Behind Kuwait's rising book censorship

Despite a constitution that protects freedom of expression, many Kuwaitis fear that an Islamist bloc in parliament will impose stricter bans

THE KUWAITI censors prohibited an encyclopedia depicting Michelangelo’s celebrated nude sculpture of ‘David’... (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE KUWAITI censors prohibited an encyclopedia depicting Michelangelo’s celebrated nude sculpture of ‘David’...
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Kuwaiti activists have held protests in recent days over what they see as a rising government-sponsored tide of book censorship. According to the Kuwait Times, about 80 demonstrators last month converged on Kuwait City’s Irada Square just opposite the country’s parliament building, the National Assembly, to decry the banning of an estimated 4,590 titles.
Activists staged similar protests last month in front of the Ministry of Information, the government body responsible for deciding what books constitute appropriate reading material for the Gulf state’s 4.2 million citizens.
Recently, the government formally acknowledged that the bans have been in place since 2014. They target not only state-owned bookshops and libraries, but also private book vendors.
Reasons for the bans vary, but a common thread is what some in the government deem indecent exposure, especially in books displaying images. According to The New York Times, which ran a story on the book bans last week, the Kuwaiti censors prohibited an encyclopedia depicting Michelangelo’s David as well as a Disney book, The Little Mermaid, for displaying its protagonist in a bikini. 
In other instances, the ministry banned books for what it deemed inappropriate written content; for example, a scene set in Mecca involving child abuse, a scene about ISIS terrorists attracting young followers in mosques, or another scene in which a wife sees her husband naked. The latter comes from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The censors did not let other Nobel-winners off the hook, including Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, whose book Children of Gebelawi was added to the list.
Some booksellers have pledged to defy the government bans, continuing to sell prohibited books secretly. Nevertheless, many vendors are taking them off the rack to avoid hefty fines if caught.
Frustration over the bans has also spilled over into social media, as many activists took to Facebook and Twitter to express anger, posting images of banned books kept at home.
With a large book fair coming up in November, government officials have launched a counter-messaging campaign. In a recently released statement, the Ministry of Information asserted that “there is no book banning in Kuwait. There is a book censorship committee that reviews all books.” Other officials in the ministry added that of all the books the ministry has examined, only 2% of them have fallen under the ban, a relatively low number considering book bans in other countries.
Yet the banning of books – however small their number – is something of an anomaly in a country where many Kuwaitis take pride in the country’s democratic institutions as well as a culture that has generally supported literary and intellectual freedom. 
Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line, “In an ironic way, the issue is a consequence of Kuwait’s more democratic system.”
She explained that the country has the strongest parliament in the Gulf, which allows Kuwaiti society more say and control over its affairs. Now, she added, the parliament is seeing a growing contingent of “more conservative and Islamist members.”
“But the control of the Islamists has been weakening, as a more activist, liberal front in Kuwait has been drawing attention to this issue,” Diwan contended.
“Kuwait also has a very strong youth movement. During the Arab Spring protests [beginning in late 2010], at one point over 100,000 people filled the streets. This was huge for a small country like Kuwait.”
Many in this wave of youth activism, she continued, “are interested in these issues, and of having more room for personal expression.
“But the Islamists, relative to other countries, still have more room to maneuver as well. So, these cultural debates are just playing out more publicly in Kuwait than elsewhere in the region,” Diwan concluded.
One stumbling block for the country’s censors is the Kuwaiti constitution, which guarantees intellectual freedom, raising questions about how the ministry can expand its list of banned books while remaining within the legal framework.
Fatima Matar, a professor of law at Kuwait University and an organizer of the protests, told The Media Line that “the Kuwaiti constitution indeed states in Articles 31, 37 and 38 that freedom of speech, expression, press and publication, and personal freedom are all guaranteed and protected under the constitution.”
But, she explained, two key factors have played an important role in eroding such freedoms. The first is Kuwait’s Publication Law No. 3/2006.
“The law puts numerous restrictions on what can and cannot be published and distributed in Kuwait. Writers and publishers have been fighting this law since 2007, but it’s only in the last five years that these demands for change have grown louder and more urgent,” Matar said. 
“The reason for this is that censorship has grown more brutal in the last five years. Furthermore, the bans have fallen on books that have been sold in Kuwait for decades.”
The second factor, Matar explained, is the growing political power of Islamists, who have become extreme in their denunciation of the arts, which they perceive as “corrupting the youth and poisoning morals.”
“There has been a rise in atheism among Kuwaiti youth, and Islamists believe that books and art are behind this growing phenomenon. However, the bans have been so random that they have included books on the Koran and other writings that denounce atheism. 
“This ferocious ban on books comes from the fear among Islamists that they are losing their grip on Kuwaiti society. Although they remain powerful in politics, they have lost social credibility, especially with the younger generations.” 
Matar concluded that the activists are moving forward. They hope to widen their circle, and aim to overturn not only book bans, but prohibitions on other forms of expression. In this way, they endeavor to apply more pressure on parliamentarians.
Another step is to include more Islamists in the conversation.
“Since we’ve started demonstrations against censorship, the Ministry of Information has been showing us in a negative light. We are portrayed as a bunch of liberals and atheists who disregard the conservative nature of the Kuwaiti culture.
“But if we include them [the Islamists] in talks and seminars and get our message through – that all of us, whether religious or not, will suffer due to this book ban – we will gain more credibility with the public.”