Today is Diwali for millions of Indians living in the UAE. Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. The festival has a slightly different connect for people from across India. To those in the North, it means a celebration of the year that went by and an opportunity to start afresh. For my family, Diwali is the celebration of victory of good over evil, a time to meet and greet near and dear ones, to share and partake in tradition, to open the account of life for a new beginning, a new year, an annual trip to the temple, and of course a time to eat, guilt-free, sweets and savouries.
Just as we do on Diwali, my family celebrates and partakes in celebrations of Eid Al-Fitr, Eid Al-Adha, UAE National Day, Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Navruz, Onam, Navratri, Durga Puja, Pongal, Uttran, Baisakhi, Holi and tens of global culture-based festivities. After all, we live in a community of more than 200 nationalities, from scores of religious beliefs, and for virtually each and everyone of us, the UAE is not just a happy country of our current residence, but has become ‘home’ for us too. To use a cliche, ‘our country is a living United Nations’. That said, some of us may be more sceptical about the impact that today’s world feels from global diplomacy, understanding that economic forces tie the world together more than the political powers. This notwithstanding, the fact remains that the UAE, with Arabic as the primary language, hosts nearly 10 times its national base as expatriates.
Has this happened by a fortunate set of circumstances, or has it been by design? I think the truth lies somewhere in between. For starters, full credit goes to the generosity, grace, and benevolence of the forefathers of our Rulers, who, as part of a traditional coastal community, embraced and welcomed visitors from divergent faiths and cultures, without imposing their land’s culture, language or faith on them. The bar has been raised very significantly by our current leaders, both His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, who have not only legislated that even a statement criticising any faith, belief or culture in social media is a criminal offence, but also innovated and appointed Shaikha Lubna Al Qasimi as the world’s first Minister of State for Tolerance. It’s an innovation in modern-day community governance, a true testament to freedom of cultural expression.
So, while I would like to wish Happy Diwali and Saal Mubarak (millions of Gujaratis and Maharashtrians celebrate their New Year the day after Diwali, by greeting each other ‘Saal Mubarak’ or Happy New Year’), we should also be mindful of the fact that any freedom we enjoy, including the freedom of tolerance, necessitates that while we share the positive attributes of our faith and culture with others around us, we also need to be cognizant of not imposing our faith or culture on others.
Avi Bhojani, an author, has multiple professional and personal interests including being the group CEO of BPG Group, MD of Innoventures Education, general partner of AMEA Ventures and board member of the International Institute of Tolerance, UAE.