For instance, are Barbie dolls with revealing clothes sanctioned by Islam? Would vacationing in the United States and Europe, where women don't have to cover up and alcohol is legal, conflict with a Muslim's faith? What about flirting on the phone or the Internet?
Al-Mathkoor, a scholar who belongs to a government-run committee that issues fatwas--nonbinding religious opinions--fields the questions on a TV program. Such shows are common in the Arab world, but religious opinion--old and new--is taking on added significance in Kuwait these days as the tiny, oil-rich emirate goes through another debate between fundamentalists who want to implement sharia, or Islamic law, and liberals who oppose it.
Liberals still fume over al-Mathkoor's opinion years ago that Barbie should be banned. "She's no innocent doll," said al-Mathkoor. "She's a mature woman who wears accessories and revealing clothes and has a boyfriend."
The debate between forces of modernization and conservatism has always existed in most of the Arab world, but it has been most vocal in Kuwait. The emirate's parliament, the only elected legislative body in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, provides a platform for both sides and is increasingly influenced by the fundamentalists, who now hold 20 of the 50 seats.
To some in Washington, the rise of fundamentalism is worrying in Kuwait, which was freed from a seven-month Iraqi occupation by U.S. forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Kuwait's constitution says Islamic sharia is a "main" source of legislation, a phrase fundamentalists for decades have been trying to change to: "Islamic sharia is the only source of legislation."
This summer, two fundamentalist legislators introduced a bill in parliament that calls on the government to revise the country's penal code to conform with sharia. That means, murderers would be beheaded, thieves would have their right hand cut off and adulterers would be stoned. Recently, an Ethiopian folk dance show was canceled after opening night because fundamentalists deemed the dancers' outfits too revealing. The fundamentalists also pressured the government not to air some Olympics competitions because they thought the female athletes dressed too scantily.
The confrontation between fundamentalists and liberals intensified after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. Liberal lawmakers accused several Kuwaiti charities of funneling part of their donations to groups like Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization and pressured the government to control the funds they raise. The fundamentalists deny the charges, and the liberals have not provided detailed evidence.
Unlike in other parts of the Middle East, Kuwait's fundamentalists do not have armed wings. The charities have helped fundamentalists increase support--and the groups are also active running summer camps, drug rehabilitation centers and sporting events in the community. "I respect the fundamentalists," said Shamlan Issa, a liberal university professor who writes some of the strongest antifundamentalist newspaper editorials. "They are organized, they help each other, and when they want to do something, they go out and do it."
The U.S. bombing in Afghanistan has been unpopular here, and there are fears it will push more people toward the fundamentalists. The rise of Kuwait's fundamentalists began in the 1960s, when Kuwait's parliament was packed with supporters of the pan-Arab nationalist movement sweeping the Arab world then.
To counter such a liberal force that mostly belonged to the country's wealthy merchant class, the ruling family began accepting as citizens the more conservative bedouins. Following the Arabs' defeat against Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, many Kuwaitis, disillusioned with the nationalist movement, turned to fundamentalism.
Liberals began seeing their opponents' influence everywhere. For instance, in the 1960s, students had one religious class a week; today they have three. Movie censors allowed kisses to be shown; today, they cut them out. Following the Persian Gulf War, many Kuwaitis showed gratitude to the United States, which led the anti-Iraq coalition, and began imitating Western dress, hairstyle and mannerism.
That has waned, with many men returning to the traditional white robe common in the Persian Gulf. Western clothes like shorts and t-shirts, common a decade ago, are all but disappeared from Kuwaiti streets. While the fundamentalists have been making headway, change has been slow. Opinions like al-Mathkoor's, while respected, have not been adopted as laws.
Dolls are still on sale in Kuwait--an Arab boyfriend and girlfriend are sold together as the "Singing, Dancing Couple," the man in a long, traditional white robe, a microphone in hand, his arm around the woman dressed in a low-cut pink dress. At the touch of a button, the woman shakes her hips to the strains of an Egyptian love song.
Al-Mathkoor says liberals' fears that conservative Islam would strip them of their modern life are unfounded. Still, he said Muslims should be careful how they use modern technology. For instance, mobile phones and the Internet are good, but when used for flirting, they become evil. As for vacationing in the West, al-Mathkoor said it's allowed as long as it's "to check out the sights and museums and not the bars and beaches."
Kuwait's liberals are not reassured by talk like al-Mathkoor's. "We won't leave them alone," said Ahmed Bishara, head of the National Democratic Movement--one of Kuwait's two liberal political parties. "Either they take us back to the 7th century or we take them to the 21st century," said Sultan.