As The Islamic Faith Meets New Challenges, Tolerance Is The Way Forward

By Omar Saif Ghobash
02 June 2019
Dispatch
Illustration: Aistė Stancikaitė
While we may be in a period of both promise and threat, the only way to progress is as one

May you live in interesting times.

As I’m currently taking a sabbatical in Beijing to study the language and culture of China, it seems appropriate to refer to one of its best-known sayings when writing about the Arab world.

Full disclosure, I’ll admit while looking at the state of the world today, the saying probably has little real connection with China itself. But the fact is inescapable: we do seem to be experiencing an unending sequence of interesting times. Our region and wider world finds itself in a cauldron of turmoil and change.

Our economies are continuing to discover the mysteries of globalisation and the march of technologies across borders. As citizens and as residents, we wonder what happened to the economic good times of the early 2000s before extremism reared its ugly head. In particular, the region is witnessing remarkable events in the field of religious ideas and practices, and the current socio-political environment proposes both rising promise and retreating threat.
First was the rejection of the extremism of ISIS. The ‘caliphate’ – composed of religious radicals, pious thrill seekers and straightforwardly opportunistic criminals of the worst kind – looks to have come to an end. This should be cause for celebration. And it is for the most part. But the defeat of a territorial presence does not necessarily mean a defeat for the ideology of hate that has brainwashed minds both of the region and from further afield.

Extremism can only be defeated from within by an unshakeable commitment to tolerance, a theme I tackled in my 2016 book, Letters To A Young Muslim. Since then I have often pondered that path in the face of the unfortunate and continuing recent rise in Islamophobia around the world.

Many parts of the Middle East, and the Gulf region in particular, are defined by their relationship to the Islamic faith. The Arabian Peninsula is the birthplace of Islam and, of course, has a special place in the Muslim world.

So what do we do when we travel and experience or witness hate? How do we react when we see terrible crimes such as the mosque massacre in New Zealand? It seems to me that Islamophobia has at least two causes.

Firstly, the people who hold the belief that white people are superior to other races. They are dying out because the world has become a globalised multicultural one where racist privilege is undermined by economic change. When it comes to proportioning blame for this, it’s convenient to generalise by using incidents involving misguided extremists to make all Muslims appear the root cause. Of course, the problems of the Islamophobe run much deeper than that rationale, but Muslims are often seen as the scapegoat.

The second cause must be the fear of the unknown on the part of those who attack Islam and Muslims. This is not so simple to deal with. We have been so integrated with our faith and practices that it’s odd to take a step back and think of how others perceive us. We need to engage in an exercise of abstraction. We need to help the non-Muslim world understand that Islam and the Muslims consist of a wide-ranging set of practices and beliefs. And the way to do that is, more than ever, through tolerance, rejection of extremist thought and resistance of any temptation to rise to provocation. That is the true power of Islam.
Our understanding of our faith is changing, evolving and transitioning into something more accommodating of a world that is connected economically and culturally. Intellectually, our faith is passing through a very exciting time. In fact, some of the changes and major events can be seen in the same light as the actions of technological disruptors.

Take the visit of the Pope to the UAE in February, a landmark addition to traditional religious norms. The UAE welcomed the leader of the Catholic Church and demonstrated the ability to live together and even worship together.

The visit came as a surprise to all involved, having been arranged within a very short period of time. Yet it clearly demonstrated the conviction of the UAE that we need to step boldly into the space of tolerance, acceptance and coexistence, and put behind us the insularity and xenophobia of those who claim to know better.

The Gulf region and the Islamic faith face both promise and threat, and we are the ones to conceive of different and better ways of living and working together. Interesting times indeed.