The Kuwaiti government closed a new 3D scanning booth store in Kuwait City in September, in response to sermons by clerics that characterized 3D printed statuettes as “Satan’s slippery slope to disbelief.”

“We do not accept such shops in the country,” said Abdullah al-Roumi, Hawally Governorate Committee Chairman, in a tweet after the closure of the shop. Despite the absence of legislation that prohibits these kinds of shops, he justified this closure by describing these shops as among “the biggest prohibitions and evils.”

3D scanning booths and printers sparked controversy on social media on September 15, after the publication of a video explaining the appearance of the new technology in the country. In the video, a man in a shopping mall in Kuwait presents a 3D scanning booth and a statue of himself produced by the technology.

Cleric Osman Khamis called on the government to close these shops in September for fear of “reviving idolatry,” referring to them as a “great evil.”

Khamis used the term “idols” instead of “statues” to highlight the religious aspect of the debate.

Cleric and former Minister of Justice and Awqaf, Nayef al-Ajmi, also  tweeted that the statues “are a pretext for polytheism, and this is one of the main reasons for their prohibition.”

Both al-Ajmi and MP Mohammad Hayef are Salafists, and Hayef claimed that being “lenient” on these shops would lead to the “construction of temples” for them “in some Gulf countries and in Kuwait.” One activist commented tongue in cheek that “the idols in the council are more dangerous than the idols in the shops,” referring to the figures representing authority and “holiness” that clerics are aspiring to with these allegations.

The act of associating another entity or other “gods” with God (Allah) contradicts the fundamental belief of monotheism in Islam. The charge of “the major act of polytheism,” which is considered to be the sin of practicing idolatry in Islam, is one of the most serious accusations in Islamic countries, where the punishment typically is the death penalty.

Human Rights Watch noted that Kuwait “allows the death penalty for non-violent crimes, including drug-related charges.” In January, Kuwaiti authorities executed seven people on such charges, the first executions since 2013, according to a 2018  report from Human Rights Watch.

Twitter users have launched the hashtag “Idols in Kuwait” (in Arabic) to express their opposition to these statues. They even consider them a “threat to society.” Many critics of the statues relied on a religious fatwa (religious pronouncement) as a reason to call for the closing of these shops.

The fatwa was the main impetus for the ongoing debate about the statues. Many social media pioneers have denounced it, describing it as “ignorance and rejection of technology.” One activist added that if the authority does not reconsider its decision, they “will see ISIL [as] an imposed reality,” in reference to the control of the radical group.

When film and photography first came on the scene, many clerics, especially the Salafists, banned photography and television, but later they turned into social media influencers. This rejection of development and technology reflects a backward mentality, and signals an attempt to impose religious authority akin to Saudi Arabia.

Journalist and activist Arwa al-Waqian described the government’s quick response to these calls as “fear of birds of darkness,” noting that “these clerics used to forbid photography years ago.” Hamad Qalam considered the clerics’ calls “intellectual terrorism” that should be restrained.

Kuwait is at the forefront of the Gulf countries in terms of democratic liberties, especially personal freedoms. But its record is not free from violations, especially with regard to freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch stated that Kuwaiti authorities have used “provisions in the constitution” and a number of laws “to prosecute journalists, politicians, and activists over the past few years for criticizing the prince, government, religion, and rulers of neighboring countries on blogs, Twitter or Facebook, [and] other social media.”

Recently, sanctions in Kuwait have not only been imposed by criminal laws but also by clerics. The dominance and influence of clerics on  political decisions in Kuwait has grown remarkably, especially with a religious majority in the parliament. In December 2016, the Ministry of Social Affairs “removed the Christmas tree from Al-Dasma Cooperative” in response to the demands of the Salafi MP Osama al-Shaheen to remove what he described as “legal irregularities.”

Since early September, the hashtag “Forbidden in Kuwait” has become widespread as a protest movement against banning books. In Kuwait, “The ban is no longer as random as it was, and it is not justified. It includes world literature masterpieces and books that hold the most important creative prizes, and this is what has made the street angry,” al-Waqian said.

Kuwait is undergoing a cultural transformation and trying to balance tradition with progress. Along with attempts to impose religious authority, there is also significant pushback on social media that shows a country in the midst of deciding its character and values for the future.

Time will tell whether Kuwait continues toward progress and reform, or whether the clerics escalate matters and become increasingly more radical, regressive, and repressive.