November 16, the International Day for Tolerance, is an important time to reflect on the urgent need to promote greater understanding among all people, and bring cultures together.
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.
Just this month, the UAE hosted a group of religious leaders — including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed el-Tayeb — the centers of the Anglican Church and Sunni Islam — for a frank, honest conversation about how to create more open and tolerant societies. The two leaders were in Abu Dhabi, highlighting shared values and advocating for greater compassion and acceptance of all cultures.
These are the same values shared by Emiratis, and have been ingrained in the UAE’s DNA since my country’s founding in 1971. It is why over 200 nationalities call the UAE home. It is why different religions have built 40 churches and three temples (with a fourth on the way) in my country.
These innate values are also why the UAE government and private sector have made such great strides to promote tolerance on a national, and even international, scale.
Through government initiatives, policy organizations and our own rule of law, we’re creating a place where people from all backgrounds, faiths, nationalities and perspectives can join together to learn, engage in artistic expression, and exchange ideas.
The UAE recently established a National Tolerance Program and appointed the world’s first tolerance minister, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, who is tasked with strengthening the government’s role as an “incubator” of tolerance. At a time when the world is filled with so much bigotry, the creation of this ministry is crucial in promoting tolerance, coexistence and respect for others throughout the UAE.
Just recently, the UAE Cabinet also voted to implement the Charter of Tolerance, Coexistence and Peace. This set of agreements — which embraces cultural diversity, and rejects violence, extremism and racism for all citizens, residents and employees in the UAE — is the platform on which the National Tolerance Program operates and achieves its goals.
Several organizations — including the General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowment, the Muslim Council of Elders and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies — promote tolerant teachings of Islam and peace within Muslim societies through the dissemination of the true values of Islam.
Whether these organizations are operating call centers that field questions about Islam, or hosting conferences that spread themes of peace and cooperation, they play a vital role in amplifying the UAE’s values.
These initiatives are unique in the Middle East, and can serve as an example and road map for others in the region to follow. However, none of this would work without having the right laws on the books.
The UAE constitution explicitly guarantees freedom for all to exercise religious worship of their choosing. There are also anti-discriminatory laws in place that forbid citizens and residents from discriminating against anyone because of class, culture or religion.
These laws and national programs are how the archbishop and the imam are able to meet and discuss such important issues together in a church, a church situated in a country with a population that is over 75% Muslim.
Importantly, being tolerant does not mean acquiescing to those who view tolerance with hatred and scorn, and seek to destabilize the region by fomenting sectarianism and fanaticism. In fact, the UAE remains steadfast in its commitment to combat and overcome all forms of extremism and terrorism.
Currently, a military battle is being waged to drive ISIS from Mosul, Iraq, and victory there will be a turning point in the international community’s efforts to defeat this terrorist group. However, the UAE is equally committed to fighting a less visible battle of values and ideas, which will set a course for a more stable and prosperous Middle East region.
As the world observes the International Day of Tolerance, we must learn to live with each other, and engage genuinely with people from other backgrounds. It’s how we learn; how we grow; and in the end, how we become better — as individuals and as a society.
The UAE has been doing this for decades. And as Emiratis look to the future, we will continue to pursue a different path for the Middle East based on tolerance, openness and coexistence.
Yousef Al Otaiba is the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States. The views expressed are his own.