2.1. Contextualizing ‘Moderate Islam’
Donor diplomacy followed suit:The changes reflect what we have learned from events in our region over the past five years. In particular, we have learned that failure to respond effectively to the aspirations of young people, who represent more than half of the population in Arab countries, is like swimming against the tide (…) We do not forget that the genesis of the tension in our region, the events dubbed the “Arab Spring,” was squarely rooted in the lack of opportunities for young people to achieve their dreams and ambitions (…) We have also 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 (…) When the Arab world was tolerant and accepting of others, it led the world: From Baghdad to Damascus to Andalusia and farther afield, we provided beacons of science, knowledge, and civilization, because humane values were the basis of our relationships with all civilizations, cultures, and religions. Even when our ancestors left Andalusia, people of other faiths went with them.
The UAE aid has only humanitarian objectives. It is neither governed by politics nor is limited by geography, race, colour or religion of the beneficiary. This is a practical application of the principle of tolerance in the UAE. This policy was laid down by the founder President of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan who stressed that foreign aid and assistance is one of the basic pillars of UAE foreign policy.
2.2. Putting UAE Public Diplomacy to Test
Divisiveness and polarization are on the rise across the world, and—if left unchecked—this trend will undermine global stability and peace. The UAE is pushing against this rising tide by creating a model that can serve as a road map for others to promote greater tolerance and openness. Unique government policies, innovative partnerships and interfaith dialogues are three of the ways the UAE is leading by example.
- Reviving the spirit of coexistence that used to preside in Muslim societies;
- Reviving the humanistic values among all religions;
- Resorting to scientific methodologies in order to correct distorted views on religion;
- Encouraging the Ulema to preach tolerance and peace;
- Enhancing the role of the United Arab Emirates in spreading peace, security and prosperity in Muslim and non-Muslim societies alike (PEACEMS 2014).
Undoubtedly, international conferences constitute a powerful asset in public diplomacy. Together with the Moroccan dynasty, the Emirates provided their valuable ‘know how’ in holding the Conference for the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Lands in Marrakesh, in January 2016. The Conference resulted in the famous Marrakesh Declaration—the purpose of which is to alleviate Western concerns over the fate of non-Muslims in Muslim societies (Marrakesh Declaration 2016). Central themes in Islamic tradition and historiography such as the Charter of Medina—a document referring to Prophet Muhammad’s contract with the people of Medina who offered him shelter after the Hijra (622 AD)—are reinvented under the prism of present-day minority issues, interfaith dialogues and common counter-extremism efforts. Another such event is the World Tolerance Summit that is hosted by Dubai every November, since 2018, in conjunction with UNESCO’s International Day for Tolerance (16 November). Its first session was attended by 1866 participants from 105 countries around the world (Al-Shaibani 2019).The UAE has a new vision for the Middle East region—an alternative, future-oriented model that supports moderate Islam, empowers women, embraces diversity, encourages innovation and welcomes global engagement. These values have been ingrained in the UAE’s DNA since the country’s founding in 1971. It explains why over 200 nationalities call the UAE home and why different religions have built approximately 40 churches, two Hindu temples, a Sikh temple and a Buddhist temple, which welcome multi-national congregations.
Different religions have built 40 churches, two Hindu temples and a Sikh temple, all on land donated freely by the ruling authorities, who welcome multi-national congregations in the UAE. The region’s largest Anglican Church is currently being built in Abu Dhabi and will accommodate more than 4000 worshipers once complete.
