The universal debate over the role of Islam in contemporary world politics assigns for the United Arab Emirates a prominent role. The United Arab Emirates has tried to help every government and every reformist force throughout the Islamic world that is attempting to prevent the rise of political Islam. We must remember that political Islam is very much extremist. It is an intolerant form of Islam. Otherwise, Islam has a large heart. Islam has the opportunity to interact with people of other faiths fairly and reasonably, but political Islam has made that difficult. So the United Arab Emirates has been working very hard to stabilise Pakistan, for instance. Pakistan remains a country with over 200 million people with nuclear weapons with the largest military in the Muslim world. Its fall to extremist Islam could be a political earthquake in the Islamic World.
The dilemma of Pakistan is that it is economically always facing problems. Its democratic political system is always undermined by the tendency of some people to use slogans to gain votes. And what is a better slogan for ordinary simple Muslims than to say Islam is the solution? The United Arab Emirates policy in Pakistan has always been to try and develop the economy. This can foster and strengthen the social forces that would like Pakistan to move toward a more modern outlook. This is why the role of the United Arab Emirates is appreciated by all those Pakistanis who understand that the future of their country lies not in political Islam, but in entering the 21st century.
The United Arab Emirates has now become the single biggest advocate of religious tolerance throughout the Muslim world, and also in the non-Muslim world. Pope Francis visited the United Arab Emirates, making the UAE the first Gulf country where a Catholic Pope was welcomed. In addition, the Jewish community has been allowed to build a synagogue. The Hindus have been allowed to build a temple as well. Even the Mormon community, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, will be building a temple in Abu Dhabi soon. What the United Arab Emirates has done is it has proven to non-Muslims that the heart of Islam is big, that Muslims are tolerant, that they are not inherently intolerant of other religions, and that they can deal with other religions as equals.
The philosophy of the United Arab Emirates rests on the logic that recognizes that there are many Muslims who are living in non-Muslim countries. And those non-Muslims and Muslim countries will treat Muslims better only if their co-religionists are treated well inside Muslim countries. In Europe, in America, people who have been very worried about Islam after the terror attacks of September 11 are finding that the United Arab Emirates is proving that Muslims can be tolerant. Accordingly, and as tolerant people, others can work with them, and share their values with Muslims.
Right now, on the positive side, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are the major forces that are trying to contain political Islam. On the negative side, the rise to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan gives all kinds of Jihadi and extremist groups a place where they can assemble without any international observation.
However, there must be a strategic assessment of political Islam. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is not as powerful as it seems to be. Pakistan still has a strong political Islam lobby. The danger lies in the fact that the Pakistani state has not yet decided that it wants to push political Islam completely up to the public space. Its elite knows for sure that such a prospect has created problems for Pakistan. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan has tied up his ideas with those of political Islam. And that remains a problem. To pass a judgment, political Islam is not as strong as it seemed ten years ago. Yet, it remains strong enough for the international community to need to struggle against it.
In contrast, political Islam is alive in Iran, which remains a theocracy. It is a particularly strict kind of political Islam. Iran’s intolerant religion is sheer political Islam. It is also extremism. For sure, Iran continues to be a major spreader of it. They have had some setbacks. For example, the people of Lebanon have pushed back against Hezbollah in the last election, but the power of this militant group is not finished yet.
On the other hand, they do not have the kind of influence they used to have in the past in the Arab world. Another example is southern Arabia. The Houthis are still struggling to take over Yemen completely. There is a lot of pushback against Iran’s clients in that poor nation. Regrettably, the extremist Islamists have won a political power in Afghanistan in the figure of Taliban. This means that there is a new base for them.
At the same time, the United Arab Emirates exercises a lot of influence behind the scenes. It is helping the Afghanis financially. Its subtle diplomacy is manifested in many areas, whether it is in persuading Israel not to be too harsh on the Palestinians in Gaza, or in telling the Indian Government that it needs to stop the pressuring of Muslims into giving up mosques that the Hindus of India suspect were built on the ruins of Hindu temples. These are the things and the challenges that are done quietly by Emirati diplomacy.
In conclusion, the United Arab Emirates's role in promoting tolerance is a role that needs to be appreciated both by Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the whole world. Basically, political Islam is a reactionary ideology. It was a reaction to the rise of the West and the decline of Muslims. In truth, it has not offered any solutions for Muslims. The future of Muslims lies in understanding that they need to progress in science and technology and in politics and economics. Separately, Muslims simultaneously can adhere to their faith and their religion. These are also the ideas that we are seeing in action under Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in the United Arab Emirates. Hopefully and increasingly, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries can emulate the model of Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed.
In principle, the UAE has two roles, one is the public role and the other is the private role. And both roles are contributing to tolerance throughout the world. In this sense, Mohammed bin Zayed is a hero for the entire Muslim world since he is trying to convince the world that Muslims are a community around the world that has accepted the norms and the laws of the modern era.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR…
Dr. Husain Haqqani is a pakistani journalist, academic, political activist and former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States.