The Rise of the Islamic Constitutional Movement in Kuwait

Yuree Noh, University of California, Los Angeles

In a country characterized by the ban on political parties and the weakness of civil society, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) – the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Kuwait – has successfully established itself as one of the most influential political players. Officially formed in 1991, the ICM has operated since the 1950s as social organizations under various names. For consistency, I refer to the group as the ICM or the Muslim Brotherhood throughout this memo. The group has invested extensively in activities at the grassroots level to increase its influence in society through its social arm, the Social Reform Society (SRS). It was this social weight that helped the ICM enter parliament, form a sizable coalition with its allies, and influence the lawmaking process.

Its far-reaching social influences parallel that of Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Palestine. However, the presence of such an extensive social services network in Kuwait is puzzling because the success of Hamas and Hezbollah is often attributed to the ineffective governance in poor regions, as explored by Zeidan in this collection. Unlike its counterparts in southern Lebanon or the Gaza Strip, the government of Kuwait distributes generous welfare packages for all of its citizens. Additionally, the Kuwaiti society is characterized by strong family ties and tribal links that, in theory, should minimize the need for a social organization. This memo attempts to address this puzzle by first examining the social activities of the Brotherhood and second highlighting how its social influences helped the group expand its base of support to Kuwait’s tribal population. While Brotherhood affiliates elsewhere in the region have struggled to broaden beyond urban appeal, the ICM has uniquely been able to engage populations outside the capital city. How can this case nuance our understanding of the limitations and opportunities of Islamist actors?

Social activities

In the 1970s, the Middle East witnessed the retreat of liberal, leftist forces in favor of Islamist movements. In additional to the regional trend, the decline of the liberal opposition in Kuwait was also attributed to its failure to penetrate the social life as comprehensively as Islamist groups like the Brotherhood did. From the beginning, the MB leadership had invested much of its resources to recruit Kuwaitis through social activities related to the press, sports, and charity. The organization also publishes various brochures, pamphlets, videos, and magazines such as Majallat al-Haraka (Movement Journal) and Majallat al-Mujtama’ (Society Journal).

In particular, the ICM has invested heavily in targeting the youth and students. A liberal activist once told me that she, along with many of her friends, used to be part of a youth choir group sponsored by the Brotherhood. She added that they were not aware of the group’s ideologies until they were older. The organization’s targeting of young Kuwaitis was often facilitated through educational centers and groups it had founded, such as Marakiz al-Shabab and Markaz al-Muruj for young men and young women, respectively. The Brotherhood also sponsored numerous educational institutions ranging from Quranic centers to Madrasat al-Irshad al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Guidance School). These centers quickly flourished; the first Quranic center opened in 1968 with just 88 students and by 1990, there were some 400 such centers with more than 80,000 students (Al-‘Atiqi 2006).

Moreover, the ICM gained control of the National Union of Kuwait Students (NUKS) in Kuwait as well as the union’s international branches in Egypt, the US, and the UK. Winning the NUKS elections was crucial, because the union wielded extensive influence in student life. For instance, in 1981, the Brotherhood was able to amend the union’s constitution to reflect Islamist ideologies by adding phrases such as: “the role of the Union in securing a better future [for Kuwait] on the bases of Islamic principles.” Such efforts to expand its authorities in the educational sphere reflected the Brotherhood belief that education played a key role in reforming the society as a whole.

The Brotherhood also took over many social clubs and dominated professional groups like the Teachers’ Association. Moreover, MB members allegedly gained control over important charity groups like the Zakat (almsgiving) Committee and the Sheikh Abdullah Al-Nouri Charity Society. The charitable activities were geared towards sponsoring religious activities since Kuwait was already a wealthy nation. For instance, the charity works included supporting religious classes at mosques and funding hajj trips. More importantly, the charitable societies opened their accounts and deposited millions of dollars worth of funding at the Kuwaiti Finance House (KFH), an Islamic bank at which Brotherhood members occupied important advisory board positions (Alkandari 2014).

To facilitate its social efforts, the group has systematically divided Kuwait City into different administrative areas and created separate sections for different types of activities within each area (al-Mdaires 2010). The ICM also incorporates a lengthy process of ideological and organizational trainings for its members to establish order and solidify collective goals; as a result, the group produces a “cohesive generation” of future members (Alkandari 2014).

