Kuwaiti gov't bans rallies, fearing sectarian outburst

Prime Minister vows to act firmly against attempts to inflame Shi’ite-Sunni tensions.

Iraq bomb rubble 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Iraq bomb rubble 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Kuwait has banned all public gatherings after mounting sectarian tensions have destabilized the security of the small gulf country.
Kuwait’s Interior Ministry restricted all “sectarian” gatherings of more than 20 participants, threatening offenders with a two-year jail sentence, in a message delivered Sunday.
The government action came as a reaction to intentions by Sunni Islamic groups to rally this week in support of Prophet Muhammad’s wife ‘Aisha, who has been attacked by an extremist Kuwaiti Shi’ite cleric and prison fugitive, Yasser Al-Habeeb, who fled to London.
Eleven Islamist members of parliament have decided to postpone a planned rally in order to give the government time to initiate measures against Habib, including the revocation of his Kuwaiti citizenship. The government is said to decide on the matter Monday, September 20.
“Things have gone out of hand in Shi’a-Sunni relations,” Shafeeq Ghabra, a political scientist at Kuwait University told The Media Line. “People are getting too emotional and there is a cycle of agitation and counter-agitation.”
Ghabra said that the current crisis is a result of government’s failure to maintain a secular public space in Kuwait.
“The government is trying to manage an issue that it didn’t handle well over the past two decades,” he said. “What we are witnessing is the culmination of a government policy which has given religious groups an edge over other groups.”
Ghabra cited a number of laws that have curbed religious freedoms in Kuwait since the mid-1990s, including segregation of public and private universities, a ban on male hairdressers and even a ban on dancing in public.
“The only places where you can dance today in public are weddings, and this is enforced by the chastity police,” Ghabra said. “The result is that open-minded liberal Kuwaitis feel totally alienated today.”
Habeeb fled his Kuwaiti prison in 2004, after being sentenced to a 10-year jail term for insulting the Prophet’s companions. In London, Habeeb established the Khoddam Al-Mahdi (Servants of the Mahdi) Organization, with a radical anti-Sunni agenda.   
A member of the editorial department of Kuwait Times speaking to The Media Line on condition of anonymity said that Kuwaitis on both sides of the sectarian divide supported the revocation of Habeeb’s citizenship.
“It is illegal to hold dual nationality in Kuwait, and Habeeb is an Iraqi national as well,” the Kuwaiti journalist said. “Even the Shi’a would accept the validity of this law.”
Dr. Ghabra, a political scientist, disagreed.
“You don’t take away a person’s citizenship,” he said. “This will not stop him from being a Kuwaiti, just as Osama Bin-Laden will always be a Saudi. It will only create a negative ripple effect which will escalate sectarian tensions – the matter should be dealt with in court.”
Shi’ites comprise 30 percent of Kuwait’s population of 3.5 million.  
Public denouncement of Prophet Muhammad’s wife ‘Aisha and his close circle of companions is part of Shi’a doctrine, as they are viewed by Shi’ites as hostile to ‘Ali and his family, who they view as Muhammad’s only legitimate disciples.