2.3. Containing the Threat of Political Islam
The previous passage directly refers to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in addition to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood experience, castigating the subversive role played by the Islamists every time they have meddled with politics. What is even more interesting, though, is how the Emirati ‘moderate Islam’ campaign demonizes Islamists of all stripes. In other words, under the pretext of ‘distorting Sharia and the teachings of religious tradition’, non-militant Islamist parties committed to democracy, elections and socio-political reform are easily equated with Osama bin Laden, the Taliban or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As one Emirati writer puts it ‘Islam has been hijacked by the Islamists and should be reclaimed by the forces of moderation’ (Al-Sawafi 2014). The whole campaign is reminiscent of the post-9/11 USA neoconservative ‘bad and good Muslim’ rhetoric.Our greatest concern is to shed light on the political outcomes that stem from the distortion of the Islamic Sharia (…) interpreting the teachings of our religion out of their original context has given the necessary pretexts to forces threatening social peace in Muslim societies, specifically those who are still trying to recover from regime change, meanwhile other forces have even attempted to reshape international order and replace the nation state with their self–declared ‘Islamic Caliphate’. There is no parallel in these entities’ usurpation of religious symbols and terminology.
In the passage of the last five years, the Emirati–Azharite partnership came to the surface as the bastion of ‘moderate Islam’; an alternative to both Ikhwanism and Salafism. The Egyptian President, Sisi, has been cautious enough to undertake a national campaign of fighting atheism, while pressing al-Azhar to revise its curricula in the direction of al-wasatiyya (religious centrism) and apply scrutiny on suspicious fatwas (Ibrahim 2014; Mourad and Bayoumi 2015). After the ordeal in Bataclan, Al-Azhar even asked the French government to send its imams to teach French Muslims ‘moderate Islam’ (France24 2015). In the 2016 Grozny conference, the UAE together with al-Azhar and Russia redefined what Sunni Islam ‘ought to be’ and irritated the Saudi Ulema by excluding Salafism as intolerant and prone to Takfīr. The invitation of the Grand Mufti of Syria was a sign of the Emirati–Egyptian intentions to co-opt another staunch enemy of the Ikhwan, Bashar al-Assad (Diwan 2016). The Emirates for their part, organized a series of lectures delivered in the mosques of Dubai, throughout 2019, highlighting Islam’s moderate stance on scientific, social and religious topics (Gulf News 2019).The forum’s biggest concern revolves around how religious fanaticism and terrorism will be defeated in the hearts of the people before materializing into actions (…) it is the duty of the Ulema, the governments and other institutions to instruct Muslims on the proper forms of religiosity and religious behavior (…) there is no doubt that our Islamic pharmacy is able to prescribe the right medication to the patients in order to get rid of the disease of violence once and for all.
3. Conclusions: Caught between ‘Soft’ and ‘Sharp Power’?
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As Islamists (al-islamiyeen) are defined those Muslims who consider Islam to be a complete socio-political and economic system, as well as, a cultural program, rather than a religion that is concentrated solely on spiritual matters. For this reason, analysts tend to use the term Political Islam and Islamism interchangeably. The historical matrix of this modern ideology was the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the writings of its founder, the school teacher Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949). The evolution of Islamism has gone part and parcel with the political and social development of the Arab and the Muslim nation-states throughout the 20th century. Some groups of Islamists turned out to be extremely militant, engaged in terrorist attacks against Muslims and non-Muslims alike and even attempted to overthrow governments via armed revolts, whereas other groups respected central authorities and generally espoused non-violence. In terms of European political standards, those Islamists could be described as socially conservative and economically liberal, i.e., the ‘Islamic equivalent’ of Christian democratic center-right parties. An Islamist party (Al-Nahda) has been part of the Tunisian governing coalition for many years, while AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party, is also considered Islamist in its ideology and origins. In Egypt, although the Muslim Brothers won parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012, they demonstrated illiberal tendencies in order to secure their rule.
The UAE parliament consists of 40 members—20 of them are elected every 8 years, while the rest are directly appointed by the Ruler’s Court in every Emirate. Its authority is mostly consultative and not legislative, given the fact that it has the right only to review the laws presented to it by the Cabinet. No federal law can pass without the final approval of the Emirati Cabinet. Available online: https://www.government.ae/en/about-the-uae/the-uae-government/the-federal-national-council- (accessed on 16/11/2019).
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