The quiet influence of Kuwait’s Salafis

June 28, 2012

(Khalid Al-Sultan (R), a member of Kuwait's parliament, speaks to fellow opposition lawmakers at a protest rally in Kuwait City June 26, 2012. REUTERS/Stephanie McGehee)

When Salafi Islamists objected to a youth forum on politics and religion in Kuwait earlier this year they took to Twitter and other media, but not to the streets.

While the Gulf state’s Salafis follow an interpretation of Islam that is just as puritanical as that of counterparts elsewhere, the means they use to assert their influence are more sophisticated – lobbying cabinet members, comments on social media and seminars.

Allowed relative freedom within Kuwait’s circumscribed and turbulent political system, they see themselves as an example for Salafis taking part in politics for the first time in other countries after the Arab Spring uprisings.

“The Salafi movement is known for its credibility and it takes a middle position between government and the opposition,” Kuwaiti Salafi MP Abdulatif al-Ameeri told Reuters after a parliamentary session earlier this month.

In the most recent election, four Salafis were elected to the 50-member parliament and six other men who share their line of thought also gained seats, he said. In Tunisia, by contrast, thousands of Salafis rioted in the capital last month over an art exhibition they said insulted Muslims.

One of Kuwait’s most vocal Salafi MPs, Waleed al-Tabtabie, has more than 198,000 followers on Twitter.

Some worry that the Salafis’ ties to neighboring Saudi Arabia, strengthened during Iraq’s 1990-91 occupation, have made them into a fundamentalist force that will push Kuwait toward a more austere form of Islam and closer to the Saudi sphere of influence.

But others – and Salafis themselves – deny a direct political link.

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