Beranda Opinion English Religious Tolerance in the United Arab Emirates

Religious Tolerance in the United Arab Emirates

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The UAE is now known as a very tolerant country. An important lesson that can be drawn from the UAE is that in order to maintain and care for cultural pluralism and socio-religious harmony, it is not enough to make rules and policies.

Among the countries in the Middle East that have a majority Muslim population, United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one that is very interesting to observe. Although the UAE’s governance is considered authoritarian and conservative, the country is one of the most liberal when it comes to cultural expression and building social relations, as well as the most tolerant when it comes to religion and community. Women’s participation in the public sector is also considered phenomenal.

Some indicators of social and religious tolerance can be seen below. For example, unlike most countries in the Middle East – except for Morocco or Bahrain – which are still “shy” in socializing with Jewish communities, this small country with a population of 9.2 million and rich in the Arab Gulf region has recently dared to express harmony with Jewish citizens.

This is demonstrated in, among other things, becoming the host of Jewish wedding parties, which are attended by a number of government officials, or by allowing Jewish business ventures and the establishment of Jewish mass organizations (ormas).

Although not large in number, Jews also exist in the UAE. According to Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation of Ethnic Understanding, their current number is around 3,000 people. In 2020, the UAE became the first country in the Persian Gulf region to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, which was later followed by its neighbor, Bahrain.

Tolerance for cultural and artistic diversity

The UAE is also known for being very tolerant of artistic and cultural diversity. The government guarantees the expression of celebration of the diverse artistic and cultural backgrounds of its citizens, thus making the UAE very colorful in terms of art and culture in general (whether it be traditional or non-traditional culture).

From the aspect of arts and culture expression, this semi-constitutional federal kingdom can be said to be the most diverse in the Middle East as it is home to a variety of domestic and foreign cultures.

The diversity of culture can be understood because the UAE has become a home to people of various tribes, ethnicities, nations and countries. Even the local Arab population (Emiratis) is only around 11 percent, and the rest (89 percent) are foreign residents (immigrants).

The majority of foreign residents who reside in the UAE come from South Asia (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh). Among the South Asian countries, India has the most representation (about 38 percent) due to its long-standing history of occupying the UAE, since it was a colony of England. It was England that originally brought Indian residents to the UAE to work across various sectors.

Meanwhile, among the Middle Eastern countries, Egyptian citizens are the most dominant in the UAE; while from Southeast Asia, Filipinos occupy the highest population in the UAE. This diversity in society certainly has an impact on cultural and religious diversity.

Interreligious harmony

In terms of religion and religious life, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is also known for its high degree of tolerance. It is no stranger that the UAE, which is now led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is home to a variety of religions and Islamic sects such as Sunni, Shia, Ibadi, and others.

Sunni has become the dominant sect of Islam, while the population of Shia citizens (including Arab Shias, Persian Shias, and others) is around 15-20 percent.

Although the relationship between the governments of UAE and Iran is not very harmonious due to conflicts over several islands in the Persian/Arabian Gulf region, it does not affect the good relationship between Sunni and Shia citizens. Sufi groups also continue to proliferate in the UAE.

The non-Muslim population is also significant in the UAE due to the large immigrant community. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Bahais, Jains, and others breed and live peacefully alongside each other in the UAE.

Among non-Muslim communities, Christians (especially Roman Catholic and Protestant) are the most dominant (around 13 percent). They come not only from Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, or Latin America, but also from Eastern Christian communities, especially from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine.

Until the year 2020, there were approximately 54 Christian churches of various denominations in the UAE and even the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia from the Catholic church is headquartered in Dubai. The second largest religious minority after Christianity is Hindu (about 7 percent), followed by Buddhists (2 percent) and other communities.

Like the Christian community, they also have houses of worship that are guaranteed by the government.

The harmonious and tolerant relations between religious groups in UAE are proven by the absence of communal violence between religious groups (both inter-factional violence within Islam and Muslim versus non-Muslim violence) as well as structural violence against certain religious groups that are supported or sponsored (directly or indirectly) by the government and security forces.

The central role of government

The social-cultural-religious harmony that takes place in the UAE certainly cannot be separated from the central role of the government in managing the diversity of its citizens. There are quite a number of UAE government policies that aim to create social harmony on one hand, and to avoid social conflicts or tensions on the other hand.

For example, the UAE government has established a ministry that specifically deals with promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence within society. The government has also provided land for the construction of non-Muslim places of worship, including churches and temples.

The government also fully protects the freedom of non-Muslim worshippers, thereby making Christians and other worshippers feel comfortable in carrying out their religious worship activities and celebrating their important religious holidays.

In 2019, the government designed the “Abraham Family House” (baiat al-ailat lil ibrahimiyah), namely a complex or area on Saadiyat Island (Abu Dhabi) built three places of worship for Muslims (mosques), Christians (church), and Judaism (synagogue), as a symbol of harmony between religions from the Semitic family.

In this area, Imam Al-Tayeb Mosque, St. Francis Church, and Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue were built. The construction of this complex was inspired by the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, a joint statement between Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb (Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt) on behalf of Muslims, and Pope Francis on behalf of Catholics.

The document was signed in Abu Dhabi, hence it is also referred to as the “Abu Dhabi Declaration”.

In 2016, the government launched the “National Tolerance Program” initiated by Sheikha Lubna binti Khalid Al Qasimi, State Minister for Tolerance.

According to Sheikha Lubna, the main goal of this program is to build a climate of tolerance, spirit of peace, multiculturalism practices, and a culture of acceptance towards others while firmly rejecting any acts of racism, radicalism, intolerance, discrimination, and hatred towards individuals and other groups.

The UAE does not tolerate any form of (physical or verbal) intolerance and radicalism.

The impact of government policy and firm stance

The government’s firm stance will certainly have an impact on the creation of a cool atmosphere and harmonious relations between groups in society in the UAE.

Furthermore, this policy “forces” radical-intolerant groups to be quiet. Hardline Salafi groups also exist in the UAE, but they “don’t cause much trouble” by forbidding various artistic and cultural products that are deemed to be contradictory to their beliefs and religious practices, or by declaring other religious groups and Islamic sects to be infidels and attacking them.

They also do not express hatred towards non-Muslims or other Islamic sects. It can be assured that if they were to do so, they would be quickly silenced and frozen by the government for being considered disruptive to diversity and potentially creating social chaos and disharmony among different groups of society.

Similarly, followers of Hizbut Tahrir can also be found in the UAE. However, like the Salafi group, they remain silent and are afraid to delegitimize or “taghut” the government, even though the UAE’s system, form, and mechanisms of government contradict the concept of a khilafah-style government which is depicted and idealized by Hizbut Tahrir. If they dared to do so, it is certain that they would be “dragged” by the government and its officials.

Thus, that is a glimpse of the story and “good news” from the United Arab Emirates. An important lesson that can be taken from the UAE is that in order to preserve and nurture cultural diversity and social-religious harmony, making rules and policies alone is not enough.

There is a need for firm action against lawbreakers, those who damage cultural and religious diversity, as well as those who disrupt social harmony in society. Can the Indonesian government set an example for this?

Note: this article was published by Kompas (9 September 2023) and was translated by using both Microsoft Azure Open AI and Google Translation AI.

Artikulli paraprakMiddle East, Religion and Religiosity
Artikulli tjetërReligious Studies in Higher Education
Antropolog Budaya di King Fahd University, Direktur Nusantara Institute, Kontributor The Middle East Institute, Kolumnis Deutsche Welle, dan Senior Fellow di National University of Singapore.

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