What has it meant for the country and for the Christian guest workers who represent 9% of the population?
For the 10 million people living in the United Arab Emirates, 2019 has been the Gulf state’s “Year of Tolerance”. In a country where 89 per cent of the population are expatriates, the government initiative aims to “reject extremism” and “entrench values of tolerance, dialogue, coexistence and openness to different cultures”.
SAT-7 spoke to Canon Andrew Thompson MBE, Senior Chaplain at St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Abu Dhabi, the state’s capital. Today there are around 40 church centres in the UAE – more than in any other Gulf state – while St Andrew’s alone hosts some 40 guest congregations on its premises each week. Andrew is also editor of Celebrating Tolerance: Religious diversity in the UAE, a compendium of the experiences of the many Christian denominations and nine other faith communities living in the UAE.
SAT-7 Communications Officer Lindsay Shaw asked Andrew what the year has meant for this influential Gulf state.
Q: What do you see as the significance and impact of the UAE Year of Tolerance?
They kicked off the year in style with a Mass [led by Pope Francis], preceded by a distinguished interfaith gathering which climaxed with the signing of the Human Fraternity Covenant, in which Pope Francis with the Dean of Al Azhar University (seen as a global representative of Sunni Islam) agreed foundational principles for living in peace and dignity together.
The work of Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah (Chairman of the Dubai Fatwa Council) is instrumental in setting out the renewed commitment of the UAE to an Islam which is responsibly and peaceably globally engaged. This is in part driven by a need to counteract the ideologies of Al Qaida, ISIS and their ilk, but also by pragmatic economic concerns.
The significance of the Year of Tolerance is that the government is ensuring the values of multifaith coexistence, which are embedded in a long trading history, are not just caught but are also taught to the next generation of Emiratis.
Q: What do you believe has been the impact of the year on the Christian and other faith communities that the UAE hosts?
The impact on the Christian communities in the UAE has been one of continuing affirmation of our presence here. As one worshipper said to me, “The Emiratis’ welcome is real, isn’t it? I really feel welcome here.”
While conservative Muslim communities continue to question where this strategy is leading (some fear it will lead to a diluted Islamic influence in the region), the reality is that the Emiratis are saying, “This is what defines our Islam for us: authentic Muslim living demands a commitment to peace and multicultural co-existence.” There is an intentional reframing (or reclaiming) of the Islamic narrative to enable their young people to be confident in their faith and play a positive role in the global community.
The UAE is unique in permitting a purpose-built Sikh gurdwara to function as a place of worship for the large Sikh community, and recently the ground was broken for what will be the biggest Hindu temple in the Middle East. What has also caught media attention is the increasing public profile of the Jewish community who live and worship in the UAE.
Q: Have any of this year’s various events and initiatives been especially significant?
There have been numerous activities taking place throughout the year, ranging from corporate celebrations of diversity and the planting of gardens of tolerance, to a “Champions of Tolerance” curriculum taught from kindergarten to university as well as to government entities like the police force.
Other high-profile events have been the Special Olympics, which was a triumph of inclusiveness in bringing together 7,000 athletes from around the world; the implementation of anti-discrimination laws; and a commitment to collaborate with intelligence agencies around the world to combat extreme religious violence.
Signs of Change
Q: What signs do you see or hope for in terms of changed attitudes in the host population?
The Emiratis as a whole have always been pretty relaxed towards other faiths. This is a reflection of the late Founding President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, a man who embodied the values of tolerance that set the ethos for the nation from its birth.
It is difficult for Westerners to appreciate the influence that the rulers have on their people in this part of the world. Zayed’s influence is huge, and his legacy is very real. Yet they are not leaving that legacy to chance: tolerance needs to be taught as well as caught.
Q: Are there any signs that UAE’s Year of Tolerance will bring about change in other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, perhaps even in Saudi Arabia (KSA)?
The UAE is actively promoting their model of pluralism across the Middle East, and with regard to the KSA there is a close relationship between the Crown Prince there and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. So without doubt there is a cross-exchange of ideas and experiences that I hope KSA will benefit from.
Q: How was the experience of editing your book, Celebrating Tolerance: Religious Diversity in the United Arab Emirates, and what are your hopes for it?
This was a project born through a round-table meeting sponsored by the USA Embassy in which the religious leaders were asking the question: “How can we support the UAE’s commitment to the value of tolerance?”
The answer was an agreement to tell our stories as communities of faith, and that through this book we would celebrate the UAE’s culture of hospitality. Our hope for the project is that it will consolidate and normalise the experience of pluralism, not just in the UAE but across the region.
For me personally, one great benefit of editing this book was establishing a whole new set of friendships from communities that I was ignorant about.
Q: Although evangelism of Emirati people is not allowed, is respectful witness to locals permitted, and would it be
possible for one of them to become a believer in Christ?
My experience in the UAE and elsewhere in the Middle East is that respectful dialogue and friendship is the only way in enabling Christian witness.
Problems emerge when people insist that a person rejects their own Islamic heritage. This is hugely harmful, especially when Islam is so much more than just a religion; it is also way of life, a culture and identity. As an Englishman who follows Jesus, I am not required to change my name, or to reject my family and nationality. Why then should we expect this from Muslims?
So in answer to your question, Emiratis can follow Jesus and do believe in him. Any difficulties they may face usually comes from family and not the state.
Q: Stepping away from religious tolerance, we note that the UAE is rated poorly for press freedom, for example, Reporters without Borders rank the UAE 133 out of 180 countries for press freedom (Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index). How should we view the UAE Year of Tolerance in the light of these criticisms?
Regarding press freedom, while democracy is a wonderful ideal that I certainly support, the freedom of the press in the West has resulted in a devastating culture of division, distrust and toxic society. In contrast, the media in the UAE, while certainly under government censorship, is actively used as a tool for maintaining a civil society.
The reality is that the UAE exists in a tough and dangerous region. Failure in security, especially a media that can be used to incite a rebellion, would unleash a hell of which we have seen the like in Iraq. As a Brit, I believe in the ideals of freedom, but when I experience how safe it is to live in the UAE compared with the USA and UK, then I wonder at what price freedom?
The UAE is far from perfect, but the current rulers have a benign agenda in creating a safer place to live. It is their country; it is their culture; and in my lifetime they have come from an undeveloped tribal culture to a sophisticated, globally-engaged nation. There is much to commend the UAE, including its religious tolerance. If folks want to criticise them, then – as Jesus said – ”Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”.