KUWAIT CITY // Kuwait's Shiite MPs are pushing for changes to public schools' Islamic studies syllabus to remove references that they say criticise their religion. Many see the move as an assertion of their new strength in parliament. Liberal MPs, who also made gains in this year's election, have sided with the Shiites against Sunni Islamist MPs, particularly the Islamic Salafi Alliance, who want the curriculum to remain as it is.
The argument broke out after the minister of education, Moudhi al Humoud, presented the possibility of changes last month. "The minister of education stated that she doesn't want anything in the curricula that offends any sect," said Abdulghani Albazzaz, the head of the English department at the College of Basic Education, a public school where most of the 9,500 students are girls who wear the niqab. "Some people were not quite sure of what she meant. She didn't suggest changes, she suggested looking into the issue to find out whether or not there is actually something that offends certain people," Mr Albazzaz said.
He said there had been talk of changing the syllabus, but the involvement of politicians raised the possibility of a "sort of religious conflict". Shiites are unhappy with sections of the Islamic studies syllabus that criticises those who worship at graveyards. Many Shiites allow practices in cemeteries that are forbidden by some Sunni branches of the Islamic faith. One liberal MP, Aseel al Awadhi, said, according to the Al Watan newspaper, that "the school curricula in general and the religious studies curricula in particular are in dire need of serious amendments." She said the syllabus must be aimed at "promoting religious moderation and tolerance".
The argument over the future syllabus died down after the ministry of education issued a statement calling for no interference in an educational issue two weeks ago. The lull coincides with a period when many politicians leave Kuwait on their summer break. "It is a very simple correction, just a couple of sentences," said Naser Safar, a Kuwaiti Shiite who comes from a family with members of both main Muslim communities. "All of the members of parliament are trying to make this a dangerous issue.
"But most of the Shiites don't think it's a big deal," he said. "If my son heard anything that contradicts the Shiite faith in school, afterward I can tell him not to take it seriously. He will believe his father." Mr Safar said there was "absolutely no discrimination" in Kuwait. "We have important businessmen, businesses and members of parliament, which is amazing - we have all our rights." Many Kuwaitis believe Shiite MPs are making their presence felt in parliament after a successful election this year when they won nine of its 50 seats, a significant increase on the five they held previously. Some Islamist MPs believe a Shiite-liberal alliance is now co-ordinating with the government to take control of the assembly.
In contrast, the Sunni Islamists' presence in parliament was weakened in May's election. Their two main parties lost four seats and now hold just three. Other independent Sunni Islamists also lost votes. "The Shiites are using their extra strength, for sure," said Salem al Nashi, a spokesman for the Islamic Salafi Alliance who is a director at the Public Authority for Education and Training. "This is politics."
Mr al Nashi, a cheerful Kuwaiti who wears the Salafi long beard, explained his group's objection to changing the curriculum. He said people were allowed to visit graves in his religion, but they were not permitted to asked anything from the dead, like some Shiite women, who ask for children. "It's not forbidden just as a mistake, it's a big thing, it's a big sin." he said. "If you want to ask something, ask from God. He is very close to you.
"We say this is white, they say this is black - against you, completely against the thing you believe in. Most of the people in Kuwait say just leave the curriculum as it is because this is our religion, you can't change it. "We are not against the Shiites in this matter but against anyone who is doing this. With Shiites, Sufi or anybody who is going to do something against Islam, it's your obligation to correct him. That doesn't mean in an aggressive way, no, but in a nice way."
Although there are no official figures, some estimates put the number of Shiites in Kuwait at around 30 per cent of the population. Even though the relationship between Sunnis and Shiites has never been as contentious as in neighbouring Saudi Arabia or Iraq, there have been some incidents in the past. The importance of religion to Kuwaitis means Islamic issues will always feature strongly in its parliament, but Mr Albazzaz, the head of the English department, who is also involved in a United Nations project to assess the school curriculum, warned that other issues must not be overlooked "not only education, but also in the health domain, and in business".
"There are many other burning issues that should receive equal, if not more, attention," he said. "Maybe Salafis are very keen on shedding more light on religious issues and other MPs also. But if they find something improper, they should address it, that's their job. "They have been elected for that purpose: to defend the rights of the people." firstname.lastname@example.org