Can religious tolerance help an aspiring Muslim power?

Why We Wrote This

The UAE has long had warm feelings toward non-Muslims who helped build it up from its humble beginnings. But interfaith tolerance is still an asset. It sends an important message of shared values with Western allies.

Taylor Luck
A vendor at a shop adjacent to the Dubai Hindu temple sells a ready-made prasadam offering plate to a temple-goer in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 22.

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Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, a member of the United Arab Emirates’ ruling family, drops the word “tolerance” so frequently it sounds like a mantra. His grandfather offered land for the first church in the Emirati capital as the ruler of Abu Dhabi more than a half-century ago. “We have a history of living alongside the other and respecting the other, and we don’t want to take this for granted,” Sheikh Nahyan says.

Owing to the arrival of migrants from across the world, the UAE has become a seamless meeting place of faiths and cultures. And it is billing itself as an interfaith leader, having declared 2019 to be a national “year of tolerance” that was headlined with a visit by Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi in February. Its neighbors and close allies are less tolerant. Saudi Arabia has banned the building of churches or temples.

As the UAE emerges as a leading military and economic power in the region, its leadership is committed to pushing a friendly, tolerant image to the world. Showing it is open to other religions is not only good for business; it also sends the message that the UAE shares values with its Western allies.

Indian women in saris carefully place candles at an outdoor grotto of the Virgin Mary and kneel in prayer as couples from Uganda and Nigeria pour into the nearby chapel.

Arab Chaldeans, Maronites, and Latin Catholics laugh together as they enter a unified Arabic-language Catholic church service; Egyptian and Sudanese families gather in front of the next-door Coptic church; and English expats head into the Anglican church.

Pakistani bus drivers snap pictures with their phones as 15 Filipino brides and grooms pose for wedding photos outside St. Joseph’s Church ahead of their mass wedding.

All the while, Filipinos line up for mashed purple yam cakes and polvorón shortbread at an outdoor bake sale in the church courtyard, with the Islamic call to prayer from the neighboring Jesus Son of Mariam Mosque ringing out overhead.

This is not an international festival; it’s a Sunday in Abu Dhabi.

Owing to the arrival of migrants from across the world, the collection of tiny Arab Emirates at the tip of the Persian Gulf – an international financial powerhouse and a growing diplomatic and military power in the Arab world – has become a seamless meeting place of faiths and cultures.

The United Arab Emirates is also billing itself as an interfaith leader, having declared 2019 to be a national “year of tolerance” that was headlined with a visit by Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi in February – the first-ever papal visit to the Gulf in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

But even as this oil-rich country’s rulers promote harmony, the country’s ultraconservative laws strictly forbid these faithful from seeking to convert Muslims or from publicly displaying crosses. Its neighbors and close allies promote an austere interpretation of Islam with less tolerant attitudes toward other organized religions. Saudi Arabia, its closest ally, has banned the building of churches or temples.

The lure of the Islamic State group remains for some in the region, while an uneasy gray area exists between violent extremist movements and conservative Muslim televangelists who dominate Gulf airwaves and are suspicious of other faiths.

So the question remains: Can this petrodollar expat haven of sleek skyscrapers and polished public-relations campaigns truly be a beacon for interfaith tolerance in the Muslim Gulf and the wider Middle East?

More is at stake than a simple PR campaign.

As the UAE emerges as a leading power in the region, its leadership is committed to pushing a friendly, tolerant image to the world and its Western allies.

Showing it is open to other religions is not only good for business with the West, India, and Asia; it also sends the message that the UAE shares values with its Western allies. Saudi Arabia’s inability to do so has led it to become a pariah in many capitals.

As the UAE steps up its military and political involvement across North Africa, the Arab world, and farther afield, Abu Dhabi believes that the best way to head off criticism or opposition is to show that Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jews are all welcome to worship on Emirati soil.

Emirates of migrants

The UAE’s history with non-Muslim faiths is rooted in the humble beginnings of the young country and is part of the story of its rise from poverty into a global economic power.

Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism all had a foothold in the Emirates and were communities before the Emirates gained independence and entered the United Nations in 1971. The communities grew in size as the UAE’s oil industry absorbed influxes of expatriate engineers, administrators, and oil rig workers.

