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The GCC’s “Religious Tolerance” Masks Political Intolerance

Since their independence, the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council have each developed sophisticated political and economic ties with the United States. However, after the tragedy of September 11, America’s policy in the Middle East underwent a significant shift, aiming to promote toleration and “moderate” Islam to discourage further terrorism. Therefore, each of the GCC states, regardless of the actual situation on the ground in their countries, began to use their expansive public relations capabilities in Washington to promote themselves as bastions of moderation in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world. A narrative that the governments of the GCC members push is that their countries are tolerant of non-Islamic faiths. With this in mind, it is fair to ask how the citizenry of these conservative Arabian monarchies feels about tolerance toward other religious groups, such as Christians, Jews, and members of non-Abrahamic faiths.

It is important to understand that, in the Middle East, religion and politics are not independent of one another. Every Arab state has mixed religion and politics to serve an agenda that differs according to its political needs. For example, after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Kuwait’s government-in-exile appealed to the world to help it—and prodded its supportive clergy to legitimize the assistance of non-Muslim forces, in spite of some clerics’ arguments that such an action would be prohibited. It was clear at the time that this contradiction in religious opinion was not a difference in the interpretation of religion, but rather a difference in the use of religion. Fatwas supporting the use of foreign forces were issued by countries that opposed the invasion, such as Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states, while fatwas forbidding such assistance came from Iraq and countries that were sympathetic to its position, including Jordan, Palestine, Algeria, and Tunisia. This lesson reflects a critical principle: even in the most devout states, religious views conform to the priorities of the state’s rulers.

Steps Toward Acceptance

This is particularly clear in the case of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, which normalized diplomatic relations with Israel last year. Both Abu Dhabi and Manama have framed the Abraham Accords before Western audiences in the context of building better relations between humans who practice different faiths—specifically between Muslims and Jews.

In March, the Associated Press pointed to a “public relations blitz” on the part of the UAE and Bahrain, with both nations seeking to “cultivate their image as Muslim havens of inclusion and tolerance for Jews, in stark contrast to [their] regional rivals.” The article mentioned the growing availability of kosher food in both countries, as well as the public celebration of Jewish holidays. The piece stressed how significant these changes are, considering that in recent times, such displays of Judaism would have been far more controversial, particularly at previous periods when the Palestinian struggle impacted the Gulf region differently: “Even a modest online gathering like the Purim celebration would have been unthinkable a few years ago, when relations with Israel were taboo and Jews kept their identities out of public view for fear of offending their Muslim hosts.” Moreover, in spite of the governments’ policies, public opinion with regard to Israel remains more or less unchanged; a recent poll conducted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation found that less than half of Emiratis, and less than one-third of Bahrainis, view Israel favorably.

With the exception of Saudi Arabia, which is constrained by its position as the host to Islam’s holiest sites, the Gulf states have also promoted their tolerance of Christianity. In 2008, for example, Qatar opened its first church. The country’s then-minister of energy and industry spoke at the church’s unveiling and declared that it will “send a positive message to the world.” However, at the time, there were valid concerns about how the public would view this church. “Because some say the church flies in the face of Qatar’s Islamic values,” Al Jazeera wrote at the time, “religious leaders and government officials have been cautious about trumpeting the news too loudly.”

“You have to respect the sensitivities of the country,” Reverend Bill Schwartz, an American priest fluent in Arabic, told the outlet. “The people here have no cultural foundation to perceive Christianity. I don’t think it’s a negative thing – [the exposure] just hasn’t been there.”

What About Political Freedom?

The irony is also that, as the Gulf governments promote their “tolerance”—which today is a popular commodity in the Gulf—they uniformly do so in spite of extreme intolerance of political and social pluralism and freedom of opinion and expression. It is not surprising that almost all dissidents against the Gulf’s monarchies, regardless of their political stripes, have been imprisoned or sent into exile. Most of these dissidents have been tried on fabricated charges such as “sabotage,” “undermining national unity,” and, in one noxious case, “spreading false news,” in a trial that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch described as a “false emulation of justice.”

Moreover, much-vaunted “interfaith dialogue” in the Gulf region has not achieved its desired results, because most of those assigned to these interfaith dialogues represent an official religious authority, or a dominant majority. The process becomes even stranger when these dialogues are held in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, which, while being fairly tolerant towards foreigners’ religious views, do not allow for freedom of belief and opinion for their own citizens, who are imprisoned for conversions or differing opinions. When such regimes sponsor “religious dialogue” initiatives and conferences, dialogue becomes a chapter in the public relations ploy to whitewash foreign and domestic wrongdoing.

For GCC members to truly become tolerant countries, acceptance of people who practice different religions must not be confined to government edicts, but must be widespread among the subjects themselves. Opening synagogues and churches while engaging the services of lobbyists and PR firms in Washington to sell messages of tolerance will do little to change the hearts of Gulf citizens.

This is not to suggest that government-led, top-down campaigns for religious acceptance have no place in the Gulf. Over time, they can change public opinion, and they should be used as a strategy to reshape popular perceptions of religious freedom. However, urging freedom of practice for religious views will have a limited effect while freedom of thought for political views remains criminalized, and any campaign to encourage religious tolerance should begin with political reform. Above all, a move toward greater tolerance on the part of the citizenry will not happen overnight; it will require time, patience, and a genuine commitment from the monarchs to set aside their cynical political objectives and pursue religious acceptance for its own good.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.

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