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Vision for a moderate, modern Muslim world

Beyond encouraging religious diversity and tolerance, the UAE is also seeding an ideology of optimism

Gulf News

In St Petersburg, Sinai, Bamako, Beirut, Mosul and Paris, the world has been shocked by a murderous month of Islamic extremist violence.

With a more sophisticated enemy and the return of radicalised fighters, the Middle East’s terrorism challenge has become a global challenge in a way not seen since the 9/11 attacks.

The so-called Islamic State (or Daesh) must be defeated on the field of battle, but also in the war of conflicting ideologies. As Muslims, we have the most at stake and must be leaders on both fronts.

In the UAE, we are joined with the international community to bring new energy to the fight against the most destabilising and dangerous force since fascism.

For more than 12 years, from the air and on the ground, the UAE has been combating extremists in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. We continue to aggressively attack extremist support networks — blocking the flow of funds and foreign fighters, contesting extremists online and devising new counter-radicalisation strategies.

But success on the battlefield may be the easy part. We know that to win, we must not only defeat what we are against, but we must also define what we as Muslims and Arabs are for.

True victory can only come when the more powerful forces of tolerance and progress prevail over the twisted ideology of Islamic State and its kind.

Is this even possible in the Middle East? One hundred years after the Sykes-Picot agreement, can the region overcome its history of sectarian and ethnic division? Is there a new model of and for the Middle East, built on hope rather than hate?

In the UAE, we are trying to find out. We are testing a new vision for the region — an alternative, future-oriented ideology. It is a path guided by the true tenets of Islam: Respect, inclusion and peace. It empowers women, embraces diversity, encourages innovation and welcomes global engagement.

“In the UAE, we are building an economic engine for the entire region”
-Yousef Al Otaiba
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With the world’s attention focused on the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it went largely unnoticed that Amal Al Qubaisi was appointed president of the UAE’s Federal National Council, making her the first woman in the region to lead a national assembly. An architect by profession, she was also the first woman to be a member of the council.

Just weeks earlier, a group of Emirati and expatriate religious, political and diplomatic leaders celebrated the reopening of the restored St Andrew’s Church in Abu Dhabi. The Anglican church’s chaplain, the Rev. Canon Andrew Thompson, said: “In many ways, it’s easier being a Christian here than it is back in the United Kingdom.”

‘An exemplary model’

Father Bishoy Salib of Abu Dhabi’s Coptic Orthodox Church recently expressed a similar sentiment: “The UAE is an exemplary worldwide model of multi-religion gathering and cooperation. This is the peaceful environment where all regions can grow and meet each other.”

In the same spirit of openness, the Emirati government announced this summer that it is donating the land for the country’s third Hindu temple. These churches and temples — along with many other centres of worship — serve the nearly eight million expatriates of virtually all faiths and nationalities who live and work together peacefully in the UAE.

Also little noticed was the November 21 meeting in Cairo of the Muslim Council of Elders, which strongly condemned the Paris and Mali massacres. The council is an international body of forward-thinking scholars and experts that is giving greater voice to moderate Islam. Established and supported by Emirati leaders, the council is modernising the way Islam is taught in schools, developing new training programmes for imams, and updating Quranic commentaries.

Beyond encouraging religious diversity and tolerance, we are also seeding an ideology of optimism and opportunity. In Washington this week, the UAE joins NASA in recognising the UAE Space Agency and its ambitious plans to put a probe on Mars in 2021 — our country’s 50th anniversary. For the UAE, this is the Arab world’s version of former American president John F. Kennedy’s moon shot — a galvanising vision for the future that can engage and excite a new generation of Emirati and Arab youth.

Putting a probe on Mars is a vision for the future, but putting people to work is the challenge of today. In the UAE, we are building an economic engine for the entire region, a place where the free flow of goods, services, people, investment and ideas lift the entire Middle East and link it to Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. It is a sustainable post-hydrocarbon economy — driven by innovation, human capital, rule of law and open trade.

In the UAE, we believe it is possible to be Muslim, moderate and modern at the same time. We are committed to promoting this ideology of openness, optimism and opportunity across the region. Arab parents can and should believe that their children’s future can be better than their own. We know it is a vision, but also a realistic and attainable one — no less difficult or less inspiring than launching a man to the moon or a mission to Mars.

— Foreign Policy/New York Times News Service

Yousef Al Otaiba is UAE Ambassador to the United States.

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