Kuwait

Last Updated 26 August 2020

Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliamentary system. When taken in comparison with other countries in its region, Kuwait generally ranks well in terms of civil liberties, press freedom and judicial independence. Nevertheless, the past few years have seen a notable crack-down on freedom of expression in the country. Kuwait is a member of the League of Arab States (LAS), as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Rating: Grave Violations
This country is found to be declining due to recent prosecutions for “blasphemy” and a general deterioration of freedom of expression post-Arab Spring.

 
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The Constitution establishes Islam as the state religion, and whilst the constitution provides for “absolute freedom” of belief, other constitutional provisions, laws, and policies restrict religious freedom. Sharia is a primary source of legislation (Article 2), and personal status law is administered by Religious courts.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religious practice, nevertheless it specifies that such practice must not contravene public order or morals and must work in accordance with established customs (Article 35). The government does not recognize Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh groups which are not included in the Islamic principle of Abrahamic faiths (ahl al-kitab: Muslims, Jews, Christians). It also denied the recognition of several Christian groups. The recognition by the state often take years for approval and is not transparent. The authorities further detain individuals for practising black magic or sorcery, which is considered inconsistent with Islamic law.

In general, the import of alcohol and pork products is prohibited. The media sometimes includes anti-Semitic commentary or images.

The government exercizes direct control over Sunni religious institutions. It appoints Sunni imams, pays their salaries and finances the construction of Sunni mosques. Friday sermons are monitored and the government prohibits political issues being discussed in them.1https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/kuwait/

Kuwaiti law does not specifically prohibit proselytism, but individuals may be prosecuted under laws criminalizing contempt of religion.2https://kw.usembassy.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/157/KUWAIT-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT-ENG-20190621.pdf Nevertheless, the government provides financial support to Sunni Muslims who proselytize foreign residents.

Between sunrise and sunset during the period of Ramadan, eating, drinking, and smoking within the public arena are banned for all people in Kuwait, regardless of their beliefs and nationalities. Penalties for such behaviours include a month’s imprisonment. In 2014 the authorities arrested 19 people for eating in public, including American and Dutch citizens. A Lebanese expat was charged for smoking.3https://www.arabianbusiness.com/19-people-arrested-for-eating-in-public-during-ramadan-557401.html

Education and children’s rights

Islamic religious instruction, largely based on the teachings of Sunni Islam, is compulsory in all public schools for all students and in those private schools that have one or more Muslim students. Non-Muslim students are not required to attend these classes, and no adverse consequences have been reported for not attending.The religious organized education of other faiths is prohibited in public high schools, but practiced privately at homes.

Books containing reference to the Holocaust or Israel are banned and foreign schools are not allowed to teach comparative religion. Schools are required to teach and celebrate only Muslim holidays.

Family, community and society

Demography

Approximately 70% of citizens, including the ruling family, adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam, whilst Shiite Muslims make up around a third of the population. Whilst some areas have relatively high concentrations of either Sunnis or Shia, most areas are religiously well integrated. The past couple of years have seen an increase in the reports of harassment of Shiite Muslims by Kuwaiti Salafis and Sunni Islamists. There are also small numbers of other religious citizens, such as Christians and Baha’is. Out of the 3.8 million people living in Kuwait, only 1.2 million are citizens. The ethnic minority group of Bidun is denied citizenship and over 100’000 Bidun residents remain stateless in Kuwait.

Migrant workers in Kuwait constitute up to two-thirds of the population in Kuwait, but do not have adequate legal protections, and remain vulnerable to abuse, forced labor, and arbitrary deportation. Under the kafala system (which also exists in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Lebanon) migrant domestic workers’ visas are tied to their employers, such that they cannot leave jobs without their employers’ consent.4https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/kuwait The International Labour Organisation has likened the kafala system to a “contemporary form of slavery”.5https://www.ilo.org/dyn/migpractice/docs/132/PB2.pdf The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation for Kuwait’s migrant workers, many of whom live in overcrowded facilities without access to adequate health care.6https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2020/04/covid19-makes-gulf-countries-abuse-of-migrant-workers-impossible-to-ignore/

Islamic Law

The Kuwaiti civil code is based on Egyptian Civil law, Islamic Sunni law and customary law and stipulates that in the absence of any legal disposition, the judge has to refer to the principles of Islamic law. It is mainly in the family code that such legal dispositions are missing and therefore, Islamic law is applied. Shiite citizens may apply Shiite family laws, although a lack of qualified Shiite imams is reported. The government does not allow the establishment of non-Sunni religious training institutions, therefore Shiite imams have to be educated abroad.

In 2007 the minister of education Nouriya Al-Subeeh refused to wear a Hijab in the Parliament, which opened a heated discussion about Islamic dress codes.

