There is a need to promote moderate religious discourse that urges embracing values of tolerance and coexistence Image Credit: Jose Luis Barros/©Gulf News

In my previous articles, I have dealt with the importance of tolerance and its role in ensuring societal cohesiveness and internal stability in countries and societies, which constitutes an essential pillar of development and progress in any society.

Building on the general rule that “things are revealed by their opposites”, I dedicate this article to the damage inflicted upon, and opportunities missed by the Arab world as a result of the absence or weakness of a culture of tolerance and acceptance.

The first aspect, which quickly comes to mind when speaking about the losses our Islamic and Arab world has suffered as a result of the absence of a culture of tolerance, and the most dangerous in my opinion, is demonstrated by the spread of violence, radicalism and terrorism.

Unfortunately, it has become a distinctive feature of our Islamic and Arab countries, despite the fact that it is a universal phenomenon not limited to a specific religion or culture, it is a phenomenon that all faiths, cultures and nations have suffered over the ages.

The prevalence of this extremism can be seen in international reports that monitor violence and terrorism, and in daily world news. These reports reveal how our Islamic and Arab world has turned into a hotbed of violence and terrorism that threatens the world as a whole.

For example, in 2014, our region and world witnessed a surge in terrorist activity as a result of the rise of the Daesh terrorist group and other terrorist organisations, such as Al Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood. Five Islamic and Arab countries (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria) accounted for 78 per cent of all deaths caused by terrorism in the world. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2015, from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the figure then reached 80 per cent.

Despite this, the Middle East has seen an improvement in recent years, in terms of violence and terrorist acts, especially after eradicating Daesh strongholds in Syria and Iraq in late 2018, and as a result of the decreasing intensity of civil conflict in Syria, which had provided an environment conducive to the activities of terrorist organisations. Additionally, the Egyptian state has regained strength in facing the Muslim Brotherhood group and other terrorist organisations.

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However, Islamic and Arab countries remain at the top of the list of countries most vulnerable to terrorist attacks in the world. They account for the highest percentage of victims of terrorism worldwide, as stated by the Global Terrorism Index 2017 and 2018. This situation would have been unimaginable had it not been for the cancer that has spread throughout Islamic and Arab nations, represented by the various religious extremist groups launched by the Muslim Brotherhood and others since the 1920s.

For decades, these organisations have adopted discourse that calls for hatred and the rejection of those who are different, in terms of their religion and sect. They declare them infidels and justify their bloodshed based on distorted understandings and misinterpretations of the teachings of true Islam.

They have even gone so far as to declare society in its entirety as infidels, branding it an “ignorant society” — in Sayyid Qutb’s words, the chief ideologist of religious violence in the Muslim Brotherhood group. All terrorist and extremist organisations have derived their terrorist ideas from him.

These organisations have always incited people to turn against their rulers and provoked one social group against the other. Through their hate speeches they have achieved success, stirring up strife in the nations and societies where they have a presence, weakening national unity and the social fabric.

They have not only stopped there, and have resorted to direct violence, carrying out many terrorist attacks inside countries and societies where they are present, or even beyond these borders. Thus, their actions result in these countries suffering the consequences of violence, backwardness and underdevelopment.

In our Arab world, the absence of a culture of tolerance is a result of the hate discourse nurtured by political Islam groups, as well as the sectarian discourse supported by some local and regional powers

- Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi

Extremist religious groups have played a significant role in undermining a culture of tolerance and acceptance in several Islamic and Arab countries. They substitute it with a discourse of hatred and extremism. The absence of a culture of tolerance has contributed to conditions that are conducive to the growth and spread of these groups in countries that are now trapped in a vicious cycle of extremism and intolerance.

The second dangerous and harmful effect caused by the absence of a culture of tolerance is the destructive lack of social cohesiveness and civil peace in Arab and Islamic countries and societies, especially those divided along the lines of sect, race, tribe or even ideology. There is no doubt that racial, religious, cultural and tribal diversity is a natural characteristic of most countries and societies.

However, what prevents division in communities is the extent to which a culture of tolerance and acceptance is deep-rooted. If this type of culture is prevalent, then it will contribute to transforming diversity into a source of strength for society. However, when a culture of tolerance is absent, and is replaced by a discourse of hatred and non-acceptance, society slides into civil war and internal strife that threatens its unity and social fabric.

In our Arab world, the absence of a culture of tolerance is a result of the hate discourse nurtured by political Islam groups, as well as the sectarian discourse supported by some local and regional powers. This is exacerbated by internal policies some governments in the region have in the past pursued, which did not pay much attention to strengthening values of citizenship and the rule of law.