When oil was discovered here in 1958, decades before petrodollars filled their coffers, the pre-independence Emirates were served by few schools or basic medical facilities. Churches and foreign missionaries helped the UAE to modernize.

In 1960, American Christian missionaries established the Oasis Hospital in the town of Al Ain. They served the ruling families and revolutionized prenatal and neonatal health in the Emirates, cutting infant mortality rates from a staggering 50% to 5% within a few short years.

In 1967, the Catholic Church opened St. Joseph’s School, Abu Dhabi’s first private school, and a year later St. Mary’s high school in Dubai.

The social outreach was noticed by the ruling families, and the appreciation is still felt today.

“The government here is grateful to Christians, as Christians contributed to the development of the country and have proven to be trustworthy,” says the Rev. Gandalf Wild, vice secretary of the Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia based in Abu Dhabi.

Taylor Luck
Worshippers from across the world gather for an English language Sunday Mass led by the Rev. Gandalf Wild at St. Joseph's Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 17. English is one of 15 languages offered by the Catholic Church in the Gulf country.

As the UAE shifted its focus to becoming a global economic hub at the turn of the 21st century, its expatriate community exploded to some 8 million, attracting workers from across Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe.

Expatriates now outnumber Emiratis 4 to 1. In Dubai there are more than 40 churches and dozens more Christian denominations that share chapels, a large Sikh temple, a Buddhist temple, and two Hindu temples, and several informal Jewish prayer groups meet in rented office spaces or apartments. A cornerstone for a new Hindu temple was laid in Abu Dhabi in April.

Different faith communities and cultures work together and pray side by side to the point that they have become indispensable to one another. All find a shared community in prayer.

Patriarchs and Vishnu

At St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Abu Dhabi, it’s Bible study night, and men and women from the Philippines, India, Uganda, and elsewhere have gathered, sitting in lines of folding chairs, a large wooden cross hanging above.

The diverse group is continuing an “Introduction to the Patriarchs” lesson, skimming through Genesis 15 through 22, stopping at Abraham’s preparations to sacrifice Isaac.

“We come from all over the world and speak different languages, but we are united in our love for our Lord,” says Lawrence, a student.   

Coexistence is also evident at the Hindu and Sikh temples at Bur Dubai, buried in the heart of the port city’s mazelike historic souk near the seaside.

Stairs lead up to the second floor of the converted shop, where Hindu shipyard porters and CEOs pray at shrines for Shiva and Krishna; others continue to the third floor, cover their hair, and enter the Sikh temple, where a trio of men plays a calming, trancelike kirtan song on the stringed dilruba and drums.

Linking the two temples is a small, open-air kitchen by the stairway where Sikhs provide small meals of pilaf and lentils to all  Hindu, Sikh, and visitor alike.

“We pray at the temple each day; we put up lights for Diwali,” says Priya, an Indian national who has lived in the UAE for 10 years, as she leaves the temple. “It is like we are back home, but we get to share it with others who have no idea of our religion.”

Several prayer-goers stop at a small, street-level shop next to the Hindu and Sikh temples. It offers a rest stop for worshippers to place their sandals, strings of flower necklaces, and a counter of ready-made food offerings of bananas, apples, oranges, milk, and sweets on plastic-foam plates to place at the shrines.

The owner, Ahmed Mohammed, is a Shiite Muslim. Originally from Iran, Mr. Mohammed says he sees no contradiction in running a store catering to his neighbors and friends of 25 years.

“We all come from different places, but we are all one people here in Dubai. We support one another and help one another,” he says as he sells a prasadam plate to an Indian couple. “These values are present in all religions, whether Islam, Hinduism, or Sikhism.”

Breaking bread

Solidarity is served on a plate at Gurunanak Darbar Sikh Temple, the largest Sikh temple in the Arab world.

The ornate three-story temple stands across from Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and evangelical churches on a plot of land donated by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed al Makhtoum. It’s in the Jabel Ali area on the outskirts of Dubai, a few miles away from one of the largest worker camps in the Arab world.

The temple entrance leads to its langar, a gleaming, ultramodern 18-hour-a-day community kitchen with a catering staff on hand to provide three meals for 1,500 people each day. On Fridays, the temple feeds some 10,000 visitors.

