In Kuwait, more young Arabs embrace return to conservative Islam
July 20, 2004
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Tuesday July 20, 2004
KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait – (KRT) – The gunman drove a Lexus.
Young and well-educated, Sami al-Mutairi parked his royal blue luxury sedan behind a roadside sand berm and waited. He knew that carloads of American troops traveled the dusty road. Prosecutors say he cradled an AK-47 assault rifle in his hands.
Al-Mutairi, 25, was from a large middle-class family, part of a major tribe in this gilded Persian Gulf state. He had a good government job as a social worker, and in college he had been known as an outspoken member of the liberal students group on the manicured campus of Kuwait University.
But shortly after he graduated in June 2001, something changed.
He became more stridently religious and began echoing the ideology of another wealthy Arab: Osama bin Laden. In time, al-Mutairi’s once-vocal resentment of restrictive Arab culture transformed into a zealous rejection of the West’s policies toward Muslims. In October 2001, he set off for Afghanistan but was turned back by Iranian authorities and returned home, fuming.
As al-Mutairi waited on the sun-soaked morning of Jan. 21, 2003, a silver SUV approached. He gripped his rifle and aimed. The slight man with the wispy beard opened fire, prosecutors say, killing a U.S. Army contractor in the passenger seat and seriously wounding another American worker beside him.
The gunman – now in a Kuwaiti prison serving a life sentence for the shooting, though he maintains he is innocent – had become the third middle-class young man from this oil-rich U.S. ally to pick up a gun against Americans in just four months.
It may be possible to understand how extremism brews in a squalid Palestinian refugee camp, but what accounts for the scions of middle-class Kuwaiti families who are choosing violence and martyrdom over a future in a nation with free education, abundant oil wealth and a four-hour workday?
“They are the five-star terrorists,” said Sami al-Faraj, an independent Kuwaiti defense analyst. “What makes someone who lives in a country of luxury choose to do that?”
That question gets to the heart of a broader issue that builds as the Arab world confronts a surging demographic wave of young people: With two-thirds of the population of the Middle East under age 25, many young Arabs from Casablanca to Cairo to Kuwait City see their future not in Western-style democracy and its values, but in a return to a conservative version of Islam.
There may be no better place to explore this transformation than Kuwait, a staunchly pro-Western ally, where an Islamist movement born less than 25 years ago has captured the imagination of a vast young generation that will control one of the world’s most valuable slivers of land.
Behind the changes in the emirate of Kuwait is a movement that grew from a ridiculed fringe of religious absolutists into an unrivaled force in politics, business and neighborhood life. It is a movement powerful enough to offer young Arabs an unbeatable package: a vision of the world and the network to succeed in it.
Not only do Islamists – those who advocate the adoption of an Islamic state – hold the largest share of seats in Kuwait’s parliament, but their influence also extends to which products appear in neighborhood stores, which viewpoints are heard in classrooms and even who runs the college student union. Most important, perhaps, Islamists offer spiritual rewards.
“Young people want to add a meaning to their lives, politically. And somebody is going to organize them,” said John Zogby, a Lebanese-American pollster who has surveyed Muslims around the world. “What is clear is that the Islamists are getting to them first. The Islamists have the energy, a voice, a message.”
Islamist leaders blame the acts of extremists on the intrusion of a decadent, Western influence and a U.S. foreign policy that they say spurs some to violence. They stridently condemn the attacks, saying Islamist leaders bear no more indirect responsibility for the acts of misguided extremists than do mainline Christian churches for attacks on abortion clinics.
But liberal Kuwaitis say the increasingly powerful movement permits extremism to simmer unchecked. They accuse Islamists of permitting fiery, intolerant rhetoric to echo through mosques and youth centers, creating a fundamentalist fervor that is tantamount to sending a speeding train down the track and disavowing the result when the train crashes.
“Sometimes you just scratch your head and say, `Where did we go wrong?’” Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Sabah said in an interview. “How did this person have this hate in him to carry out such an evil deed? I cannot explain Sami Mutairi.”
