THE TIMES KUWAIT REPORT
The world marks International Day of Living Together in Peace on 16 May of each year. Here, in Kuwait, this would be an opportune occasion to examine how the country fares in bringing together the multiple racial, ethnic, religious communities that constitute the enriching and colorful fabric of this nation. On an individual level, this Day provides an opportunity for all of us to reflect on how we individually, and as groups within the larger community, have contributed to or impeded through our words, actions and attitudes in helping develop a social environment where everyone can live together in peace and harmony.
Living together in peace is all about accepting and appreciating the differences in others; of recognizing, respecting and celebrating the diverse perspectives, cultures and values that together enrichen our experiences and contribute to the development of humanity.
The Day promotes peace, tolerance, inclusion, understanding and solidarity, and urges people to live and act together, united despite our differences and diversity, so as to help build a world of peace, solidarity and harmony for today and tomorrow.
For nations, the concept of living together in harmony involves promoting understanding between neighboring states, and between different cultures through processes of discourse, reconciliation and resolving conflicts peacefully.
In this regard, Kuwait has earned an enviable reputation for its efforts in fostering dialogue and discussion to bring about rapprochement in relations between states, and an end to various conflicts in the region and in the wider Arab world. The country has also won recognition and admiration on the international stage for its support of humanitarian efforts, and its contributions in providing succor and sustenance to people around the world suffering from natural and man-made calamities.
Given these honorable credentials, how is it then, that this same country, appreciated for its promotion of peace and magnanimous activities abroad, is unable or unwilling to replicate the same understanding, empathy and humaneness towards the different people and communities living within its borders?
The racial, ethnic, religious, economic and gender discrimination prevailing in Kuwait on the individual and societal level is quite evident everywhere. This inequity remains the major obstacle that prevents expatriates from fully sharing and reaping the benefits that come from everyone living together in conviviality.
As any expatriate worker, especially those hailing from South Asian and African communities will vouchsafe, discrimination is rampant in most facets of their daily life in Kuwait. Starting from the immigration and customs at the airport when an expatriate first arrives in the country, to the time he leaves voluntarily or involuntarily through administrative deportations, the discrimination they suffer in relation to citizens, and also relative to other Western, Caucasian people is apparent and widespread.
The-is outright discrimination between citizens and residents, was also evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, at least during the early phase of the infection and at the time of the vaccination rollout. Citizens were prioritized over residents in treatment and in being administered vaccinations. Later, when the airport opened up, this two-set approach continued, with the freedom to exit and enter the country limited to citizens,and denied to expatriates, even those who were vaccinated and proven to be uninfected with the virus.
Disparity in vaccination was also evident, sometimes with tragic consequences, among frontline workers; with Kuwaiti doctors who were from specializations that were far removed from frontline work, being administered vaccination as a priority, while expatriate nurses and support staff who were in direct contact with infected patients daily were denied the vaccination.
Discrimination, or to put it more euphemistically ‘differentiation’, is especially perceptible when one visits government departments concerned with delivering services to the public. It is blatantly evident at the various affiliates of the ministry of interior, such as those related to visas and residency, the traffic, or the local police station; it is also perceptible at offices of ministries dealing with electricity and water, communications, and sadly even at the health and justice ministries.
In mid-March, the newly appointed First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Nawaf, obliquely pointed to this differentiation that exists in society, during a speech he delivered to senior ministry officials on assuming office. In a reference to the difference in treatment meted out by security personnel to citizens and other sections of society, Sheikh Ahmed stressed on the need to deal with the public, especially expatriates, “with respect, and away from injustice or insult”.
He noted that irrespective of whether the person interacting with the police is a citizen, an American, or an Indian, they should all be treated in the same manner, with dignity and respect. Officers found disrespecting and infringing on the rights of others would have no place in the ministry, “because the one who does not respect the citizen and the resident does not respect his country, and we will also not respect him,” warned the minister.
It would be quite pertinent in this regard to suggest that security personnel, and other officials at front-desks in government entities, should be introduced to the cultures and customs of foreigners as part of their regular training. This would enable the officials to gain a better perspective and understanding of the people with whom they interact daily, and to be more accepting and empathic of the ‘others’ in society.
