| HELPING HAND: A Kuwaiti man helps his friend try on his gas mask in Kuwait City as warning sirens sound. (AFP)
Kuwait, April 2 (Reuters): Hatred for Saddam Hussein runs deep in Kuwait, the tiny country his troops occupied in 1990-91. But the perceived menace of the Iraqi President has helped to hold together a society sharply divided along ideological lines.
What will happen when he is no longer there'
Most Kuwaitis want to see the US-led coalition succeed in removing Saddam, but they also suspect his departure would bring to the fore divergences in their own country between powerful Islamists and Western-oriented liberals.
Since the 1990-91 crisis Muslim activists have built on their active role during Iraq’s occupation, when mosques were centres of civilian resistance and Islamists helped distribute food.
Gradually, expanding a campaign to turn the oil-producing state into a fully Islamic society, Islamists have won increased gender segregation in education, secured early retirement for women to shorten their working lives outside home, won tacit government tolerance of an expansion of private religious charities overseas and blocked a move to give women the vote.
Fundamentalists say such successes have helped counter the influence of Western culture over Kuwaitis impressed with the role the West played in liberating their country. Many Islamists fear a US victory against Iraq may boost liberal trends and jeopardise their traditional values.
“If America’s goal was only to get rid of Saddam, we would have supported it. But that’s not the case. The Americans have long-term plans. They want to flood the region with their culture and dictate to us,” said Abdullah, a Sunni Muslim activist running a charity group, one of many in Kuwait.
While the war has fanned anti-US sentiment throughout the Arab and Muslim world, young Kuwaitis from the more affluent urbanised section of the population tend to like the US and much of what it stands for. A sense of gratitude towards the US, along with a fascination among some of the young for its pop culture, has led many urbanised Kuwaitis to give whole-hearted support to the US campaign against their neighbour.
“I am so worried about America and sad to see their soldiers dying for our sake. They are like part of my family,” said Zainab, a teenage girl dressed in fashionable Western clothes.
It is unsettling to many Islamists to see some young people abandoning their culture, like the wearing by men of flowing robes and head-dresses, even if only temporarily. Kuwaiti youths’ flirtation with Western lifestyles tends to end with marriage and the acquisition of a government job.
“We are worried about liberal trends, strange lifestyles creeping on our society, like boyfriend-girlfriend relationships,” said Waleed Tabtabai, an Islamist member of the Kuwaiti Parliament.
At a shopping mall lined with American boutiques, 19-year-old Hamed and his friends walk at a close distance from several young women. They have a date but try to keep it discreet to avoid trouble with the girls’ protective parents. “We will sit together when we get to the movie theatre. There it is dark and no one can see us,” says Hamed.