Learning to live together: the winds of change that are sweeping through the region bring with them testing--and, for some, frightening--times in which the old orders will be challenged. Nicholas Blanford reports from Kuwait on growing Shi'ite influences and how the Sunnis are accommodating change.

Author:Blanford, Nicholas
Position:CURRENT AFFAIRS

POLITICALLY SIDELINED, KUWAIT'S minority Shi'ites are taking heart from the empowerment of their coreligionists in neighbouring Iraq to press for greater recognition.

"What's happening in Iraq will be positive for the Shi'ites in Kuwait and all over the Middle East, the Gulf countries in particular," said Sayyed Mohammed Baqr Al Mery, the representative in Kuwait of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's pre-eminent Shi'ite cleric.

Indeed, other Shi'ite communities in the Gulf are becoming increasingly emboldened. The Shi'ite-led opposition in Bahrain at the end of March staged a massive rally in the streets of Manama to demand democratic reforms. During the Ashura commemoration in February, celebrants in the Shi'ite-dominated Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia drew blood by beating their foreheads, the first time in decades local Shi'ites have practiced the ritual.

But the Shi'ite awakening in Iraq and its influence on the Shi'ite communities in the Gulf is causing deep unease among some Sunni Muslims.

"We are concerned about the Shi'ites outside Kuwait and we are worried about contacts between the Shi'ites here and those outside Kuwait," said Mohammed Tabtabai, the dean of the College of Sharia and Islamic Studies at Kuwait University.

Shi'ites make-up about one third of Kuwait's 913,000 citizens. Compared to the suffering of their fellow Shi'ites in Iraq under Saddam Hussein's brutal regime, the Shi'ites of Kuwait have fared relatively well. But they remain politically under-represented with only five MPs in the 50-seat parliament. Mohammed Abu Al Hasan, the only Shi'ite minister in the Kuwaiti government, was compelled to resign in January under pressure from Sunni Islamist MPs.

"When we speak to the government, they say there are no Sunnis and Shi'ites just citizens. But we say there must be a balance," said Abdel-Mohsen Jammal, one of the five Shi'ite MPs. "I think now after the liberation of Iraq, the Kuwaiti government will change its behaviour and start bringing in more Shi'ites."

Indeed, the Kuwaiti government has fulfilled some longstanding Shi'ite requests, such as permitting a Shi'ite supreme court to handle personal status issues and family law cases and approving the establishment of a Shi'ite waqf, an agency to administer religious donations.

But there is no Shi'ite hawza, or religious college, to train Shi'ite imams, forcing students to travel to Iraq or Iran.

The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs is responsible for...

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