Growing up, al-Mutairi was the gregarious middle child in a large family with two mothers, a father and 21 children, not particularly unusual in the Arab countries where the Koran is interpreted to permit men to marry more than one woman. Al-Mutairi’s father was a military officer.
“We were exposed to Western culture,” recalled Sami’s brother Khaled, sipping espresso at Starbucks in Kuwait City, the site he chose for an interview. “I study in France. My brother Fahad studies in London. My sister lives in Italy.”
It was a two-sided upbringing – a traditional polygamous household with an eye to the world beyond Kuwait – a fitting reflection of a nation that has come to typify the competing tensions in the modern Arab world. Once among the poorest nations, this former cluster of pious fishing families and pearl divers now wallows in the wealth of 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves.
Kuwait’s oil was discovered in 1938, but World War II delayed development by British engineers until the 1950s. Since then, the petrodollars have carried a flood of Western culture, forging a new skyline where pale minarets compete with mirrored skyscrapers. It is a place of luxury SUVs, the latest wafer-thin cell phones and American fast-food joints.
Among Arabs, Kuwaitis have often stood out for their embrace of the West and its culture, and at times that has made them a target of ridicule – and worse.
In the 1920s, Saudis attempted to invade Kuwait, denouncing their neighbors for using tobacco and working with the West. And a dozen years after U.S.-led troops repelled an Iraqi invasion, Kuwait remains one of the few pro-American refuges in the Muslim world.
Against that history, recent years have produced a startling pattern: Two of Osama bin Laden’s top deputies were Kuwaiti-born. Twelve Kuwaiti nationals are among the nearly 600 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, accused of aiding the Taliban or al-Qaida in Afghanistan. An additional 20 Kuwaitis, including al-Mutairi, have been arrested on charges of shooting or plotting to kill Americans in the past two years.
As he entered college, al-Mutairi did not seem headed toward militancy. “He was an open-minded guy,” recalled Ahmed Abdullah Essa, a classmate. “He used to believe that classes should be (kept) coed. He marched for women’s right to vote.”
Shortly after enrolling at Kuwait University in the fall of 1997, al-Mutairi established himself in the on-campus liberal party, known as the Center. The group had been struggling for two decades while the campus emerged as the vanguard of the nation’s Islamist movement, with a conservative student party, the Alliance, dominating elections.
In al-Mutairi’s junior year, he and two other members of the liberal party were accused of putting up posters that criticized the Prophet Muhammad. Police detained them for questioning. When they were released two or three days later, the students boldly staged a news conference to proclaim their innocence and to criticize the government for inflicting emotional pain on their families.
Later that year, buoyed by the publicity, al-Mutairi ran in a student election on the liberal ticket. He lost.
“I remember when the Islamist movement in Kuwait was 50 people,” Tareq al-Suwaidan said with a laugh. As a student living abroad in the ’70s, al-Suwaidan, now an Islamist lecturer, helped found the Alliance.
In the 1960s and most of the ’70s, men and women at Kuwait University dined and danced together, and miniskirts were more common than traditional hijab head coverings, professors and alumni say.
But the Islamists were both patient and shrewd.
As in much of the Middle East, the Islamist movement in Kuwait rose from the ashes of the humiliating Arab loss to Israel in the 1967 war and the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the champion of secular pan-Arabism. The failure of secularism spawned a religious revival that offered salvation to the Arab world, a movement that gathered strength on the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
In Kuwait, the ruling Sabah family eagerly encouraged the trend. It hoped to keep restive liberal forces at bay by emboldening Islamic groups and Bedouin tribes, which shared traditional Arab values. The ruling family encouraged the Islamic groups to enter politics and naturalized the Bedouin tribes. The alliance between the tribes and Islamists prospered, winning a steadily growing share in parliament.
The conservatives scored major legislative wins: rejecting a drive in 1999 to expand suffrage to women and stalling government plans to expand the role of foreign oil companies in modernizing Kuwait’s oil system. These days, conservative lawmakers are pushing for a tax on the rich to redistribute wealth to the mostly Bedouin poor and for a constitutional amendment requiring all laws to be based on strict Shariah, the legal code of Islam.
