Popular Societies Unite Those Devoted to Pure Islamic Life

KUWAIT – Behind a yellow brick wall in this ultramodern city
sits the headquarters for the Social Reform Society, devoted to
pure Islamic life.

Inside the compound, the parking lot is practically full.

Soccer fields, a gym, a snack shop and a video arcade attract

Bearded men sit around in a meeting hall sipping fruit
drinks. Then they break for evening prayers in an adjacent mosque.

Posters around the headquarters convey a sense of injustice.
One shows a black strand of barbed wire choking the mosque in the
middle of Jerusalem.

But there’s no clear evidence this group is violent.

U.S. officials have cracked down on Islamist organizations
that they believe are linked with terror.

The Social Reform Society still operates.

Like dozens of Islamist groups across the world, it does good
works. These groups have huge popular support and are pressing to
join the political mainstream. Governments count on them to
perform social welfare work.

The groups also advocate powerfully for traditional Islamic
practices such as segregation of men and women in schools.

The main difficulty Social Reform Society members face, group
secretary Abu Abdel Rahman says, is heavy-handed treatment by
Kuwait’s government.

“We can’t do a thing here without asking permission,” says

Activities consist of “people getting together for their
aims,” he says. “In America, aren’t there groups doing that?”

One aim is helping the poor.

“Many poor people,” Rahman says. “And all over the world,
poor people with poor people, rich with rich.”

Another aim is giving teenagers alternatives to trolling
about Kuwait’s Los Angeles-style shopping malls amid sexy images
of Western women in tight jeans.

“This is a Muslim club,” says Hamad al-Awady, holding soccer
shoes before an evening practice under lights. “Some people here
say Osama bin Laden is a good man; some say he’s a bad man. Many
Muslims say he is a good man.”

Ahmed Baloul, 16, heading to the video arcade with his
brother, says he supports Palestinians, “but I don’t support the
suicide bombers. The prophet said don’t kill any human, plant or
animal. Just kill the man who resist you.”

In Kuwait, Islamist groups have more freedom than in much of
the Mideast. The result is growing fundamentalist influence in
Kuwait’s Parliament. A U.S-backed proposal to let women vote in
Kuwait was narrowly defeated last year because of Islamist

U.S. diplomats are torn.

Officially they support greater political openness in the
Mideast, which would give greater influence to popular groups.
They also support Western freedoms, particularly involving women,
that many Islamist groups reject. And the possibility that some
groups may advocate violence complicates everything. About 40
Kuwaitis fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

“One of our chief concerns is the lack of tolerance some of
these groups display,” says U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait Richard
Jones, suggesting that a willingness to impose beliefs can
“predispose you to violence.”

Quoting from the Koran, Jones says: “There is no compulsion
in religion.”