News / Middle East

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait Tighten Controls on Clerics

TEXT SIZE - +
Reuters
— Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been quietly reining in their clerics on concerns that preachers could use their influence to stir up trouble and inflame sectarian divisions at a time of high tension over the crises in Syria and Egypt.
 
Authorities in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and home to a powerful conservative clergy, have declined to respond to local media reports in recent months which said nearly 20 clerics had been sacked or suspended.
 
In Kuwait, which has a relatively open political system compared to other Gulf Arab states, the authorities have resumed the monitoring of sermons, pulled a television preacher off the air and deported a foreign imam.
 
The developments in the two monarchies follow the dramatic rise and fall in Egypt of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which offers a populist religious alternative to dynastic rule and has supporters in the Gulf.
 
The Egyptian army angered some influential clerics and ordinary citizens in the region in July and August when it overthrew the then president, Mohammad Morsi, a Brotherhood member who remains in prison, and clamped down on his supporters, killing hundreds of people. Both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have pledged to support the new Egyptian government.
 
“There is a more heightened sensitivity to the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and of political activity in general,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a Middle East research group.
 
Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will continue to be “fairly uncompromising of perceived Muslim Brotherhood activities and anyone perceived to be supporting them”.
 
The war in Syria is aggravating sectarian tensions across the region, with mainly Sunni rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
 
State-affiliated clerics in Saudi Arabia have denounced the Assad government and urged support for Syrians since the beginning of the conflict, and $140 million was raised in a government-organized campaign for Syrian refugees last year.
 
Some Kuwaiti clerics have been using social media to raise private donations for the rebels and a number have even helped to raise funding for arms.
 
Muslim Brotherhood
 
The Muslim Brotherhood is banned in Saudi Arabia and only  cautiously tolerated in Kuwait, where members of a local offshoot have made up significant factions in previous parliaments.
 
What worries both countries - and other Gulf monarchies - is that the Brotherhood espouses an active political doctrine that urges staunch Sunnis to agitate for change.
 
That flies in the face of traditional Gulf theology, particularly the Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, which preaches that good Muslims should obey their rulers in most circumstances.
 
Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst, said he believes many of the outspoken imams in the kingdom who worry the authorities are influenced by the Brotherhood.
 
“[The Muslim Brotherhood] allege that they do not seek power but in reality they use religion as a cover for their agenda and say that they want to serve Islam,” Dakhil said.
 
Despite the ban, Saudi Arabia has unofficially tolerated informal meetings of the Muslim Brotherhood so long as they avoid any discussion of politics.
 
But concern about the movement's influence has grown more pointed since the Saudi royal family backed Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's overthrow of Morsi in July.
 
Saudi authorities suspended a Riyadh preacher who was filmed in August attacking Sisi in a sermon that provoked a brief scuffle inside the mosque.
 
In the same month, Kuwaiti Tareq al-Suwaidan, known across the Arab world for his lectures on self-improvement, was fired from his job as a host on a Saudi television show after he identified himself as “one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood” during a lecture in Yemen.
 
The channel's owner, Saudi billionaire Prince Alaweed bin Talal, criticized him as having “extremist inclinations”.
 
“Some preachers discuss issues that have nothing to do with their country, but rather harm it,” said Mohammad al-Zulfa, a former member of Saudi Arabia's Shoura Council, a quasi-parliament appointed by the king to advise on policy.
 
Kuwait

In some parts of the Gulf, weekly sermons are approved by the government in advance. In Kuwait, which boasts a relatively free forum for speech and debate, the Islamic Affairs Ministry issues sample sermons but the imams don't have to use them.
 
Khaled al-Hais, the government official in charge of overseeing mosques in the district of Hawally near the capital, said clerics were free to talk about most things as long as they don't refer to people or families or make sectarian remarks.
 
The government banned the television show of Kuwaiti Sunni Muslim cleric Shafi al-Ajmi in August after one episode on the state channel, after he voiced support for arming Syrian rebels in speeches and on social media and called for the killing of fighters linked to the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah who are fighting on Assad's side.
 
Ajmi, who has more than a quarter of a million followers on Twitter, has since been suspended from giving sermons, local media have reported.
 
The ministry sent out a missive this summer calling on clerics to concentrate on moral issues, and started recording sermons in August after a break of more than a year.
 
But while the authorities may still have leverage when it comes to sermons, controlling what people say on social media, which is ubiquitous in both countries, is a far more complicated task.
 
Saudi Arabia monitors Twitter feeds of well-known preachers and Kuwaiti clerics who do not conform to guidelines can risk suspension while foreign clerics can be deported.
 
Authorities maintain their efforts to manage the message on social media are only aimed at ensuring “consistency” to avoid confusion.
 
“Preaching should be consistent. One cannot hold one view on the mosque's podium and then contradict it on [social media] sites,” Abdul Muhsen al-Sheik, undersecretary in the Islamic Affairs Ministry, told pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat in September.
 
Hais, the Kuwaiti religious official, said: “Everyone has the freedom to use Twitter and Facebook but we watch what they write, to see if it is similar to what they say [in the mosque].”
 
Saudi cleric Abdulaziz al-Qassem, a lawyer who supports limited reforms in Saudi Arabia, said it was unlikely that the government would go so far as to insist that imams only deliver government-approved sermons.
 
With tens of thousands of mosques in Saudi Arabia, and the clergy's independence and power so strong, such a scenario was not only unlikely but probably impossible to implement.
 
“The country is barely able to manage the economy and the rule of law,” he said. But he added:
 
“Preachers are taking part in partisan and factional battles and leaving aside the role of the mosque as a podium for preaching... Mosques have been abducted.”

You May Like

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid