Setback for Freedom

U.S. Challenge on Kuwait’s Death Penalty for Blasphemy: How Far to Intercede

Kuwait’s new law ordering the death penalty for blasphemy might be overturned if the U.S. applies pressure, writes David Keyes.

Yasser Al-Zayyat, AFP / Getty Images

Yesterday, nearly every member of the Kuwaiti Parliament voted for a law that mandates the death penalty for anyone who mocks God, the Koran, Muslim prophets, or Muhammad’s wives. Most of the six parliamentarians who voted against the bill did so because it did not stipulate death for anyone who insults Shiite imams as well. Non-Muslims who mock God will be sentenced to a mere 10 years in prison.

Ah, the intoxicating freedom of the Arab Spring.

“The friendship between our two countries is rooted in our shared values,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of Kuwait last year. This sentiment is increasingly difficult to reconcile with developments in the Gulf.

The Parliament took up this issue following the arrest of Hamad al Naqi, a Kuwaiti who is to be tried for “defaming the Prophet” on Twitter. Though he denies even writing the tweets in question, Naqi is one of a number of online activists who have recently been detained for criticizing religion or the emir.

Though Kuwait has long been considered one of the most liberal and moderate Arab governments, both terms remain highly relative in the Middle East. Women can vote and drive in Kuwait, unlike in Saudi Arabia, and the government is an open ally of the United States, unlike Syria. Nevertheless, Kuwaiti parliamentarians do not share Western ideals of free speech and separation of religion and state.

A few months ago, a Kuwaiti diplomat boasted to me that his country was fully democratic and completely respects freedom of speech. “In my country,” he said proudly, “you can walk directly up to the prime minister and criticize him to his face and you are free to do so.”

“What about Mohammed Abdul Qader Al Jasem?” I asked, referring to the former editor of Newsweek Arabic who was imprisoned for insulting the Kuwaiti emir on his blog.

“Nobody likes Al Jasem!” he shot back.

“But should he have been imprisoned for a blog post?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” the diplomat replied. “He crossed the red line—criticizing the emir. According to our constitution, that is illegal.”

Article 54 of the Kuwaiti constitution stipulates that the emir is “immune and inviolable.”

When Jasem went to prison, the Kuwaiti foreign minister said predictably that the U.S. had no right to interfere in Kuwait’s internal affairs. “Kuwait is a sovereign state with its own systems and authorities,” he said. Funny how Kuwait did not seem to mind American interference when the U.S. military saved it from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny in 1991.

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The new law is seen by many as a test case of America’s role in Middle East. Liberals throughout the region are watching President Obama’s reaction. If the emir signs the law—a move that Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs Jamal Shehab assured reporters will happen—then this will be a tremendous setback for freedom in the Gulf.

The U.S. is Kuwait’s largest trading partner and billions of dollars in advanced arms have been shipped to Kuwait in recent years. Precisely because of this tremendous leverage, firm opposition by the Obama administration could convince the emir not to sign this law.

Oil will eventually run out in Kuwait and the country will be entirely dependent on a far more precious resource: the creativity and ingenuity of its people. One parliamentarian said, “[W]e need this legislation because incidents of cursing God have increased. We need to deter them.” Minds silenced into submission are never as productive or reliable as those encouraged to dissent and critique—particularly in faith and ideology.

An Arabic proverb states: “The red bull said, ‘I was slaughtered on the day the white bull was slaughtered.’” Oppression, in other words, always begins with a particular individual (the white cow) but invariably spreads to unsuspecting others (the red cow).

President Obama should place a simple choice before the Kuwait ruler: veto this outrageous and anti-democratic law or start looking elsewhere for arms. Some will paint this as naive idealism, but the only true long-term guarantor of peace and stability is freedom.