Advocating tolerance: H.E. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi sits down for an exclusive interview with Newsweek Middle East
By Irene Hell
“Sometimes I think it is mindboggling… when all of a sudden you find a teenager who left home because he wanted to fight in Syria, and you think what have I done to my child? Why would a child become like this?” says the UAE’s Minister of State for Tolerance, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi.
Being recognized by Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful women in the world, Qasimi, served as the former UAE minister of international cooperation, as well as the former minister of economy and planning.
And though she is hard to get on the record as she prefers to work and implement the ministry’s goals first before talking about them, Al Qasimi allocated part of her precious time to speak to Newsweek Middle East about the necessity to combat terrorism, hatred and xenophobia by spreading tolerance, patience and compassion.
According to her, “family values and education,” are vital in facilitating the spread of the message of tolerance anywhere. But what is more important “is the proper understanding of the tone of religion.” Al Qasimi believes that all religions carry in them “value and mercy,” and it is in fact those who misinterpret and politicize religious teachings are the ones to convey the wrong message about its core values.
“All religions ask people to be merciful, to be kind, to be tolerant. The language of all religions does not advocate wars and hatred, and people who are doing this are the radicals. We need to make sure that we immune our children everywhere in the world [sic],” she told Newsweek Middle East on the sidelines of a November 16 gathering of diplomats and officials from 150 nations in the capital Abu Dhabi on the International Day of Tolerance.
Al Qasimi’s words come at a time when the West is witnessing a significant rise of right wing groups to power, aided by an increased sentiment of xenophobia, racism and hate.
The shocking ascend of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump to lead the world’s strongest nation is not baffling, given the fact that he capped on xenophobic sentiments during his electoral campaign which was marked by racial and gender slurs, in addition to xenophobic and anti-Muslim comments.
Trump has, as recently as last month, vowed to deport illegal immigrants, albeit him specifying that the deportees would be those with a criminal record. But he is yet to back off from his slanderous comments and threats against Muslim Americans, whom he would have hold special identification to let everyone know of their religious affiliations, he said at one point. At the same time, there are increased attacks on refugees in France, Germany and other European states, in addition to xenophobia leading to an unexpected Brexit vote in June which resulted in the country’s exit from its EU alliance due to the latter’s lenient policies towards refugees.
According to the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, since 2009 there has been a rise in “anti-foreigner” sentiment in the U.K., and hate speech and racist violence, as well as “considerable intolerant political discourse,” have been focusing on immigration and “contributing to an increase in xenophobic sentiment.” The commission also noted that there has been a sharp rise in anti-Muslim violence.
Amid all of the heated sentiments of anger, hate, and lack of compassion, the United Arab Emirates opted for a different course, appointing Al Qasimi to preach coexistence and tolerance.
“What makes us proud of our nation is not the height of our buildings, the breadth of our streets, or the magnitude of our shopping malls, but rather the openness and tolerance of our nation,” said UAE’s VP, PM and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum earlier this year.
“We do not want to experience the side effects of sectarianism, racism or hatred in our communities. We do not want to see any discrimination based on color, sect or origin,” he further insisted.
The UAE itself, according to the minister, is a sociological phenomenon, with millions of people from as many as 200 nationalities living and working in it peacefully, despite the country being situated in a region marred by bloody armed conflicts, instability and misery.
However no political system is perfect. Even though the UAE made it a national priority to be the happiest place to live in, the country says it continues to work on enhancing its module to eliminate inequalities.
But unlike in Europe and the U.S., where fanatic right wing nationalists now threaten to destroy democracies and free societies with xenophobia and hate, the UAE government is making serious attempts to promote hope, peace and tolerance.
But it seems that not everyone is gracious enough to welcome others or accept their differences despite singular efforts in Europe, such as those of current German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who welcomed refugees fleeing conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond with open arms.
“The universe is one, and we are all one humankind,” Al Qasimi says.
“In these days, we see ourselves in an ocean of turmoil around us here in the Middle East, and worldwide where the language of negativity, intolerance and hate is rising. The government of the United Arab Emirates believes that it is time for us to put together a national program for tolerance—not just for us but for the whole community [that can send] a strong message also for the region,” she adds.
According to the minister, someone would ask: Why would the UAE, with its diverse society hosting 200 nationalities, push for such a program if the country is already a tolerant society?
Her reply is that the UAE believes that “nowadays a lot of values keep eroding over time. And when you have the rhetoric and the negative language after a while, people take [that] for granted as values can disappear and we don’t know. Not just here but in the whole world.”
Perhaps it is the sense of responsibility towards its youth and future generations, and the fact that all human beings “have a moral responsibility” to coexist, that pressures the UAE and the minister to push forward the message of tolerance, explains Al Qasimi.
