Region ushering in positive interfaith changes

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Region ushering in positive interfaith changes

I spent last week in Abu Dhabi, attending the fifth assembly of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. With the disclaimer that I advise the forum on inter-religious issues, it was a remarkable event. Not just for the quality of the speeches (many were outstanding) or the opportunities for networking (with 550 senior Muslim scholars and others attending, these were plentiful), but also for the little things that happened, unplanned and natural. 

The topic of the conference was a new “Alliance of Virtues” — a revival of a pre-Islamic alliance in Makkah of which Prophet Muhammad (before his prophecy) was present for the founding. The idea, both of the original and of its revival, was for those of goodwill to gather together, regardless of faith, united around their common values, for the common good. 

Such an alliance is not about syncretism. Present in Abu Dhabi last week we had a large contingent of US evangelical Christians (and other Christians from different backgrounds and countries) who talk about their (and my) faith at every opportunity. They are not concerned that they may be asked to compromise — they know that will not happen. But they relish an opportunity to join forces with others who seek the global common good on the basis of some of the shared virtues of the Abrahamic faiths.

The presence of the evangelicals came alongside a large contingent of Jewish rabbis and other leaders, largely from the US, but some from elsewhere too. Their invitation was not a surprise to me; there has been a growing number of Jewish leaders participating in and speaking at events organized by Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah for a couple of years. But their attendance was doubly appreciated due to the coincidence of the conference with Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.

This festival did not prevent the rabbis’ attendance; all they asked for was an opportunity to celebrate the festival together each evening. And then, last Thursday, they celebrated it in the presence of Sheikh Abdullah, one of the world’s leading Islamic scholars. This was one of the most moving occasions of the conference — not to mention the first time that so many rabbis have celebrated together in the Arabian Peninsula for at least a century. 

This story is not simply to recount what happened at a single event, but to argue that this is as an example of the wider changes that are taking place in the Gulf. The UAE has, for many years, been rightly proud of the welcome it gives to those of other faiths, gladly providing them with places of worship. But this gathering in its capital was not the only event of significance for religious minorities in the Arabian Peninsula in the past few weeks.

The UAE has, for many years, been rightly proud of the welcome it gives to those of other faiths, gladly providing them with places of worship.

Peter Welby

Last week, this paper published a full-page interview with Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, anticipating his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia. This interview followed reports of the first Coptic religious service held in Saudi Arabia at the start of this month. These developments signal a change in attitudes. 

While I was in Abu Dhabi, I joined a meeting of the US Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, with Muslim leaders from across the Muslim world. The time he gave them was appreciated, and the conversation was both honest and cordial. But the changes taking place in the Arabian Peninsula around religion at the moment are not being driven by Western pressure. They are entirely homegrown — and homegrown in response to deeper theological approaches and changing domestic necessities. Both of those aspects give such changes sustainability in a way that changes in response to outside pressure generally don’t. 

It is not just Westerners taken by surprise. Many Muslims have also been shocked by the way that things are going. Some welcome the changes, others recoil in revulsion. Such reactions must be carefully managed. 

Developments around religious freedom in the peninsula are not occurring without theological backing from within Islam, and the scholarship that supports them is not artificial or even particularly radical. It stems from a reassessment of Islamic texts and history, combined with the context in which we find ourselves today, and considerations of the public good; in other words, the key criteria for Islamic scholarship around any matter of jurisprudence. It is important that this thinking and theological underpinning is explained at every opportunity to both supportive and hostile audiences.

Human beings, whatever we like to think of ourselves as individuals, are often conservative on such strongly contested subjects. Psychologically, we are inclined to reject evidence if it contradicts assumptions. Such tendencies are not inevitable — they can be overcome with self-discipline and sound teaching. But sound teaching must be present. At the same time, Western governments must understand the significance and assist where they can. They must do this mindful of the fact that changes in the Arabian Peninsula on such important issues must come with the support from the region’s governments and societies, or they will fail.

  • Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously, he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby
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