Conservative policies have two major influences: the Muslim Brotherhood, an offshoot of the Egyptian movement of the same name, which has a violent past elsewhere but has evolved in Kuwait into a powerful business and social fraternity; and the more conservative Salafi movement, inspired by Saudi Wahhabi teachings, which calls for a return to the “true Islam” practiced in the 7th Century.
The message of the Islamists has penetrated all layers of society. In one subtle but critical step, the Islamists have proved adept at winning elected seats on local co-op societies – the network of unremarkable shopping centers that are a staple of Kuwaitis’ daily lives. Political scientists call it a strategic triumph in the expansion of the Islamist infrastructure.
With prominent perches like the co-ops, Islamists cut an alluring profile. Like having an Ivy League connection in the United States, knowing the right Islamist in Kuwait can reap tangible rewards.
Othman al-Abdulhadi, 43, knows firsthand. Years ago, as a high school sophomore with a budding Muslim devotion, he drew the attention of members of the Brotherhood, who approached him at the mosque. They invited him to lunch and a ride in a Mercedes, he said. In time, they invited him on weekend trips to seaside chalets.
“I was from a poor family, and I had never had experiences like that,” said al-Abdulhadi, now a public-relations manager. He was a member of the Brotherhood for 10 years before growing disenchanted and breaking ties in 1989.
When he had trouble finding work, he says, they got him a job at a construction company, arranged by a prominent Islamist legislator. When he wanted to go to college, they helped ensure that he was accepted, he recalls.
Islamist leaders now hold top posts at the Justice Ministry, the teachers union and a network of profitable neighborhood shopping centers.
“I tell my students: If you really want to get the right job after you graduate, you stand the best chance if you are an Islamist,” said Shamlan al-Essa, director of the Center for Strategic and Future Studies in Kuwait.
The Islamist message is amplified by a network of popular Islamist youth groups for middle and high school students that attract members through after-school soccer games and other activities.
“If you like sports, that’s how we bring you in,” said Fahad Mohammed al-Thuwainy, 19, a member of two such groups, Guiding Light and Future Builders. “We say, `You should come join our sports team.’ And then they might also learn about the cultural activities.”
By high school, most of these young men have aligned themselves with one of the major Islamist parties, which provide a launching pad to positions in student government, business fraternities and, if they choose, politics.
“You can’t be a complete Muslim just by practicing the spiritual part of Islam,” said Osama Isa al-Shaheen, 25, a government lawyer who headed the Alliance before he graduated from Kuwait University four years ago. “It’s about organizations, activities, work.”
Mohammad Dallal, another lawyer and former president of the Alliance, says Islamists have perfected their recruiting system.
“We succeed here because we fulfill the Kuwaitis’ needs,” he said. “We are Muslims, we respect religion, we allow a little freedom. We are in the mosques. We are in the charities, we are very close to the people. And the result is that you see it in the student unions, in the teachers.”
At Kuwait University, Islamist students cheered the end of coed classes on the 18,000-student campus, pushed for a conservative dress code, advocated the national adoption of Saudi-style Shariah law, and denounced U.S.-led military actions in Afghanistan.
“The perception that we are very similar (to Western young people) is superficial,” Ahmed al-Mutawa, vice chairman of the student union last year, said one evening at the student union’s warren of tidy offices, housed in a marble-trimmed student meeting hall. “It is not an accurate perception. That is the shell. It is not the heart.”
Ahmed al-Obeid, outgoing treasurer of the student union and a member of the Alliance, said he believes Kuwait should codify a strict interpretation, Saudi-style Islamic law – a move the ruling family has so far resisted.
Al-Obeid is much like others in the Alliance. In one breath, he recalls spending two months studying English in Irvine, Calif., and in the next, he reports that he stands “with the Iraqi resistance against the U.S. occupation” and that nothing would make him happier than dying as a martyr in a war to destroy the state of Israel.
“I’m a Muslim first and a Kuwaiti second,” he said.
While the Islamists dominate, a small but growing movement of Kuwaitis is straining to challenge their views.