To clarify on two terms that are often used interchangeably, ‘Race’, on which racial profiling is often based, is generally related to a person’s genetic makeup and linked with physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, or shape of eyes. ‘Ethnicity’ on the other hand is a broader term that refers to the cultural expression such as those linked to racial, geographic, tribal, religious, linguistic, or other l aspects and backgrounds that individuals share and identify with.
Both race and ethnicity are not biological factors but social constructs used to compartmentalize and characterize groups of people, and which often contribute to forming prejudices that define our ‘experiences’ of others. In Kuwait, discrimination and differentiation of outsiders based on race and ethnicity have existed even before the country’s independence in 1961. However, these differences were tolerated or accepted earlier due to the need for outsiders to protect the country’s borders, to develop its economy and sustain its prosperity.
In today’s rapidly evolving world that is becoming increasingly globalized and diverse, it is evident that toleration alone is no longer enough. We need to understand and appreciate others, and interconnect with people of different cultures in order to build a country and community that is resilient and successful, and which can find effective solutions to present and future challenges that confront us.
It is to the credit of Kuwait that the Constitution of the country adopted following the country’s independence in 1961 acknowledges the importance of protecting the community’s diversity. Article 29 of the country’s constitution pertaining to ‘Equality, Human Dignity, Personal Liberty’ clearly states that ‘all people are equal in human dignity and in public rights and duties before the law, without distinction to race, origin, language, or religion’.
Emanating from this founding article and in conformity to its spirit, several relevant laws and decrees have been enacted over the years, including Article 111 of the Kuwaiti Criminal Code (Act No. 16 of 1960), which criminalizes any manifestation of religious bigotry by stipulating that anyone who disseminates views that constitute ‘derision, disparagement or defamation of a religion or a religious confession, or attacks the doctrines, observances, rites or teachings thereof’ shall face imprisonment and/or fines.
Another one is the Criminal Code (Act No.16 of 1960), article 109 of which states that anyone ‘who vandalizes, damages, or desecrates a place intended for the performance of religious observances, or who, being aware of the significance of his behavior, commits within such a place an act that detracts from the respect due to the religion concerned shall be liable to specified fine and or imprisonment.
Also, article 1 of the National Unity Law, passed through Legislative Decree No.19 of 2012, prohibits the advocacy or incitement of hatred or contempt for any social group; provocation of sectarian or tribal factionalism; promotion of ideology based on the superiority of any race, group, color, national or ethnic origin, religious confession or lineage; and encouragement of any act of violence to that end…
However, the National Unity Law is rarely enforced in a way that would effectively deter such activities, and many critics of the law say that it is used largely to stifle free speech and imprison detractors of the government. Nevertheless, one wishes that a copy of these enlightening laws wouldbe framed and placed on the walls of police stations and other government buildings in Kuwait.
It needs to be pointed out that achieving harmonious coexistence among communities and ethnic groups from all corners of the world, and with different cultural and religious traditions, is not a problem that is unique to Kuwait; it is a major challenge to countries worldwide. Culture forms a strong part of people’s lives; it influences their views, their values, their hopes, their loyalties, and their worries and fears.
Being able to cater to the cultural compulsions of people goes a long way to helping multicultural countries and societies to successfully handle social and economic challenges. On an individual and community level, learning to live and work together in harmony with others involves striving to find consonance despite existing discords and disagreements with others. It calls for not only acknowledging the differences of others, but also celebrating those differences, as well as fortifying our common interests, so as to unite and strengthen the community.
In Kuwait, prevailing Inequities in attitudes and actions by sections of the host community to those generalized as ‘ajnabees’ or outsiders, leads to segregation of society on multiple levels. This discrimination impedes any meaningful interaction between the different stratas, and hinders attempts to bring together people from all walks of life to work collaboratively and cohesively for the greater good of the country and its future.
Rather than being used to differentiate different segments of society, our differences and diversity should be acknowledged as strengths that enable us to exert collaborative efforts in the service of the nation and all of its people. The sooner we recognize this and internalize it, the better off everyone will be.