Zoltan Pall is a research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. He is a social anthropologist with many years of fieldwork in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. His main research interests include the sociopolitical dynamics of Islamic movements and transnational Islamic charity organizations. He has written books, articles, and policy papers on Salafism in Lebanon and Kuwait, and on the evolution and structure of Salafi transnational networks in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Europe. His book, Salafism in Lebanon: Local and Transnational Movements, was published by Cambridge University Press in April 2018. Diwan interviewed Pall in early June to discuss a recent article he published at Carnegie, titled “The Emir’s Gift: Given a Greater Role, Kuwait’s Salafis Face the Costs.”
Michael Young: You recently wrote an article for Carnegie on the changing role of Salafists in Kuwait. What is its main argument?
Zoltan Pall: The so-called Salafi Community or Al-Jama‘a al-Salafiyya—most commonly known as Ihya’ al-Turath—the largest group in Kuwait’s diverse Salafi landscape, successfully exploited the historical opportunity after the emergence of a Kuwaiti protest movement in 2011 to increase its position in state institutions. It achieved this by showing loyalty to the ruling elite and standing against the opposition. Yet, as I argue in my article, due to the logic of Kuwait’s political system, which is built on a concept of divide and rule, the Salafi Community might hold these positions temporarily, until it falls out of favor with the government.
MY: Where do the great rivals of the Salafis, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, stand today, as they had previously been backed by the ruling Al Sabah family?
ZP: The quasi-alliance between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood broke down in the wake of the opposition movement in Kuwait, which was partly inspired by the Arab uprisings. The Brotherhood sided with the opposition and joined the demonstrations that brought down the government of Nasser Mohammed Al Sabah in summer 2011. It won a considerable number of seats in the subsequent February 2012 elections, along with activist Salafis and Salafis who broke away from the Salafi Community—with the opposition together winning 34 seats out of 50. Yet, when the Constitutional Court dissolved this parliament four months later and the emir imposed the so-called “one vote” law, which changed the electoral system and granted each Kuwaiti one vote instead of the previous many, the Muslim Brotherhood, along with other opposition parties, boycotted the December 2012 elections. As a result, the new parliament became almost completely pro-government.
The ruling elite punished the Muslim Brotherhood for joining the opposition by stripping it of several political and administrative positions. For example, the Brotherhood had dominated the Kuwait Finance House, the first Kuwaiti bank operating in accordance with Islamic law, since its establishment in 1977. In 2013 and 2014 most of the Brotherhood cadres were replaced by individuals who were loyal to the government. Similar dynamics took place in several other institutions, such as the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Kuwait Awqaf Public Foundation, and the Zakat House, where the Muslim Brothers lost several leading positions. While the Muslim Brotherhood’s political organization, the Islamic Constitutional Movement, ended its electoral boycott and participated in the 2017 elections, full rapprochement with the ruling elite has not yet happened.
MY: You say the Salafi Community was the greatest beneficiary of the protests in 2011. Can you describe the dynamics that took place?
ZP: The Salafi Community itself experienced internal fragmentation due to the differences of opinion with regard to the 2011 protests. While many, such as the veteran Salafi politician Khalid Sultan bin ‘Issa, left and joined the opposition, those who remained within the Salafi Community stood with the government. Politicians and scholars in the group condemned the demonstrations, using several platforms, ranging from mosques to newspapers to social media, to label them a revolt against the legitimate Muslim ruler. According to the religious reasoning of this group, demonstrations and even open criticism of the head of the state is forbidden unless he is openly an apostate.
When the opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis around Khalid Sultan bin ‘Issa, boycotted the elections of 2012 and 2013, the ruling elite coopted the Salafi Community. The loyalist Salafis were rewarded with positions in the state apparatus. For example, one of the prominent Salafi politicians, Ali al-‘Umayr received ministerial positions. The government removed a large number of Muslim Brotherhood members from the state’s Islamic institutional sector, such as the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Zakat House, and the Kuwait Awqaf Public Foundation, before filling them with loyalists, including members of the Salafi Community along with some non-affiliated individuals.
MY: How extensive are the transnational ties of the Salafi Community?
ZP: Very extensive I’d say. The material wealth of Kuwait has made it possible for the Salafi Community to establish a large charity organization that has humanitarian and Da‘wa projects in more than 50 countries around the globe. This charity, called the Society for the Revival of Islamic Heritage (SRIH), has built thousands of mosques, schools, clinics, and hospitals in the Middle East and Asia. Furthermore, scholars who belong to the Salafi Community have preached in a wide range of countries, from the Netherlands to Indonesia.
Gaining positions in state institutions has also increased the Salafis’ capacity for transnational networking due to their increased access to financial resources. For example, many Salafis from abroad have been invited to participate in conferences organized by the Zakat House, which collects zakat, the Islamic religious tax, and invests it in charitable projects inside and outside Kuwait. At the same time, the Salafis could launch more humanitarian and proselytizing projects abroad. For example, I observed that in the past few years SRIH has expanded its networks of schools among Cambodia’s Muslim minority, and built a hospital for them. This project was financed by the Kuwaiti state and several charity organizations, but carried out by SRIH.
MY: Ultimately, what does the future hold for Kuwaiti Salafis?
ZP: The fact that the Salafi Community remained close to the government led many Kuwaitis to accuse it of focusing less on religious purity than on its own political interests. In the November 2016 elections, the Salafi Islamic Gathering, the political arm of the Salafi Community, did not manage to win a single seat for the first time since its establishment. This defeat underlined the group’s loss of popularity. At the same time, alliances in Kuwaiti politics usually do not last forever. The Salafis might fall out of favor with the ruling Al Sabah one day, while the Muslim Brotherhood moves closer to the government once again, leading to the political marginalization of the Salafi Community.
A positive result of the cooptation of the Salafis could be the professionalization of the latter’s humanitarian activities. Being closer to the government also means being subjected to increased oversight. Since SRIH receives directly or indirectly financial resources from the ruling elite, donors are sure to follow up to ensure that their money is being used effectively. For example, in the Cambodian projects of SRIH, the focus is increasingly on creating a quality educational system for the Muslim minority. SRIH’s schools employ skilled teachers, who besides religion teach the Cambodian state curriculum. This creates opportunities for young Cambodian Muslims to continue their studies at the best universities in the country, or study abroad and become middle class professionals.