Faraah al-Saqqaf, a writer and liberal activist, has organized groups of young people, including her 19-year-old daughter, to come together to perform community service, find summer jobs and show a united front for more tolerant viewpoints.
“People like me, over the years, we were surrendering to the fundamentalists,” al-Saqqaf said. “But after Sept. 11, I said I can’t allow it to go on any more. I cannot surrender to them.”
Like many of the students in the summer program, Zainab Karam, 22, has come to see the Islamist youth movement as a challenge to her independence. She hopes to work as a radio broadcaster someday, and she worries that a political movement that opposes giving women the right to vote and discourages coed work environments could deprive her of that future.
“I think religion is in your heart,” she said. “If you believe it, you believe it. But you cannot force people to believe it like you.”
Many Kuwaitis admit to feeling conflicted about their close embrace of the West and its material trappings at a time when much of the Arab world is fiercely opposed to U.S. foreign policy. Islamists have deftly managed that tension to their advantage.
“When they vote for Islamists, it is an expression of their hate for America and (America’s) biased policies in the Middle East,” said Abdulrazaq al-Shaiji, a Salafi political strategist. “They see truth and credibility in the Islamist movement, which is a defense against the cultural invasion of the West.”
Liberals say sentiments like that hint at a creeping intolerance in the Islamists’ rhetoric. When it is not intended for Western eyes and ears, the message is fiercer.
In an Arabic-language newspaper column in July 2003, a prominent Islamist cleric criticized the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait for visiting traditional Kuwaiti evening meetings, known as diwaniyas, saying his presence could induce a misguided young person to “pick up a weapon.”
“We see it every day, the incitement to hate others, to dislike foreigners,” said liberal activist Ahmed Bishara. “We see it in articles in the newspapers, in seminars by Islamic fundamentalists from the mosque’s pulpit. And there are many people who are weak and they respond.”
Like other Arab governments that have survived decades of regional turmoil, Kuwait’s monarchy is adept at pulling Islamist forces closer to gain religious legitimacy and pushing them away when they encroach on power. These days, leaders describe the flourishing fundamentalism as a hallmark of freedom.
“I don’t see fundamentalism as extremism,” said al-Sabah, the foreign minister. “You have a right to be fundamentalist. I have dealt with elements of society who are very fundamentalist when it comes to observance of Islam, but they confine it to themselves. Extremism is when you try to impose your views on others.”
But as a stack of court cases confirms, some Kuwaitis are choosing a path of militancy and violence.
In October 2002, two Kuwaiti men who had fought in Afghanistan opened fire on Marines training on an island, killing one U.S. serviceman and wounding another. Investigators said the gunmen, Anas al-Kandari and Jassem al-Hajiri, who died in a shootout with Marines, had returned to Kuwait intending to establish a cell of al-Qaida that could attack U.S.- and foreign-linked targets here.
The gunmen – one of whom had recently bought a Porsche – left a will, portraying their attack against the Marines as retribution for the suffering of Palestinians.
Investigators arrested 12 young men – mostly unmarried college students – on charges of conspiring in the shooting plot. Earlier this year, seven were convicted in the case and sentenced to jail, fines or probation. Five were acquitted.
Western diplomats believe that in total, 40 Kuwaitis trained or fought in Afghanistan and have returned home to nurture a following of an estimated 400 disciples. But Kuwaiti leaders downplay them as isolated cases.
Few cases have sparked as much soul-searching in Kuwaiti newspapers and on television as the story of Sami al-Mutairi.
In the months after graduation, al-Mutairi lost touch with his old friends from the Center. He began work as a counselor at a state-run orphanage and stopped visiting a hangout decked in American kitsch where classmates said he once whiled away the afternoon with them, smoking flavored tobacco.
Nobody can say for sure what prompted the change. Some old classmates wondered whether his arrest for criticizing the Prophet Muhammad had soured him on liberal politics. Others wondered whether he had encountered a new imam or mosque, though he did not mention any specifically, his lawyer and brother say.
Whatever the source, his brother approved of the change.