Discrimination against women

Women face discrimination in law and practice. There are no laws against domestic violence or marital rape. According to the law a male citizen of any religion transmits citizenship to their children. A Kuwaiti woman requires the permission of her father to marry and by law a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim man, whereas a Muslim man is allowed to marry a Muslim, Jewish or Christian woman. The children have to be brought up in their father’s faith and Islamic law is applied in marital disputes.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of Assembly

Since the events of the Arab Spring throughout the Arab world, Kuwait has been cracking down on online media freedoms. Under the far-reaching Cybercrime Law passed in 2015, which imposes prison sentences and fines for insulting religion and religious figures, and for criticizing the emir over the Internet, the authorities have detained and prosecuted government critics and activists.7https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/07/22/kuwait-cybercrime-law-blow-free-speech

Freedom of assembly and association is guaranteed by law, but these rights are restricted in practice. Kuwaitis must notify authorities of a public meeting or protest, but do not need a permit. In July 2019, authorities cracked down on peaceful protests calling for rights of the Bidun to be respected after the death of Ayed Hamad Moudath, a 20-year old Bidun man who committed suicide after being denied citizenship. Fifteen Bidun men were arrested during the protest and charged with spurious offences including spreading fake news, harming allied countries, calling for and participating in protests.8https://www.ecdhr.org/?p=443 While 12 of the men were released on a pledge of good conduct, prison sentences between life and 10 years in prison were handed to three of the men in January 2020.9https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/01/kuwait-heavy-prison-sentences-of-activists-demanding-rights-of-citizenship/

Blasphemy

There are several laws against blasphemy which the government actively enforces, even where the statement being made is seemingly benign (see Highlighted cases below).

Article 111 of the Penal Code states:

“Whoever [broadcasts or communicates] views including ridicule, contempt, or belittlement of religion or religious doctrine — whether it is to challenge beliefs, practices, rituals, or teachings — is punished with imprisonment for a period of time not exceeding 1 year, and a fine not exceeding 1000 dinars, or either of these two punishments.”10http://www.gcc-legal.org/LawAsPDF.aspx?opt&country=1&LawID=4204 (in Arabic)

Kuwait’s 2006 Press and Publications Law prohibits the publication of any material that attacks religions or incites persons to commit crimes, create hatred, or spread dissension. This has been used in practice to prosecute and imprison individuals for criticizing religion.11https://menarights.org/sites/default/files/2019-01/KWT_PressAndPublicationsLaw_EN.pdf The publishing or broadcasting of content, including via social media, that could be perceived as offensive to religious groups is criminalised by the National Unity Law ratified by Parliament in January 2012. The punishment includes up to one year of prison and/or a fine of 1000 dinars. Non-citizens convicted under blasphemy laws are also subject to deportation (the Law of Nationality (15/1959) allows the government to strip Kuwaiti citizens of their nationality and to deport them under certain circumstances, if the person undermines the country’s well being).

Kuwait’s 2015 Cybercrime law12https://www.e.gov.kw/sites/kgoenglish/Forms/CAITLawNo.63of2015oncombatingInformationTechnologyCrimes.pdf (in Arabic) expands the scope of the Printing and Publishing Law of 2006 by applying it to Internet-based media publications. Article 6 imposes penalties of up to a year in prison and a 20,000 KD fine (USD $66,208) for defaming, slandering, mocking, or meddling with “God, the Holy Quran, Prophets, the Noble Companions of Prophet Muhammad, Wives of the Prophet […], or persons who are part of the Prophet’s family” by use of an “information network” or “an information technology.” Article 7 pledges up to 10 years in prison for offenses including “the publication of incitement to overthrow the regime in the country.” While in theory this is a counterterrorism measure, it could be used against human rights defenders calling for political reform.13https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/07/22/kuwait-cybercrime-law-blow-free-speech According to one source, there are at least 42 individuals currently in prison in Kuwait for various offences under the Cybercrime law stemming from posts made on Twitter.14https://menafn.com/1099538683/Kuwait-Cybercrime-law-sword-brandished-on-neck-of-bloggers-and-golden-egg-hen-for-lawyers

In 2013, Kuwait’s Council of Ministers rejected amendments by the country’s parliament to make blasphemy a capital crime.

Apostasy

There is no explicit prohibition of apostasy, however, there is high societal pressure against conversion from Islam and apostates can lose certain rights, like the right to inherit property from Muslim relatives.15https://humanists.international/get-involved/resources/the-right-to-apostasy-in-the-world/ Moreover, the government does not issue documents stating a change in religion or belief, unless the person has converted to Islam, making apostasy de facto illegal. An apostate can be denied custody of his/her children and a court can declare an apostate’s marriage as void and strip them of their nationality.