The Brotherhood’s extensive social contributions and organizational capacities have gradually translated into its political activities. Although the organization officially advocated for no interference in the political spheres (Al-Shirbasi 1953), like many other Islamist organizations, it had spread its political rhetoric long before it officially established its political wing in 1991. The ICM’s exceptional political presence – as opposed to the diminishing role of its secular rivals – was partially a result of its efforts directed towards grassroots activities that begin with the youth. “We are all friends. We have known each other forever,” said a member of the ICM when I asked him how the group had reached such a high level of organization with systematic goals. He suggested that the personal associations cultivated at young ages had led to effective working relationships between ICM members. Unlike other political groups that currently suffer from internal conflicts and the lack of unified objectives, years of social interaction have not only strengthened the cohesiveness of ICM affiliates but also have solidified the group’s direction.

Appealing to tribal grievances

The Kuwaiti urban, merchant class historically dwelled within the boundaries of the capital, Kuwait City, whereas the Bedouins or the tribes had largely existed in areas outside the city in accordance with a nomadic lifestyle. The discovery of oil in 1938 brought significant changes to both communities.

The Brotherhood recruited heavily from universities and initially drew much of its support from the educated middle class, similarly to Islamist groups in France (see Dazey in this collection) and Egypt (see Brooke and Ketchley in this collection). However, the group has gradually appealed to more voters outside the central, urban Kuwait, through its social activities. While this was in part due to the Kuwaiti ruling family’s decision to support the Islamists in order to counterbalance the liberal opposition, the Brotherhood was also able to exploit the economic grievances of the traditionally marginalized Bedouin population. The tribal members felt that the urban merchant class took advantage of most of the economic privileges arising from the oil wealth. The discovery of oil had created new economic elites who had gained tremendous wealth by winning government contracts and forging economic ties with the ruling family.

Furthermore, the socially conservative stance of the ICM proved to be popular in the areas dominated by tribal identities. In response to the rapidly Westernizing urban lifestyle, many tribal members felt threatened by the perceived disappearance of conservative values. The Brotherhood appealed to such anxiety, forging stronger ties with the tribal population to win their support. Along with the “desertization” of politics – enfranchisement of the tribal population (Ghabra 1997), Kuwait witnessed the decline of liberal values in both the social and the political fronts.

By 1980s, the Islamist and secular movements in Kuwait were deeply divided on social issues. The electoral success of the Islamist-tribal alliance further created visible legislative battles. The Brotherhood, in alliance with Salafi groups, attempted to amend Article II of the Constitution so that the Shari’a law would be the primary of legislation. It also demanded restriction of Kuwaiti citizenship to Muslims though it was also unsuccessful. Although the Islamist-secular division does not describe the Kuwaiti society today as a whole, this division remains stark to this day.

Conclusion: Future prospects

While the ICM is endowed with extensive social networks and visible political representation in the National Assembly, the group is restrained by the political institutions controlled by the regime. In particular, due to the current electoral system (single non-transferable vote or SNTV) and the restriction on political parties, it is unlikely that the group alone will win the majority of the seats as its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia had once achieved.

It is noteworthy that the working relationship between the ruling family and the Kuwaiti MB has transformed significantly in recent years, as the ICM became part of the broader opposition bloc. However, the group has been unwilling to promote regime change and to directly challenge the ruling family’s right to rule. Rather, the ICM has largely operated within the existing political institutions that bolster the legitimacy of the ruling regime. In November 2016, the ICM lifted its boycott and returned to participate in the legislative elections. Not only had they contributed to the Kuwaiti society as mentioned in this memo, but it also understood that the “democratic” system set up by the authorities was a vital mechanism through which it will achieve its Islamist goals (Brown 2007). In response, the Kuwaiti authorities have largely let the organization operate freely. This shows that the ruling family does not view the MB as an existential threat as did many other Arab regimes. Rather, the monarchy has benefited from incorporating groups like the ICM as part of the “divide-and-conquer” strategy. The working relationship between the Islamists and the ruling family in Kuwait contrasts sharply with that in Morocco, as analyzed by Abouzzohour. Unlike the Moroccan ruling family that has chosen to back the same “pro-regime” parties, the Kuwaiti authorities have not consistently favored one side.

In the face of the fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the emergence of the Islamic State, the ICM has put aside their Islamist agendas and worked more closely with non-Islamist groups. Instead of its traditional objectives – such as amending Article II of the Constitution – the group has shifted its advocacy toward more broad reforms targeted at the masses. In 2015, ICM member Mubarak al-Duwailah published on the ICM website that the ICM is setting aside “traditional differences” with other groups for further reforms. This was surprising because cooperation between Brotherhood affiliates and non-Brotherhood groups is increasingly uncommon in other Arab countries. If the ICM truly strives to bring about broader political changes, its presence in the social domain will become even more relevant.


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