“The fact that he worked in the orphanage made him think of the need to do good deeds. How can he be useful for people all over the world,” Khaled said. “Sometimes, you just make a decision. It is part of growing up.”
And then came Sept. 11. Those closest to al-Mutairi recall different reactions. Khaled said he and his brother were similarly disgusted by the deaths of civilians.
“However, at the same time, we did not approve of what happens in Palestine,” he said. “And we thought that what happened on the 11th of September was the same as what happened in Palestine, and that is a crime against humanity.”
Sami’s lawyer, Mohammed al-Mutairi, who is no relation, said his client was inspired by bin Laden. “Ever since Sept. 11, when he saw Osama bin Laden and began to learn about what sort of man he is – how he leaves his wealthy life and his fortune – he saw him as a leader of Muslims and Arabs,” the lawyer said.
On Oct. 21, Sami al-Mutairi set off for Afghanistan, telling his family he was going to do charity work. Stalled for weeks at the Iranian border, he met an older Kuwaiti who lived as a shepherd with three wives and 30 children in the desert south of Kuwait City. In their encounter, prosecutors say, a plan was born.
Kuwaiti authorities regularly scrutinize anyone who has tried to reach Afghanistan, and when al-Mutairi returned from the border, he was arrested. Authorities seized his passport.
After his release, al-Mutairi called his friend Abdullah Amer al-Oteibi and asked him to teach him how to shoot, prosecutors say. Together they trained in the desert near the Kuwait City suburb of Farwaniya. Al-Mutairi, meanwhile, scouted out a remote intersection near Camp Doha, a major U.S. Army base in Kuwait.
On the morning of Jan. 21, al-Mutairi arrived at the intersection shortly after 8, according to a videotaped confession. Within the hour, a Toyota SUV approached, driven by David Caraway, a software engineer from Tapestry Solutions in San Diego. In the passenger seat was Michael Rene Pouliot, 46, an executive from the same company who was working for the Army.
The car slowed to the light, and al-Mutairi opened fire, prosecutors say. Pouliot died in a rain of gunfire; Caraway was struck seven times but survived.
Al-Mutairi ran back to his sedan and headed for a place in the desert, where he buried his clothes, then visited several mosques, investigators say. He arrived at work in time for his evening shift but didn’t stay long. He called a friend and asked for a ride to the Saudi border. The friend dropped him off with no possessions but a pistol.
Police, meanwhile, were searching for all those who had tried to visit Afghanistan and had discovered al-Mutairi’s disappearance. They searched his office and found stashed in an air duct ammunition and an AK-47 – a weapon that matched the bullets found at the scene, prosecutors say.
Saudi border guards arrested al-Mutairi hours later. He gave a videotaped confession, but his attorney, Mohammed al-Mutairi, says his client was tortured during an interrogation that lasted 15 hours.
He says his client was fingered for the crime because he was a known Islamist at a moment when Kuwait was eager to please the U.S. forces streaming into the country for the looming war in Iraq. At the time of his arrest, al-Mutairi says, he was trying to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca and entered Saudi Arabia illegally only because Kuwaiti authorities had taken his passport.
After a trial largely closed to the public, al-Mutairi was convicted a year ago and sentenced to death by hanging. An appeals court later commuted the sentence to life in prison. In convicting him, the court cited physical evidence gathered from the scene and the car.
Khaled al-Mutairi believes his brother, now 27, is innocent and was tarred as a terrorist for attempting to visit Afghanistan. “He believed that violence did not solve problems,” Khaled said.
But investigators paint a different portrait: of a frustrated and zealous young convert to radical Islam who was inspired by al-Qaida.
Portions of his videotaped confession were played in court, and attorneys for both sides described its contents. At one point, an interrogator asks Sami al-Mutairi why he chose that particular day for the shooting.
It was simple, he is said to have replied. The attack on the World Trade Center occurred on a Tuesday. The June 25, 1996, bombing of the Khobar Towers that killed 19 U.S. troops occurred on a Tuesday.
“That day,” he said, “is blessed.”
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