By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT (Reuters) - When Salafi Islamists objected to a youth forum on politics and religion in Kuwait earlier this year they took to Twitter and other media, but not to the streets.
While the Gulf state's Salafis follow an interpretation of Islam that is just as puritanical as that of counterparts elsewhere, the means they use to assert their influence are more sophisticated - lobbying cabinet members, comments on social media and seminars.
Allowed relative freedom within Kuwait's circumscribed and turbulent political system, they see themselves as an example for Salafis taking part in politics for the first time in other countries after the Arab Spring uprisings.
"The Salafi movement is known for its credibility and it takes a middle position between government and the opposition," Kuwaiti Salafi MP Abdulatif al-Ameeri told Reuters after a parliamentary session earlier this month.
In the most recent election, four Salafis were elected to the 50-member parliament and six other men who share their line of thought also gained seats, he said. In Tunisia, by contrast, thousands of Salafis rioted in the capital last month over an art exhibition they said insulted Muslims.
One of Kuwait's most vocal Salafi MPs, Waleed al-Tabtabie, has more than 198,000 followers on Twitter.
Some worry that the Salafis' ties to neighboring Saudi Arabia, strengthened during Iraq's 1990-91 occupation, have made them into a fundamentalist force that will push Kuwait toward a more austere form of Islam and closer to the Saudi sphere of influence.
But others - and Salafis themselves - deny a direct political link.
"The Salafis participate in the political system of Kuwait. They are elected and with time they will change and they have changed," said Shafeeq Ghabra, professor of political science at Kuwait University. "This is a process that this region and Kuwait is going through."
SHARIA, BLASPHEMY LEGISLATION
A court on June 20 annulled the results of the February election on grounds the process was unconstitutional, reinstating the previous parliament and guaranteeing more political turmoil for the country of 3.6 million inhabitants - which has seen eight cabinets in six years.
The emir is expected to dissolve the reinstated assembly, leading to fresh parliamentary elections in the autumn, analysts say.
In the four months between the election and the court ruling, Kuwait's Salafi lawmakers made their voices heard as part of the majority opposition bloc along with more moderate Islamists, particularly on topics relating to religion and freedom of speech.
The bloc backed a proposal to amend the constitution to make all legislation in the Gulf Arab state comply with Islamic law, and pushed for the death penalty to be introduced for blasphemy after a high-profile case in which a young Kuwaiti was jailed for insulting the Prophet Mohammad on Twitter.
One reason for the relative freedom granted Islamists in Kuwait is that the ruling family can check their powers, as it can all political groups, political analysts say. Co-opting them into the "system" moderates their views, they believe.
"People are able to stand up to them, debate them, reject their pressures," Kuwait University's Ghabra said.
Political parties are banned and all legislation is subject to veto from the hereditary ruler, currently Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who effectively blocked the most recent proposals.
The Islamists nevertheless can point to some significant legislative and other successes in recent years, including segregating the sexes at university, restrictions on mixed sports and dancing and live music, analysts say. They have proposed legislation to prevent women from becoming judges.
Salafi lawmakers also proposed a "decency" law earlier this year to ban flirtatious behavior and "indecent attire" in public, which would include swimsuits on beaches.
Kuwait banned the "Star Academy" TV talent show in 2004 for featuring women singing to men, revealing clothes and mixed dancing after complaints from Salafi MPs.
Liberal commentators are concerned about the effect of such developments on Kuwait, which although a socially conservative society, does not restrict personal freedom to the extent of Saudi Arabia.
Women dress modestly in public, often in Western-style clothing, but are not required to wear a veil. Some women may wear revealing swimwear, though only on private beaches. They are allowed to drive and travel without legal restrictions and occupy some important positions in business, if not in parliament at present.
"I remember watching television in Kuwait, back when it was black and white, you used to have performers wearing mini-skirts on stage," said Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi dissident and scholar at the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington.
"This all changed because of the Saudi influence."
He said the turning point came after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's invasion, which pushed many Kuwaitis out of the country into Saudi Arabia where they were exposed to the more puritanical form of Islam practiced in the kingdom.
During the occupation, Kuwait's emir and government ruled from Saudi Arabia. The countries are linked through religious, tribal, cultural and businesses ties.
Some analysts saw Saudi influence - channeled through the Salafis - behind the recent decision to cancel a youth forum that would have included Saudi dissidents.
The Multaga Alnahdah or "Awakening Forum" was meant to bring together liberals and Islamists, Shi'ites and Sunnis from across the Arab world in March to debate religion and politics.
Participants said Kuwait's Salafis had pressured the Interior Ministry to stop the forum. The ministry declined to comment on what role the Salafis played.
"The ministry did not stop them, but they did not have permission to hold the forum in a public place," an official at the Interior Ministry said, declining to be named because they were not authorized to comment on the matter.
Participants said the Salafis had objected to some of the invited guests, who included Saudi speakers deemed controversial in their home country, as being un-Islamic.
They objected in particular to influential Saudi cleric Salman al-Ouda, viewed as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Salafis see as too moderate. Al-Ouda has run into trouble with Saudi authorities for praising the Arab Spring uprisings. Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi womens' rights activist, was also scheduled to speak.
Some involved in the forum said the incident was evidence of growing Salafi influence and, in turn, of the influence of Saudi Arabia.
Salafi MP Ameeri denied that Salafists forced the cancellation of the Awakening Forum and said that while Kuwait's Salafis drew on the same religious teachings followed by many in Saudi Arabia, there was no political link with the country.
Ebrahim al-Adasani, head of the AWARE centre in Kuwait for improving Arab/Western relations, said that while Kuwait's Salafis did have Saudi relationships, the group was generally misunderstood.
"They might sound like they are fundamentalist, especially when they vote for things like capital punishment. But bear in mind that they are MPs and they have voters that they are looking after," he said, suggesting their actions were more pragmatic than their rhetoric might suggest.
"People are confusing fundamentalists and traditionalists. There are people who are traditionalist and yes, they are growing. They want to go back to their traditions. They think they are invaded through their culture by the West," he said.
(Additional reporting by Mahmoud Harby and Ahmed Hagagy; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)