will
not go unnoticed."
Although Kuwaiti Christians reacted with relief to the legislation's
apparent demise, they remained cautious. Bishop Ballin refused to be
interviewed out of fear of speaking to the press. Bishop Paul Hinder,
who heads the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, explained that
the situation in Kuwait has "become critical." He added that
Bishop Ballin was "in a particularly delicate situation. People
should remember we are living here and have to proceed very carefully."
For now, at least, the threat of actual religious persecution in Kuwait
has passed. The government deserves credit: the ruling family remains
committed to a forward-looking and open country. Long noted for its
generally free press and fair elections, Kuwait remains a tolerant
society as well.
Nevertheless, unsettling popular currents are running strongly through
a population that remains very friendly to America. The fact that the
most powerful parliamentary faction contemplated passing legislation
to shut every Christian church -- and had the votes to do so -- offers
a warning if Kuwait eventually becomes a full parliamentary democracy,
as some Kuwaitis desire.
If final political decisions in Kuwait were made by an elective prime
minister rather than a hereditary emir, every Christian church in the
country might have been demolished by now.
Kuwait remains Washington's best friend in the Persian Gulf. However,
shared interests do not guarantee shared values. And a lack of shared
values could end up threatening shared interests. As with Saudi Arabia.
The latest parliamentary election results should serve as Thomas Jefferson's
famed "fire bell in the night." The Islamist tide in Kuwait
is likely to recede, as it has done before. If not, however, Kuwait
could turn into Saudi Arabia-lite. Americans can ill afford another
nominal ally that promotes the forces of violent intolerance worldwide.
Foreign Follies archives
Foreign Follies is copyright (c) 2012 by Doug Bandow. All
A version of this article appeared at The
American Spectator on May
Doug Bandow is the Senior Fellow in International Religious Persecution
at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.
See a complete biographical sketch.
To subscribe or donate to the FGF E-Package online or
send a check to:
P.O. Box 1383
Vienna, VA 22183