Emirati Tolerance: A Necessary Role Model for a Beleaguered Middle East
Wherever one looks in the Middle East region, it is difficult to see beyond the impact of extremism on religion, culture, education, and politics. Hatred, wars, anarchy, sectarianism, instability, and crises define perceptions both within and outside the area; extremism seems to have hijacked any other view.
There is no question that extremism is an imminent danger that can lead to the long-term erosion of peace and productivity in the region and throughout the world. It is a metastasizing and debilitating intra-religious conflict. Yet, more and more, we come to realize that intercession by force only exacerbates the crisis—a solution cannot be achieved by military force alone. Instead, astute local and international leaders could better mitigate extended violence by looking to existing models of inter-cultural comity in the region and actively promoting these.
Extremists claim to represent the essence of Islam, and by extension of the region. They do not represent either. Historical facts belie perceptions that turmoil in the name of religion has been the driving and dividing factor between the region’s diverse societies. On the contrary, tolerance has defined relations throughout the Middle East, in its different states, for many eras. The very fact of so many minorities living in majority-dominated areas today clearly speaks to this norm of a culture of tolerance.
There are, for example, Christians in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, who continue to be part of the social fabric of the societies in which they live. It is not widely known that a Jewish minority still exists in Bahrain and has done so in peace and harmony for thousands of years. Some of its members have filled prominent posts in the Bahraini government.
There are innumerable examples of peaceful co-existence, stretching back centuries. Just a sampler: In Iraq, the Caliphate Al Moatded appointed a Christian as governor in Al Anbar in the year 279 Hijri (892 AD). Boutros Ghali, who was a Coptic Christian, was the prime minster of Egypt during the monarchy era. Salahulddin, the famous Muslim leader, was Kurdish.
It was this culture of tolerance that allowed the region to flourish and to enrich the world with great civilizations that have endured. Today, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and particularly Dubai, have an important role to play in perpetuating this culture.
It is true that the UAE and Dubai are not democratic entities in the Western sense of the word. Yet they have managed to build a governmental and economic system that continues to work efficiently, at least compared to anything in the region. Economic growth, human development, and state-of-the-art infrastructure have thrived, even as conflict incessantly rages just beyond the UAE’s borders. In large part, this success is built on broad-based economic opportunity, and the understanding that it is just such opportunity that dilutes conflict, encourages tolerance, and unites disparate groups under the common goals of development.
Durable visions of economic opportunity require cultures of tolerance. More than 200 nationalities live together in the UAE, from a diverse set of religious populations. These communities generate economic synergies that benefit each of them in various ways. When, for example, the UAE recently approved construction of a Hindu temple, the message of tolerance was heard loud and clear by a Hindu community that, as a result, is all the more encouraged and empowered to contribute its professional skills and commercial energies to the common mission. Our leaders need to continue to take such steps.
The UAE is not perfect. There is much work to do, more in some areas than others. Overall, however, there is extraordinary progress, a vigorous collective sense of mission, and as much openness as our society allows. If a regime can concentrate its efforts in convincing people that they are the inevitable beneficiaries of economic growth, and that extremism only hinders these benefits, who will listen to the voices of extremism?
I believe it is reasonable to suggest that the world, as well as the region, might look to the UAE as a realistic alternative, one in which people are united first and foremost by economic goals, to the mayhem around it. We must turn away from extremism, but also claim an equal stake to representing the region and its dominant religion. The UAE, with its economic goals and culture of tolerance is as much of the Middle East as other nations that position themselves as the authentic or true bastions of Islam, with little understanding of the religion’s multi-faceted nature and openness. The UAE must embrace its identity as a leader of the region rather than try to set itself apart. Absent that vital sense of connection, all other solutions for peace and prosperity in the Middle East boil down to square pegs in proverbial round holes.