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The Truth About Kuwait

A recent "60 Minutes" painted a dark picture of Kuwait. The real story is much more promising.

11:01 PM, Feb 11, 2002 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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YESTERDAY'S resignation of the head of the Kuwait Information Office in Washington is the latest twist in what has become an open battle between Islamists and democrats in Kuwait. It all began when the smiling face of Islamic fascism appeared on "60 Minutes" back in November.

A segment entitled "Kuwait: 10 Years Later" that aired on November 18 portrays Kuwaiti opinion post September 11 as much more sympathetic to Osama bin Laden than to the United States. It stresses the growing influence of Islamist radicals on Kuwaiti society and politics.

Thus, Mike Wallace interviews Dr. Nasser Al Sani, soft-spoken in a snow-white kaffiyeh. A member of Kuwait's parliament, Al Sani favors instituting sharia law, complete with Taliban-style amputations. He gently explains on camera that this is the way to keep families intact and society peaceful.

At Kuwait University, Wallace zeroes in on a well-spoken female student in a headscarf who says women shouldn't have the vote. A male counterpart tells why Americans can never get a fair view of Arabs: You guessed it, Jews control the U.S. media.

And--here's the part that provoked the Kuwaiti democrats--Wallace visits a "diwaniya," a leisurely social gathering where men sit around and exchange news and discuss politics. Again, the individual interviewed on camera is anti-American.

According to some who were there this was a gross misrepresentation of the views of those who were actually present at the diwaniya. Faisal Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti businessman and founder of the liberal National Democratic Movement, says that although Wallace "came uninvited" to the gathering, which was in no way staged, it so happened that those present mostly approved of the U.S. response to September 11: When Wallace himself informally surveyed them, says Al-Mutawa, he found 28 supported the United States, one declined to say, and one was opposed, yet "60 Minutes" viewers were shown only "the black sheep."

This episode prompted Al-Mutawa and others to organize a delegation of a dozen Kuwaiti professionals working for democracy in their country to come to the United States on their own dime to try to set the record straight. In Washington and New York, they met with a wide array of officials in the executive and the legislative branches, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as with reporters and community leaders (though the hoped-for meeting with Mike Wallace didn't take place).

Everywhere, they staunchly defended the U.S. action in Afghanistan and called for more vigorous American efforts to build democracy and open societies. Asked about the State of the Union address, Dr. Ahmad Bishara (his Ph.D. in chemical engineering is from the University of Michigan) applauded President Bush's vow to spread American ideals in the Islamic world, adding, "We would like to join him in this campaign."

While the delegation's visit garnered only modest media coverage--notably a piece by Judith Miller, with a large photo of the group at Ground Zero, in the February 3 New York Times--it was apparently too much for the Islamists back home. They've made Shafeeq Ghabra, director of the government's information office in Washington, which hosted the delegation, their scapegoat.

Last week a group in Kuwait accused Ghabra of the "abominable deed" of appearing on a panel with Israelis at the World Economic Forum in New York earlier this month. The panelists, who discussed the Middle East peace process, included a former Israeli foreign minister and the president of Tel Aviv University as well as an Egyptian professor.

Ghabra is himself an academic, a professor of political science at Kuwait University (with degrees from Georgetown, Purdue, and the University of Texas).

The group demanding his head styles itself the "People's Congress for Resisting Normalization Between the Israeli Enemy and the Gulf." In a statement announcing his resignation, Ghabra said he had not received sufficient support from the government.

In the Kuwaiti press, however, a fierce battle is raging--which should come as no surprise. At least half of the democratic delegation who came to Washington have extensive experience in the press, as writers, editors, or publishers. The Islamists' attacks on Ghabra are bringing them out in force--they've scheduled a major press conference today--just as the "60 Minutes" show inspired them to come to America, as free people will, and tell their side of the story.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.