Highlighted cases

The summer of 2014 saw the release of Abdul Aziz Mohamed El Baz (also known as Ben Baz Aziz), a twenty-eight-year-old Egyptian secularist and supporter of LGBT minorities and atheists who had been jailed on blasphemy charges in Kuwait. In February 2013, his employer reported him as a blasphemer after seeing his online writings on religion and secularism, and he was found guilty of “contempt of religions and attempting to spread atheism” and sentenced to one year in jail plus forced labour, a fine, and deportation to Egypt.

Of his atheist identity, Aziz says:

“It’s hard to say that you are an atheist, but it’s harder to criticize religion. I don’t hide my atheism—everyone around me knows about it […] I usually say I’m a skeptic in the beginning, but then I declare that I’m an atheist when I’m sure they’re not going to harm me. One day, I was wrong in my certainty—when I was reported to the police by someone at work.”16thehumanist.com/features/interviews/an-atheist-in-kuwait-interview-with-benbaz-aziz-part-1

In August 2014, human rights activist and satirist, Abo Asam, was arrested and detained by police because one of his tweets was deemed to be “in contempt of religion”. His tweet had accused the Jamiya, from the Islamic Salafi sect of blindly following their religious leader, Hamad al-Uthman. The authorities considered the tweet offensive enough to warrant his arrest.

In April 2016, Kuwaiti academic Sheikha al-Jassem was charged with blasphemy after giving a TV interview in which she asserted that the Constitution of Kuwait should be above the Quran and Islamic law in governing the country. The public prosecutor told her that the person bringing the complaint alleged that he had been “psychologically damaged” by her remarks.

In August 2019, Iranian blogger Shahab Murtadha Ghafouri was arrested over allegations of “insulting God” in a comedy sketch he posted online.The video shows Ghafouri telling a sick hospital patient: “If you go to paradise, tell God to let me enter too.”17https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/case-history-shaikha-binjasim It is unclear whether the investigation against Ghafouri was eventually dropped.    

Testimonies

“I “partially” came out, most of my family members know, some of my colleagues know, and I sometimes just casually say “I’m atheist” to strangers who work at shops. It did have negative AND positive consequences, it was really bad with my family when they found out. It was very hard on my father especially, you see I’m from a religious Shi’ite family, my dad spends lots of his time with clerics and his religion is his pride. I used to pray since I was 6, and wore the Hijab when I was 9 years old, so it was shocking for him, he didn’t really speak with me for 2 years, my aunts didn’t want their daughters to talk to me, my best friend -then of course- told me that our friendship shames her before her Allah, I was sort of an outcast then.

Now it went back to normal between me and my family, they hope I will someday return to Islam. The colleagues that know about my atheism don’t really talk about it, I think they actually like me, they can see that an atheist doesn’t necessarily have horns and a tail. Also a big positive point! I have encouraged some people to ask questions and some people are now atheists because of me.

However, my family’s “hesitant” acceptance comes with a price, I still wear the Hijab, even though I despise nothing more. Also, being openly apostate isn’t a good idea probably, you see when you’re openly an “apostate” and you wanted to get married you simply can’t, the law forbids you even if your partner is an apostate or a non-Muslim to begin with.”

— M.

References   [ + ]

1. https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/kuwait/
2. https://kw.usembassy.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/157/KUWAIT-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT-ENG-20190621.pdf
3. https://www.arabianbusiness.com/19-people-arrested-for-eating-in-public-during-ramadan-557401.html
4. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/kuwait
5. https://www.ilo.org/dyn/migpractice/docs/132/PB2.pdf
6. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2020/04/covid19-makes-gulf-countries-abuse-of-migrant-workers-impossible-to-ignore/
7, 13. https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/07/22/kuwait-cybercrime-law-blow-free-speech
8. https://www.ecdhr.org/?p=443
9. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/01/kuwait-heavy-prison-sentences-of-activists-demanding-rights-of-citizenship/
10. http://www.gcc-legal.org/LawAsPDF.aspx?opt&country=1&LawID=4204 (in Arabic)
11. https://menarights.org/sites/default/files/2019-01/KWT_PressAndPublicationsLaw_EN.pdf
12. https://www.e.gov.kw/sites/kgoenglish/Forms/CAITLawNo.63of2015oncombatingInformationTechnologyCrimes.pdf (in Arabic)
14. https://menafn.com/1099538683/Kuwait-Cybercrime-law-sword-brandished-on-neck-of-bloggers-and-golden-egg-hen-for-lawyers
15. https://humanists.international/get-involved/resources/the-right-to-apostasy-in-the-world/
16. thehumanist.com/features/interviews/an-atheist-in-kuwait-interview-with-benbaz-aziz-part-1
17. https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/case-history-shaikha-binjasim

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