KUWAIT CITY // When two questions were put to students in a high school religious education exam before their summer break, they posed questions that reverberate far beyond Kuwait's classrooms. Some parents say the questions, which are based on the school curriculum, could sow sectarian discord and threaten national unity because they are offensive to the country's Shiite minority. "The questions will hurt my daughter's feelings and create tension with her Sunni classmates," said the Shiite father of a Grade 9 student at Al Fareyah Bint Malik Girls School, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue. "There will be friction and embarrassment in the class, and it will lead to fights.
"My daughter may be young, but she understood what the questions were getting at. The curriculum is made to suit the Wahhabis' beliefs and no one else's," the father said. Wahhabism is a conservative sect of Sunni Islam based in Saudi Arabia; some Kuwaitis use the term to describe local Islamists who call themselves Salafis. The contentious questions relate to two issues: visiting graves to solicit help from the deceased, and offending the companions of the Prophet Mohammed.
Shiites, who can perform Dua - prayers of supplication at graveyards - and who differ from Sunnis in their view of some of the Prophet's companions, believe the questions are an attempt to alienate their sect. The ministry of education has responded to Shiite concerns by forming a committee to look at the possibility of changing the curricula, but many feel it lacks the will for reform. A source at the ministry admitted: "There is a big disagreement within the ministry about what to do next."
The divisive nature of the issue was laid bare in parliament last month when a furious row between Sunni and Shiite MPs led to adjournment of a session. "The differences between the Shiites and the Sunnis are supposed to be discussed between the scholars," said Sheikh Yacob Mullayousef, 43, a teacher at Hozeh Al Rasoul Al Athim, one of two Shia seminaries in the country. Sheikh Mullayousef, who wears the white turban and loose black robe of a Shia cleric, said he studied in Iran for five years because Kuwait lacks an institute for advanced Shia studies. He returned home to teach 10 years ago.
Other clerics at the seminary have studied only in Kuwait. The manager, Sheikh Rjab Hassan, 50, has used the facilities since 1979. He said around 35 students learn how to recite the Quran in the school, which was built 40 years ago. He remembers a time when there were more than 100 students "but we don't have many teachers now, you have to go to Qom or Najaf". Sheikh Mullayousef spoke candidly about the exam questions in one of the seminary's classrooms, saying, "If I don't agree with you, that's fine. You have your idea, your beliefs, and I have my beliefs.
But when it comes to the point that if I don't believe in you, I have to attack you, then there is a problem." There are no official figures detailing the size of Kuwait's different religious groups, but he estimates that Shiites make up 30 per cent of the population. Sunni Islamists have held seminars, threatening to oust the education minister, Moudhi al Humoud, if she allows changes to the curriculum.
Two weeks ago, 14 Islamists from across Kuwait's political spectrum visited the prime minister to express their opposal to the committee. Abdullatif al Ameeri, a former member of parliament for the Islamic Salafi Alliance, said the curriculum must be in accordance with the laws of the country. It is illegal to insult the companions of the Prophet in Kuwait, he added. "If something opposes the Quran and Sunnah, then it is wrong. We don't consider how many people follow these rituals."
The Salafi politician said Shiites "exaggerate their numbers" in Kuwait and make up only between 15 per cent and 18 per cent of the population. Sheikh al Mullayousef, who believes tension between Sunnis and Shiites has increased in Kuwait because of the explosion of sectarian violence that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq, said: "This is a bad time for Shiites in Kuwait." He said Shiites do not have the same employment opportunities as Sunnis and struggle to get permission to build mosques or secure licences for prayer rooms. But Mr al Ameeri said the fact that Shiites hold top jobs, including embassies postings and seats in parliament and the cabinet, was proof that there is no discrimination.
He said Shiites also have hundreds of unlicenced prayer rooms - known as Husseiniyas - to worship in, and are free to use Sunni mosques, as they do in Mecca. He said he believes Iran is using its influence over some of the country's Shiites to undermine Kuwait. "Some of them are trying to say they are treated unfairly, but there is no evidence of this," he said. Sheikh Mullayousef said the government has treated all of Kuwait's religious sects fairly "because if you live at home, you don't want to make fights between your kids - so you have a good place to sit and relax. The government should take more action to enforce the law."