The temple, completed in 2012, does not only provide for the Sikh community; Muslim, Hindu, and Christian factory and shipyard workers from Asia and across the world also rely on this temple for their daily meals. During Ramadan, the temple provides iftar meals for Muslims.

With an estimated 50% of its visitors non-Sikhs, the temple even dedicated a separate prayer room for visitors to pray and meditate, whatever their faith.

“Anyone can come here and venerate Allah or the Virgin Mary,” says Rajdeep Singh, the Gurunanak Darbar hospitality manager, as he opens the door to the guest prayer room. “This is not only a Sikh temple; this is a temple for all humanity. We believe humanity is the first religion.”

At the temple’s langar kitchen and eating area, men in fitted suits and crisply starched oxford shirts sit cross-legged on a long carpet next to workers with cement-stained jeans, 70-year-old matriarchs, and 7-year-olds, over plates of lentils, yogurt, vegetables, and rice pudding.

Worshippers say the religious tolerance in the Emirates has had social implications as well, bringing together those on vastly different rungs of the UAE’s pulsing, global economy who would otherwise never meet – from the brick-layers to the billionaires.

“When you walk into this temple or a church, money, title, positions are all dissolved,” Sanjay Kalwani, an Indian national who works in shipping, says as he and his wife, Sabna, sit down for plates of rice and lentils following an evening prayer at the Sikh temple.

“A billionaire CEO will pray and eat right next to a factory worker, and no one gets special treatment. We are all praying away from our homes, and in this interfaith community, we all share a common need.”

No proselytizing, no politics

But to conform with Islamic norms, faith groups also face limits.

Under Emirati law and a long-standing unspoken arrangement with the ruling family, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh religious groups do not proselytize or attempt to convert Muslims – a criminal act in the UAE. Apostasy by Muslims is punishable by death under the law, although there is no known legal case or prosecution in the UAE’s history.

Due to Islam’s ban against idolatry, Hindu temples were previously required to place images, rather than physical idols, in their shrines.

Human rights watchdogs say religious freedoms for non-Muslims in the UAE are by and large respected. A law bans discrimination on the basis of religion, and the government does not require faith groups to register or be licensed.

The key, church and temple leaders say, is “no politics.”

Religious leaders and communities here do not step into politics or even comment on decision-making. Foreign workers and expatriates refrain from discussing or criticizing Emirati laws, policies, or the ruling families in public.

The strict separation between worship and politics has fostered a harmonious relationship not only between the Emirati state and religious leaders, but also among the various faith groups themselves, whose leaders say they are more than happy to keep it this way.

But if the world’s religions are welcome, Emirati authorities have been less lenient with variations of Islam, human rights advocates say. 

Any deviation from the state-sponsored Sunni Islam is viewed as a direct challenge to the state itself.

“There is no room whatsoever for any interpretation of Islam in the UAE other than their own,” says Hiba Zayadin, UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As soon as you are out of step or criticize the state’s definition of moderate Islam, you are in trouble.”

Wary of the Muslim Brotherhood, which challenges the Gulf monarchies’ grip on power, the UAE has jailed Brotherhood sympathizers as terrorists and discourages various strands of Sunni and Shiite Islam from holding public displays of worship.

Rising tide of tolerance?

In 2017, to promote the UAE’s interfaith outreach at home and across the region, the Emirates created the world’s first “Ministry of Tolerance.”

It is headed by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, a member of the ruling family who drops the word “tolerance” so frequently it sounds like a mantra. His grandfather, Shakbut Al Nahyan, offered land for the first church in the Emirati capital as the ruler of Abu Dhabi more than a half-century ago.

“We have a history of living alongside the other and respecting the other, and we don’t want to take this for granted,” Sheikh Nahyan says. Noting the presence of extremist groups elsewhere in the region, he adds, “We have to protect future generations from intolerance.”

The UAE’s leaders are confident their model can encourage a change of approach in the Gulf.

“After the pope’s visit, Saudi newspapers had headlines and stories stating that ‘Pope’s next visit to the Gulf will be Saudi Arabia,’” Sheikh Nahyan noted. 

“We believe light will prevail at the end, and by upholding good human principles of acceptance and tolerance here in the UAE, we are playing our role to help spread this light in the region.”

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