The American University in Kuwait is viewed as a bastion of liberalism that attracts the most liberal-minded and the children of some of the wealthiest Kuwaitis. There you will find male and female students sporting the latest styles at what seems to be almost any expense. Thus, when Kuwait’s probably most well-known conservative Islamist Member of Parliament, Dr. Walid Tabtabaie, came to AUK on Sunday, 4 Nov, to speak about the Kuwaiti constitution on the pretense of a lecture entitled “Serving the Community,” it was a surprise to many.
Dr. Tabtabaie seems to be a young looking man in his forties. He sports a jet black beard and noticeably short dishdasha (the white dress of local men), both signs of a strict fundamentalist or literal understanding of Islam. He received his PhD in Islamic Law from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the leading bastion of Sunni Islam education. Al-Azhar has been in operation for a little over a thousand years but ironically it started out as a Shi’ite institution under the Fatimids.
The session started out politely with an explanation of the verities and virtues of the Kuwaiti constitution. But after Tabtabaie had finished his talk, the session was opened to the real and unofficial topic of discussion which was the lack of exercise of personal freedoms such as freedom of press, the view that women should not be playing football, and the preoccupation with separating boys and girls in universities and schools. Students were allowed to ask questions and I was surprised by the number that were out-spoken. There was especially one student who seemed to give his own speech in railing against the state for I think the detention of two journalists recently before asking his question. The problem of listening to conversations in Arabic is that I understand the main point but don’t often pick up on the details.
It was certainly an interesting session and an illustration of the main tension in the Middle East, tradition versus modernity which in this case was played out by the actors of Islam and liberalism.
There were a few questions to Tabtabaie about why women shouldn’t be playing football by some of the AUK female players as he is against that. It came to the point where he said that his reasoning was because women’s uniforms was too light, meaning that it was too revealing, and that that was simply his opinion.
But the most interesting scene was at the end when the organizer of the session shared that her favorite section of the constitution was freedom of thought or belief at which one point someone commented how can that be when the parliament wants to limit people's freedom, with the example given of Tabtabaie’s opinion that women playing football is immoral. Then Tabtabaie asked for the constitution, turn a few pages and read the section that stated that the state of Kuwait is based on Islam and Sharia which he explained meant freedom of thought was bound within that stricture. It was a nice encapsulation of the tension in Kuwaiti and Arab society between tradition and progress, religion and modernity.