“We believe we can immune our children from being influenced by extremism and radicalization[sic],” she adds.
And to set up a program and an agenda to promote tolerance, Al Qasimi says that her team consulted with everyone, from diplomats to resident communities, the churches, the office of Islamic Affairs, and the minsters, among others.
“I reiterate, this program is not about me or my ministry—this program is about what people gave me to manage and to run and to fulfill this wish,” she stresses.
And to those who have hatred, negativity or conflict in their hearts, the minister advises them to practice meditation.
“I think people who carry feelings of negativity, they need to meditate. They need to amend their hearts by pushing themselves back to the human nature. I don’t think God made us on this universe to hate others. We are here equal on this universe….We are not born to hate,” says Al Qasimi.
“Tolerance is the most important instrument to make different civilizations live together in harmony,” Patrizio Fondi, Ambassador of the European Union for the UAE tells Newsweek Middle East.
“That is why the relevance given by the UAE to it—also throughout the creation of the Minister of Tolerance—is a crucial contribution to the efforts to bring peace in the Middle East and allow people to enjoy the extremely rich cultural and religious heritage of the region,” Fondi adds.
“Some people with a certain ideology use religion as a horse to achieve their goals,” Rashid Al Tunaiji from the Ministry of Tolerance observes.
He is concerned that the open minds of young people are intoxicated with hate propaganda and the seeds for war and terror.
“We don’t want to remain silent,” Al Tunaiji says, adding, “We don’t want to see killing, raping and stealing and the destruction of countries and their history.”
While other nations are paralyzed by economic, political and social crisis—or simply have a lack of vision, motivation or leadership, the UAE is taking a lead.
“Millions of people are living on the edge… We have no room for failure. If we don’t succeed, they will die,” Al Tunaiji warns.
The world is at a crossroads. An unparalleled hate-campaign against foreigners has been on the rise everywhere.
The FBI reports a tremendous increase of hate crimes in the U.S., and immigrants are the most frequent targets, but blacks, Muslims and other minorities also reported being victimized in schools, streets and houses of worship. The episodes have included both verbal harassment and physical attacks.
More than 700 cases of hateful harassment have been announced to U.S. law enforcement between November 9—the day after the presidential elections—and November 16.
U.S. financier George Soros links the “incendiary rhetoric” of Trump’s campaign to the tremendous increase in hate crimes.
“Dark forces have been awakened by the election,” Soros warned.
A serious media crisis is also causing a global lack of vision and values which is now about to be filled by show-offs, haters, fanatics and terrorists.
Almost all quality newspapers face financial challenges. Many publications went out of print. Even the BBC laid off 12,000 employees.
The UAE Ministry of tolerance aims to fill this dangerous vacuum, and tolerance media initiatives are about to be set up.
Unbiased news could inform the world about the true values and the essence of Islam. Online platforms and social media campaigns could be very efficient, according to UAE officials.
“We need to make sure that the minds of people are not hijacked,” Al Tunaiji urges.
But the UAE cannot do it alone, Al Tunaiji says, adding,“We are seeking the support of the good guys all over the word.”
Newsweek Middle East also spoke to people in the UAE who shared their experience when it comes to showing tolerance and coexistence.
Many expressed their worry about the quick spread of hatred in the West, and the rise in radicalism and racism.
Lal Jangid, a 39 year old driver from India expressed his gratitude to his Emirati employer. “I love her, she saved the life of my wife,” he says with a smile.
According to Jangid’s story, Thoraya Al Awadhi, an Emirati businesswoman paid for a heart surgery of her driver’s wife in India, without even second guessing his request. Cita Jangid survived the operation, and Lal has eternal gratitude for Al Awadhi in his heart.
Such openness, compassion, generosity and kindness, virtues which come naturally to Emiratis and many people all over the world, are now threatened.
And for that, Al Qasimi is rallying not only her UAE compatriots, but also the world to support a new global tolerance movement.
In such a gloomy era, one would remember the reason behind Sheikh Mohammed’s decision to appoint the world’s first ministers of happiness, tolerance and the youngest minister ever. He took to the media writing an article on the reasons behind his decision.
“We have learned from hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of refugees in our region that sectarian, ideological, cultural and religious bigotry only fuel the fires of rage. We cannot and will not allow this in our country. We need to study, teach, and practice tolerance and to instill it in our children, both through education and our own example,” Sheikh Mohammed wrote.
“Tolerance is no catchphrase, but a quality we must cherish and practice. It must be woven into the fabric of our society to safeguard our future and maintain the progress we have made. There can be no bright future for the Middle East without an intellectual reconstruction that re-establishes the values of ideological openness, diversity, and acceptance of others’ viewpoints, whether intellectual, cultural, or religious,” he added.