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Shattering the Myths about Kuwaiti Shia

By Ibrahim Al-Marashi

30 Jun 2015

The recent suicide attack against a Kuwaiti Shia mosque, which killed 27 worshippers, and the solidarity exhibited between Kuwaiti Sunnis and Shia Muslims after the attack, provide an evocative repudiation of the sectarian binary oppositions that appear so divisive in the light of ISIL's emergence in the region.

While the attack occurred as part of a greater ISIL strategy to divide the Middle East's Sunnis from minorities such as the Shia, Christians, or Yazidis, its attack on Friday may in fact strengthen sectarian relations in Kuwait, and highlight how Kuwait's Shia have been an integral part of Kuwait's history.

The estimates of Kuwait's Shia population range from 300,000 up to a third of the 1.3 million population of native Kuwaitis. Historically, Kuwait's Shia population formed due to two different regional trajectories. A group of Arabs native to the Gulf, collectively referred to as the baharnah, were sea-faring peoples and Twelver Shia Muslims, who inhabited Bahrain, the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

The other historical dynamic that led to the formation of a Shia community in Kuwait were migrations from Shia Iran to what is today Kuwait and Bahrain, some dating as far back as 300 years ago, while others came in a wave during the 1920s.

Cordial Historical Relationship

These Shia Muslims have had a relatively cordial historical relationship with the Arab Sunni al-Sabah family, which originated from the Najd area in today's Saudi Arabia.

Kuwait's story is characteristic of the entire Middle East, where defining continuous connections to land and later, nations, proves to be a futile endeavour given the historic trend of mobility among social groups in the region.

Regardless, connections between Kuwait's Shia and the ruling family emerged despite sectarian differences, and out of a mutually beneficial client-patron relationship.

After Kuwait achieved its independence once the British withdrew, the Kuwaiti Shia were active in the 1960s in the Kuwaiti National Assembly, inaugurating a pattern of Kuwaiti politics and shifting allegiances between the royal family and Shia parliamentarians, allied against another shifting alliance of Kuwait's Sunni merchants, notables, and intelligentsia.

This alliance endured through the 1970s, in terms of balancing a new regional phenomenon, the emergence of Sunni political Islam and their presence in the Kuwaiti parliament.

The most significant rupture in the relationship between the Kuwaiti state and the Shia emerged as a result of the Iranian revolution in 1979. Rallies in Kuwait in support of the revolution occurred in front of the US embassy. However, these activities were not simply Shia Kuwaitis being inspired by a resurgent Shiism emerging in Iran; even Kuwaiti Sunni political Islamists were inspired by the revolution, and allied with Kuwaiti Shia to augment their strength vis-a-vis the royal family and state.

The government responded by gerrymandering elections to reduce Shia presence in the Assembly and exiled Sayyid Abbas Mohri, a prominent Kuwaiti Shia activist.

Issue of Loyalty

The issue of loyalty became a significant issue during the Iran-Iraq war, when the state was concerned about Shia susceptibility to Ayatollah Khomeini's activist revolutionary ideology, which was by no means merely sectarian, but a pan-Islamist doctrine to unite and rally both Shia Muslims and Sunnis against conservative and pro-US regimes in the Middle East.

Furthermore, Kuwait became a battleground during the Iran-Iraq war. In the 1980s, bomb attacks, an airplane hijacking and even an assassination attempt on Prince Jabir were carried out by dissident Iraqi and Lebanese Shia to retaliate against Kuwait's support of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.

In January 1987, more bomb attacks occurred in Kuwait, where in this instance 12 Kuwaiti Shia Muslims were arrested, representing a significant shift in Kuwaiti Shia dissatisfaction with the government. While these militant incidents occurred in Kuwait, they by no means constituted a systemic pattern among the local Kuwaiti Shia community.

After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the ties between the Shia and the state were reconciled. Kuwaiti Shia of Iranian ancestry took part in the Kuwaiti resistance against Iraqi military forces, retaliating against Saddam Hussein's policies that had devastated both their ancestral homeland, Iran, and their current home, Kuwait.

Even a destroyed home in Kuwait that now serves as a monument to the Kuwaiti resistance, bears the names of fallen fighters with last names such as Dashti, an Iranian surname of a fighter who died fighting for his Kuwait.

Unfortunately, the invasion of Kuwait led to reconciliation between one segment of Kuwaiti society and the state, but led to the expulsion of Palestinian-Kuwaitis, a collective punishment for Palestinians who had collaborated with the Iraqi occupiers.

Kuwait's Liberation

After the liberation of Kuwait, its parliament was restored (which had been disbanded during the Iran-Iraq war due to frequent terrorist attacks). The Kuwaiti Shia resumed their active part in the parliamentary process and continue to be relied upon by the Kuwait royal family as allies, notwithstanding the fears of a resurgent Shia Islam following the 2003 Iraq war and the rise of a Shia government there.

Sectarian sentiment is by no means absent in Kuwait, and some Kuwaitis are sympathetic to ISIL, may be even giving financial donations to the group, but nonetheless, it was not a Kuwaiti but a Saudi citizen who travelled to Kuwait to conduct the attack.

Furthermore, sectarian tensions have festered in Kuwait, with last week one Kuwaiti Shia MP resigning due to a sectarian slur hurled at him by a Sunni MP. However, the visit of the Kuwaiti Emir to the destroyed mosque and images on twitter of Kuwaiti Shia and Sunnis praying together in each other's respective mosques serves as a repudiation of the sectarian polarisation ISIL hoped to incite in Kuwait.

While a single member of ISIL wrought havoc upon Kuwait's Shia, the attack represented ISIL's greater strategy of disturbing the local, heterogeneous fabric of territory they seek to terrorise in the name of pursuing a jihadist homogeneity and hegemony, disrupting this diversity in Mosul in June 2014, and almost exactly a year later in Kuwait. 

While the narrative of an ominous Shia arc forming in the regions continues unabated today, the Shia are by no means an undifferentiated mass, but rather differ in beliefs, local and national identity and cultural values, and thus "Kuwaitiness" and Gulf identity of Kuwait's Shia has been demonstrated over time.

The Kuwaiti Sunni response in the aftermath of this attack has served as a powerful rejoinder to the persistent primordial assumptions of "ancient-sectarian hatred" as something that is integral to the region, existing since time immemorial.  

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of "Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History."