Kuwaiti TV to Bridge Sectarian Divide

Rising fears of sectarian bloodshed spilling over from Iraq are pushing Sunni and Shiite communities apart in several Arab states. In Kuwait, a new TV program attempts to bridge sectarian, social and political divides by bringing diverse viewpoints together for discussion and debate.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY To DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

Mike Shuster just explained his MORNING EDITION series on the divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. There are voices within the Arab community trying to cross that divide. Some of them can be heard on a new television program in Kuwait.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports on a talk show known as "Al-Diwaniya"(ph).

PETER KENYON: Human rights advocates call it Kuwait's dirty little secret, the existence of the bidoon, an estimated 100,000 or more stateless people who have extreme difficulty in traveling, registering births or marriages, people with few if any rights. It's a subject not often discussed in Kuwait, so channel surfers may have been surprised Monday to happen upon a full-blown debate on bidoons, including a member of the ruling al-Sabah family, who said she was shocked to learn about their plight.

(Soundbite of "Al-Diwaniya")

KENYON: The program is called "Al-Diwaniya," and its host is Kuwait academic and writer Shafik al-Gabr. An energetic, bespectacled and balding professor, Gabr may not seem like a natural television host, but he's attracting a loyal following among Kuwaiti viewers eager to hear genuine political and social debate.

Professor SHAFIK AL-GABR (Talk Show Host): My motivation is to open up debate on issues that are usually not debated in my part of the world, issues from Islam to modernity, from Shiism to Sunnism, from radicalism to moderation, difference and diversity. And I think that there is a place for all of these issues and ability to connect with the larger audience on them.

KENYON: Gabr says the format is simple but new to Kuwait. He brings people with strong viewpoints together with some of their most outspoken critics. In the U.S. and on some Arab satellite channels, such programs often degenerate into belligerent, uninformative shouting matches. But here sharply opposing views are traded in gentler tones, and ideas stand or fall on their merits.

Gabr says he's particularly fond of a show he recorded recently on a reading program launched by a group of Solafists, followers of an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam.

Prof. AL-GABR: And this group witnessed enormous amount of change. You hear this on the program. We were only reading books about how to pray. And then suddenly they're reading novels. They're reading "The Da Vinci Code." They're reading American novelists translated into Arabic. They stayed Islamic but now they accept the other points of view. And to me that particular episode is very telling on the power of education.

KENYON: The program also delves into arts and culture, women's rights, and other social issues. Gabr says it's critical now for Arabs to reach out to one another across sectarian, social or ethnic lines, to counter the growing polarization that seems to be spreading in ripples from the violent epicenter of Iraq. He says at the national level Arabs states have been slow to adjust to the new political realities created by the destruction of the Sunni-led state in Iraq. And they have yet to come to grips with the new power that he says has been bestowed by the Americans on Iran.

Prof. AL-GABR: The Iranian ability to flex its muscle, its influence into Iraq and into the region, whether through the West Bank and Gaza, or through Lebanon, or elsewhere, in the absence of a major role for any major Arab power - whether Saudi Arabia or Egypt - is creating a boiling situation in the Arab world.

KENYON: So far, Gabr says, his show hasn't provoked any backlash, despite its sometime provocative subjects. On the other hand, the program doesn't seem to be generating much reaction on the streets of Kuwait either. But Gabr hopes that will work in his favor, giving his program and the concept of open debate on sensitive topics time to take root here and grow.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Kuwait.

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