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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Sectarian divides from Syria extend their reach

The tensions in Kuwait mirror, in a diluted form, the full-blown sectarian struggle unfolding in Syria, prompting warnings that the conflict could 'reawaken radicals'. Elizabeth Dickinson reports
The Khaled bin Walid mosque, whose mausoleum has been partially destroyed by Syrian army shelling, in the Al Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs.
The Khaled bin Walid mosque, whose mausoleum has been partially destroyed by Syrian army shelling, in the Al Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs.

KUWAIT CITY // It was about the time summer temperatures started to soar that the startling video began circulating among Shiites in Kuwait.

The grainy YouTube clip showed a Sunni cleric addressing a rally at the Lebanese embassy in Kuwait.

At first the man angrily condemned the involvement of Hizbollah, the Shiite movement based in Lebanon, in Syria's civil war.

Such criticism is hardly uncommon in the predominantly Sunni countries of the Arabian Gulf these days.

But the Kuwaiti cleric went further, saying he welcomed the deaths of civilians and hoped commanders of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) would set aside 10 captured Hizbollah fighters for him so he could kill them personally.

What was more alarming - at least to many Kuwaiti Muslims - was the identity of the cleric, which became clear as the one-minute clip, repackaged with warnings about the threat posed by Shiites everywhere, made its way across the Kuwaiti capital.

The man quickly was recognised as Dr Shafi Al Ajmi, a professor of Sharia at Kuwait University. His ties to a state-run institution made it seem to many Kuwaitis that his views were at least tolerated, if not officially sanctioned.

Without mentioning the June 11 rally, the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, warned a week later against "sick sectarian" signs surfacing in the country.

"We will not allow our country to be a place for sectarian conflicts and settlement of sick scores nor allow discord to poison our solid community," the emir said in a televised address.

Despite the emir's admonition, sectarian tensions aggravated by the Syrian civil war appear to be deepening in Kuwait and elsewhere in the region as the conflict passes the two-and-a-half year mark and the death toll exceeds 100,000 people.

The friction is a result, perhaps inevitably, of the passions and fears aroused by a war that has seen Hizbollah and Shiite-dominated Iran close ranks behind the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad against rebels with broad public support in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the other predominantly Sunni nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

What started as peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in the southern Syrian town of Deraa has evolved into a regional clash that extremists on both sides view as an existential struggle. The tensions in Kuwait mirror, in a diluted form, the full-blown sectarian struggle unfolding in Syria in yet another sign of how the war has spilled over into its neighbours.

Dr Al Ajmi has been tireless in his efforts on behalf of Syrian rebels.

In the months leading up to the rally, he raised money for the insurgents with the promise that it would go directly to the "mujahedeen". Drop-off locations for donations, the amount of money raised and contact numbers were all posted on social media.

The emir's speech has not deterred his fund-raising efforts. Since then, donations seem to have increased, Dr Al Ajmi's Twitter feed boasting of wealthy men who have sold their cars and women who have sold their jewellery to buy weapons for the insurgents.

Dr Al Ajmi, who did not reply to repeated requests for comment, is not alone. Dozens of the former MPs — parliament was dissolved by court order in June — from Islamist or tribal backgrounds have rallied in support of the Syrian opposition, with their images appearing on fund-raising pitches.

"The situation in Syria receives support from a very large faction of the people here in Kuwait," said former parliamentary speaker Ahmed Al Sadoun. "The more active are the former MPs … it has been triggered by Hizbollah taking part."

Abdul Hameed Dashti, a Shiite and former MP, was already alarmed by Dr Al Ajmi's fund-raising for the rebels. But he was taken aback by what he said were the cleric's efforts to demonise Shiites everywhere.

"Where can you come up with this mentality? We are unlucky to be in this part of the world, we have a killer as a professor," he said, adding that he wanted "immediate action" against Mr Al Ajmi from the government.

Mr Dashti, like many in Kuwait's Shiite community, which makes up about 30 per cent of the country's native population, remain steadfast in their support for the Syrian regime.

He has extensive business interests in Syria, where he employs more than 2,000 people. He has given several interviews to local news organisations proclaiming his "love" for Mr Assad, who he saw just months ago, during his most recent visit to Damascus.

The walls of his office in Kuwait City are lined with photos testifying to his family's long relationship with Bashar Al Assad and his father, Hafez.

These far-from-hidden divisions over Mr Al Assad and Syria have altered Kuwait's electoral landscape.

Many Sunni politicians boycotted last December's election to protest against new electoral rules that left them with no seats in the new parliament. Shiites, however, contested the elections and enjoyed their biggest electoral success ever. Against the background of events in Syria, that was a result that could not be tolerated, a Kuwaiti political analyst said.

"Shiites ended up with 17 [of 50] seats, and it was too much," said the analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The Kuwaiti political stomach couldn't accept this."

After the dissolution of parliament last month, the emir began courting Kuwait's tribes in an effort to coax them back into the electoral process and redress the perceived imbalance. Fresh elections, scheduled for tomorrow, are likely to redistribute seats back to Sunni MPs.

The Kuwaiti information minister, Sheikh Salman Sabah Salem Al Sabah, said the war in Syria has cast an ever-lengthening shadow across Kuwait and the rest of the region.

The conflict will reawaken "radicals all over the Middle East and the world—it will revive them", he predicted. "We had several years where we saw the declining of [the ideologies of Ayman Al] Zawahiri and Al Qaeda and sectarian groups. Now, [with the conflict] you are fuelling them."

Sheikh Salman expressed confidence, however, that the government has the tools to combat social divisions.

"It's [about] enforcing the law, nothing else," he said. "Kuwait will deal with anyone who would try to interrupt our peace."

But to some, there are obvious gaps. Kuwait has no terror financing law, for example, crippling its ability to crack down on private funders whose money goes to extremist groups.

"There are now people who have a new culture as killers … who are openly collecting money to support the FSA, Jabhut Al Nusra, and Al Qaeda, and the Kuwait government keeps silent," Mr Dashti said.

Among Kuwaitis from both sides of the divide, there is a feeling that matters could get worse before they improve, so long as the conflict in Syria churns.

The political crisis in Cairo has compounded the jitters. After President Mohammed Morsi was deposed by Egypt's military earlier this month, Mr Al Ajmi promised on Twitter to begin supporting the Egyptian mujahedeen.

edickinson@thenational.ae

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