Legislation bolsters the battle against intolerance

Last weekend, I had a lengthy discussion with a foreign diplomat about the UAE’s policy of religious tolerance. Part of it focused on an incident reported to her by another diplomat which indicated that, despite the Government’s clear policy, there is much that needs to be done to prevent the dissemination of views that promote religious hatred and intolerance.

The incident, I gather, occurred at one of the capital’s leading schools during Ramadan. A Muslim student is alleged to have told a non-Muslim student that anyone who wasn’t fasting was an infidel, a kafir. When this was reported to the school’s management, the student who had made the remark was called in and questioned. Yes, indeed, he is alleged to have said – anyone who wasn’t fasting during Ramadan was, indeed, a kafir. He said that he had been taught this by his father.

There is, of course, no requirement in Islam that non-Muslims should fast during Ramadan. Moreover, not only are the terms “infidel” and “kafir” insulting, it is also clear in Islam that they are in no way applicable to the Ahl al-Kitab, the People of the Book, such as Christians and Jews.

What could be done, my diplomatic friend and I wondered, to ensure a broader understanding not only of the inaccuracy of such remarks but also of their insulting nature? They reflected, we felt, an underlying intolerance of the views of others that, surely, was directly opposed to the support for religious, ethnic and cultural tolerance that is a fundamental element of the UAE’s philosophy. Action, we agreed, was clearly necessary.

Yesterday, we got our answer, with the issuing of Law No. 2 for 2015, designed to criminalise any discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race or colour. The official announcement specifically stated: “The law also includes provisions for punishing anyone for terming other religious groups or individuals as infidels, or unbelievers.”

Further details of the law are carried elsewhere in The National. In summary, it also prohibits any acts to insult God, the prophets, apostles, holy scriptures, houses of worship and graveyards. It further bans any organisation established with the specific intention of provoking religious hatred.

There is no doubt in my mind that, despite the Government’s commitment to religious and other tolerance, there is a widespread undercurrent of intolerance, often based upon ignorance. It can be heard in school playgrounds, as children reflect the views absorbed from their parents. It can be detected on religious feast days too. Non-Muslim friends of mine are always happy to offer Eid Mubarak greetings to their Muslim colleagues and friends, and, in return, greetings are extended on the occasion of Christmas or Diwali. One year, however, I got into a fruitless argument with someone who claimed it was somehow wrong for a Muslim to wish a Christian “happy Christmas”.

The Government’s view of such an obscurantist approach was made abundantly clear a few years ago when Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed attended the Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It is, nonetheless, of concern to hear such views here.

The new “Law against Hate Crimes and Discrimination” is to be welcomed. It will not prevent people from holding intolerant and discriminatory views, but it will make the public expression of them subject to the full force of the law. At first glance, it resembles the first Race Relations Act in Britain, passed in 1965, which outlawed discrimination in public places, though the UAE law has much stronger penalties. Intolerant views are still held in Britain, but the public expression of them is subject to legal action and tolerance is widely accepted as being the norm. Perhaps over time that will come to be the case in the UAE. In the meantime, cracking down on intolerance and discrimination through the courts is an important step.