Like any other human value, tolerance needs to be nurtured, supported and instilled in society as a common culture. The assumption that the value system governing any society or nation is fixed or unchanging is incorrect; it goes against God’s natural order in the universe, which is governed by changing circumstances.
Like other values, without people who constantly support, maintain and work to cultivate them in society, tolerance is not immune to change and weakness, or even to being replaced by different values.
This explains why the UAE has, in recent years, adopted many initiatives and laws that consolidate the value of tolerance in a society that is inherently tolerant.
This was clearly expressed by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, in an article published in March 2016, in which he explained the reasons for appointing a Minister of Tolerance, he said: “Tolerance is not a catchphrase, but a quality we must cherish and practice. It must be woven into the fabric of our society to safeguard our future and maintain the progress we have made.”
Modern history is filled with examples of leaders and figures who have become icons for spreading the values of tolerance and coexistence in their societies and the world; they made tolerance an ‘element of power’ and a ‘solid foundation’ for building tolerant and harmonious societies.
These societies succeeded in making their way toward development and progress; while other communities fell into vicious cycles of violence and counter-violence, as a result of the prevailing attitude of revenge, hatred and intolerance.
Naturally, I will refer only to a limited number of these examples, which illustrate how one person’s belief in the value of tolerance can change the reality of their society for the better, charting a path to peace, development and stability.
Sheikh Zayed was the embodiment of the value of tolerance, in all his words and deeds, in the United Arab Emirates and beyond. He became a symbol of national, Gulf, Arab and even global tolerance; whenever pioneers of tolerance are mentioned, the name ‘Zayed The Generous’ is always present
In previous articles, I have discussed the crucial role played by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in establishing a culture of tolerance in UAE society. Nevertheless, we cannot talk about the pioneers of tolerance in the region and world without mentioning this wise Arab leader.
Sheikh Zayed raised the banner of tolerance and instilled it as a fundamental pillar to create the greatest unification experience in modern Arab history, a cornerstone for building the best development model that many countries in the world, east and west, try to emulate.
Sheikh Zayed was the embodiment of the value of tolerance, in all his words and deeds, in the United Arab Emirates and beyond. He became a symbol of national, Gulf, Arab and even global tolerance; whenever pioneers of tolerance are mentioned, the name ‘Zayed The Generous’ is always present.
Another key example to highlight is the late South African leader Nelson Mandela, whose name is associated with a long and painful struggle to liberate his country from the abhorrent apartheid regime. Despite the injustice and suffering he and the black majority endured at the hands of a white governing minority, his approach of tolerance and reconciliation saw Mandela build a stable and pluralistic political system to accommodate all in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela’s most important quality, which I covered in some detail in my 2016 book, Eternal Imprints: Figures that Made History and Others that Changed the Future of Their Countries, was his unshakeable faith in the value of tolerance and its importance in building nations; as a result, he is now considered one of history’s great figures.
Although Mandela was imprisoned for more than twenty-seven years, during which he was subjected to various forms of injustice and torture, when the South African people overthrew the apartheid regime, he did not give in to impulses of revenge against his white jailers.
Instead, he allowed feelings of compassion and tolerance to guide him and, as president of the country, pardoned those who caused his torture and suffering. In addition, he did not exclude the white minority that supported the apartheid regime; rather, he worked to build a pioneering model of peaceful coexistence between different races in South Africa, and this model ensured the African country progress and prosperity. For his actions, Nelson Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, which made him a symbol of tolerance around the world.
In India, the inspirational experience of Mahatma Gandhi, who adopted the ‘nonviolent’ approach, stands out as a symbol of human tolerance and coexistence, irrespective of affiliation or religion. Gandhi fought for more than fifty years for India’s independence, upholding the principle of “peaceful resistance” and rejecting violence and bloodshed, even in the face of British rule of his country. In 1922, he led a civil disobedience movement against British rule, which was very effective.
However, when anger spread and some Indian protesters clashed with British forces resulting in violence, Gandhi quickly halted the movement so as not to harm his peaceful struggle and principle of non-violence. These actions ultimately ensured the realisation of his dream of Indian independence from Britain.
Gandhi also advocated respecting the rights of individuals, from all religions and sects, respecting racial and ethnic differences, and rejecting any discrimination between them. During the period of independence, instances of religious unrest in India increased as Pakistan moved to secede, which was painful for Gandhi and something he considered to be a national disaster.
He called for the renunciation of religious and sectarian strife, and the restoration of national unity between Muslims and Hindus. During his time in South Africa, from 1893 to 1914, he had seen how racial and sectarian tendencies weakened the fabric of society; therefore, he defended the rights of the Muslim minority in India, calling on the Hindu majority to respect them. This sparked outrage from some Hindu extremists, one of whom assassinated Gandhi in 1948, ending the journey of a leader who dedicated his life to defending the values of tolerance and peace.
A more recent admirable example is Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who led the Rwandans’ struggle to break free from the domination of despotic racist thought, ending one of the worst instances of genocide in modern times by adopting principles of amnesty and justice. Rwanda was associated, in the minds of many, with the genocide that took place against the ethnic Tutsi minority by the Hutu ethnic majority in April 1994.
The atrocity claimed more than one million lives in just 100 days, leaving deep wounds in the minds of Rwandans that were not expected to heal for decades. However, the policies of the Rwandan government under Paul Kagame, after one of the most brutal genocides in modern history, were truly impressive. The government launched what has been described as a bold social engineering campaign, whereby Rwandans now define themselves by their national identity as Rwandans, not by their race.
All references to racism were criminalised, and Rwandans were forbidden to utter the words Tutsi and Hutu, distancing themselves from ethnicity and abhorrent racial superiority. The government also adopted a traditional community justice system called ‘Gacaca’, which allowed society to prosecute perpetrators and accept pleas for forgiveness and pardon. They also abolished the death penalty, so as not to deepen wounds by executing thousands of murderers.
Sentences issued by these courts ruled that some offenders had to carry out community service, while others were imprisoned, depending on the gravity of crimes committed. These courts were officially closed in 2012, after they presided over approximately 1.9 million cases, allowing Rwanda to turn the page on the worst genocide in its history.
By upholding the values of tolerance and justice, and devoting itself to the process of economic development, Rwanda has achieved remarkable results. The Rwandans, led by Paul Kagame, chose the virtue of tolerance over the mentality of revenge; they moved beyond genocide by relying on the tolerance that filled their hearts and defined their actions. This was their path to prosperity and progress, presenting a remarkable model of tolerance and development for all humanity.
These examples, and the many others that cannot be mentioned here, confirm several important facts. First, tolerance is a source of power for any society, promoting unity, cohesion and harmony among its people. With tolerance, countries such as South Africa and Rwanda emerged from dark and bloodstained eras that could have lasted longer had the mentality of revenge and violence continued to prevail.
Through tolerance, countries such as India achieved independence from British occupation and walked the path of development and progress. Furthermore, through tolerance, scattered groups were united as a single nation, where harmony, peace, stability and cooperation thrives, as the experience of the UAE confirms. This proves that the power of tolerance far outweighs the power of weapons, military capabilities and other sources of power.
Second, people who promote tolerance, who uphold it and instill it in their societies, are immortalised in the consciousness of their people and in the memory of their nation. The whole world remembers them with pride; they are the true makers of peace and stability in their countries and throughout the world.
The third fact, which we draw from these and other examples, is that there cannot be any development or progress without tolerance.
If tolerance is the basis of security and stability, and if security and development are two sides of the same coin, how can we imagine development in countries and societies where violence, extremism and hatred prevail?
— Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is a UAE author and director-general of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.