Not so merry: Kuwait MPs demand removal of Christmas festive displays 'to protect Islamic identity'
With the Christmas season well underway, festive decorations are once again causing a stir in Kuwait, in particular the giant, bauble-decked Christmas trees which have been put up in shopping centres and public spaces. Some support the sparkling decorations, while others oppose them, claiming they are incompatible with Kuwait’s religion, customs and traditions.
The arguments over Christmas trees started early this year, after the management committee of Avenues Mall, one of the biggest shopping centres in the country, decided to remove a huge Christmas tree that had been put up inside the mall after citizens complained to the Kuwait Municipality about it.
Civil society activists described the decision as "reactionary, and indicative of the attempt of ultra-religious and conservative groups to ban any manifestation of celebrations which they don’t see as in line with their beliefs".
Proponents slam 'ignorance and bigotry'
Dr Sheikha al-Jassem, a philosophy professor at Kuwait University, said to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab’s Arabic-language sister publication: "These arguments have erupted once again, and the fact that the government is bending under the pressure of these groups regarding Christmas trees shows that we are still very much hostage to these (conservative) blocs, while the rest of the Gulf countries are becoming more progressive around us."
"Festive decorations are once again causing a stir in Kuwait, in particular the giant, bauble-decked Christmas trees which have been put up in shopping centres and public spaces. Some support the sparkling decorations, while others oppose them, claiming they are incompatible with Kuwait's religion, customs and traditions"
Writer and activist Ahmad al-Sarraf commented: "Myself and other Kuwaiti writers have got used to sending our best wishes to our Christian brothers every Christmas, in our newspaper articles and elsewhere, even though we always receive a flood of insults and abuse from the ultra-religious and those that follow them. However, matters have reached an unacceptable point now with the demand that all signs of Christian celebration should be removed from Kuwait."
Activist Aljazi al-Sanafi considers it "sad that Christmas trees are being removed from public spaces in a society that claims to respect others' beliefs. Kuwaiti Christian families and other Christian communities have lived among us for centuries, and it is their right to celebrate. We should take part in their celebrations as they do in ours. Taking away the trees is a result of ignorance and bigotry."
In 2016, ex-MPs Ahmed Nabil Al-Fadel and Khaled al-Shatti proposed a motion in parliament that an official holiday should be granted for Christmas and that a giant Christmas tree should be put up in Kuwait City. This was in protest at Islamist MPs who had put pressure on shopping malls to remove Christmas trees.
Al-Fadel said: "There are Christians in Kuwait, and no one has the right to dismiss their beliefs and religious festivals, and my proposal was an unequivocal message of protest against what is happening".
Opponents say no to 'importing pagan customs'
However, large sections of the Islamist bloc continue to vehemently oppose the appearance of any celebratory or festive Christmas decorations in Kuwait. Independent, Salafist MP Fayez Ghannam publicly posted the following message: "Kuwait is a Muslim country, and we have a duty to protect its religion and identity which are in conflict with the celebration of Jewish and Christian festivals. Therefore, we refuse to allow celebrations and symbols which violate Sharia law and we demand that governmental bodies take measures to preserve our Islamic identity."
Another Salafist, former MP, Mohammad Haif, says: "Christmas celebrations and the attendant decorations are incompatible with the culture, religion and beliefs of the Kuwaiti people, and import pagan customs which have infiltrated Christianity as a religion. When we were in parliament, we challenged anything which transgressed Sharia law and we pressured different ministries such as the Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Municipal Affairs to remove these un-Islamic displays, and to prevent non-Islamic celebrations."
"(It is) sad that Christmas trees are being removed from public spaces in a society that claims to respect others' beliefs. Kuwaiti Christian families and other Christian communities have lived among us for centuries, and it is their right to celebrate"
Various representatives of the Islamist blocs in Kuwait have frequently suggested the banning of Christmas celebrations as well as all other non-Islamic celebrations, going so far as to call for punitive measures against those celebrating. Hamoud Al-Hamdan is one such former MP who also belongs to the Salafist bloc and who called for these measures via a petition presented to parliament in 2013.
Government unwilling to anger Islamist bloc
Even though the government has not engaged seriously with these more extreme demands, it has succumbed to pressure by Islamist MPs to remove Christmas decorations by negotiating agreements with them and the forces backing them in order to avoid sparking political crises with parliament.
Christians in Kuwait, of whom immigrants make up the vast majority, hold yearly celebrations in their churches and hang up Christmas decorations in their windows and doorways without facing any government harassment. However, local authorities will always interfere if festive displays are hung up in shops.
Pastor Emmanuel Gharib of the National Evangelical Church in Kuwait is not downcast. He says: "Every year we freely celebrate Christmas in our churches, and senior and notable figures from the community send us their warm wishes and felicitations. Moreover, before the Covid pandemic, we used to receive well-wishers in the church, most of whom were Muslims and who included politicians, media professionals, artists and others. We are an integral part of Kuwaiti society."
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.
Translated by Rose Chacko