They have instead adopted policies that favour some groups, sects or tribes at the expense of others to satisfy political considerations and interests. This has transformed human and cultural diversity, which is a source of richness and power, into a force that weakens and dismantles these societies.

This was clearly seen in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussain’s regime in 2003; in Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War from 1975-1990; and in Sudan, between the Muslim North and the Christian South. Later, this trend was exacerbated by the so-called Arab Spring, which was only a spring for the extremist and sectarian groups that attempted to use the unrest to take over the nation state in many Arab countries. They aimed to reduce these countries to feuding and conflicting tribal, sectarian and ethnic factions, as has been the case in Libya, Syria, Yemen and other regional countries.

The third impact is manifested in missed development opportunities, untapped by the Arab world due to a lack of a culture of tolerance, and the subsequent prevalence of violence, conflict and political and security disorders. By all accounts, these are immense opportunities that could have significantly increased development and growth rates in Arab countries, if effectively utilised. The first point to note is that countries of the region have incurred massive economic losses because of acts of violence, extremism and hate.

For example, an international report published by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in November 2016, estimated losses, from 2011 to 2015, of around $614 billion suffered by Arab countries resulting from the wave of unrest that erupted since 2011, including the spread of terror, hate and civil conflict emerging from the rise of extremist and sectarian organisations.

This equals 6 per cent of the region’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over the same period. Another report by the Arab Strategy Forum, held in Dubai in late 2015, estimated these losses at $833.7 billion, including reconstruction costs, declines in GDP, tourism, equity markets, investments and refugee settlement.

The second point is that many Arab countries have allocated enormous financial resources to countering terrorist groups and addressing violence and hatred. These financial resources are missed opportunities for the economies of these countries, as they could have been allocated to other sectors to advance development efforts.

For instance, a 2017 report by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) valued the costs of addressing violence and extremism in Syria and Iraq in 2016 at more than 50 per cent of the GDP of both countries. The same cost was estimated to be 25 per cent in Libya, 19 per cent in Yemen and 9 per cent in Egypt.

Thirdly, the lack of a culture of tolerance in the Arab region, and the subsequent prevalence of wars, civil and sectarian conflicts, violence and terrorism, have led to disastrous human consequences that are unprecedented in the history of the region. In 2015, for example, it was estimated that around 143 million Arabs were living in war, violence and terrorism-torn countries, and almost 17 million Arabs were forcefully displaced. Though Arabs only constitute 5 per cent of the world population, in 2015 they accounted for more than 50 per cent of world refugees.

The fourth point is that rising violence and terrorism, and a lack of a culture of tolerance and respect for others, has contributed to a significant drop in tourism rates in the Arab world, as terrorist attacks have mainly targeted foreigners and tourist entities. They have also led to shrinking foreign investment in the region, as well as capital flight to more stable and tolerant countries that welcome foreigners. This has negatively affected economic growth rates in many Arab countries, especially those that depend on tourism and foreign capital.

The fourth aspect which has, in my view, a substantial negative impact on the Arab world, due to the lack of a culture of tolerance, relates to the image of Arab countries and Arab people in the minds of other people and cultures, particularly in the West. Unfortunately, it is an extremely negative image.

An Arab man has become synonymous with a ‘terrorist’ and ‘extremist’ in many Western minds. This image has been promoted and stirred up by the Western media, in the minds of Western citizens, since the September 11, 2001 attacks, and has been reinforced with the spread of terrorism and extremism in the region following the unrest in 2011.

Obviously, this situation cannot be generalised for all Arab and Islamic countries as there are noticeable differences between them, in terms of whether there is a consolidation or lack of a culture of tolerance. In particular, this situation does not apply to the UAE, which is an exceptional model of development, tolerance and respect for others in the Arab region and wider world, as I have explained in my previous articles.

However, the UAE’s shining, exceptional model does not fully mitigate the widely held negative image of the absence of a culture of tolerance at the Arab level.

This is manifested by violence and terrorism, as well as the civil and sectarian conflicts tearing many Arab and Islamic countries apart, mainly fuelled by extremist religious organisations that disseminate hate speech and extremism.

The only solution, in my view, is to seriously and collectively combat these extremist groups, promote moderate religious discourse that urges embracing values of tolerance and coexistence, and criminalise all forms of hate and extremist thought.

This can also be achieved by establishing the rule of law principle, which applies to all without discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion or sect, as well as upholding principles of citizenship. In short, the solution lies in applying the UAE model of tolerance and spreading it throughout the entire Arab world.

— Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is a UAE author and director-general of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.