Common ground: the UAE and ISIS

The other day I got into a discussion with a friend who works in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE, he told me, is making a useful contribution to the international battle against ISIS – and not just militarily: its government promotes a "moderate" version of Islam and controls religious activity inside the country. My response was that the state's involvement in religion is what makes the UAE part of the problem rather than the solution – it is one of the reasons why groups like ISIS exist.

The UAE works hard to project a modern and fairly liberal image but it can also be reasonably described as an Islamic state. In the UAE, Islam is the religion of the state, all citizens are considered to be Muslims and sharia is "a main source" for legislation. Blasphemy is a crime and apostates – those who renounce Islam – can in theory be put to death. The law also imposes penalties for using the internet to preach against Islam, to "abuse" a holy shrine or ritual of any religion, to "insult" any religion or incite someone to commit sin or contravene "family values". 

Unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE does allow "freedom to exercise religious worship … provided that it does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals" but, as the US State Department noted in its annual report on religious freedom, "the government prohibits proselytising for any religion other than Islam and prohibits the distribution of non-Islamic religious literature under penalty of criminal prosecution, imprisonment, and deportation".

The State Department's report continued:

"The government does not permit instruction in any religion other than Islam in public schools ... Private schools found to be teaching subjects that offend Islam, defame any religion, or contravene the country’s ethics and beliefs face potential penalties including closure ...

"Under Islamic law, Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women who are 'people of the book', generally meaning those who are either Christian or Jewish. Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men, however. Because Islam does not consider marriage between a non-Muslim man and a Muslim woman valid, both parties to such a union are subject to arrest, trial, and imprisonment on grounds such as fornication outside of marriage, which carries a minimum of one year in jail. 

"The law grants custody of children of non-Muslim women who do not convert to Islam to the Muslim father in the event of a divorce. By law, a non-Muslim woman who fails to convert is also ineligible for naturalisation as a citizen and cannot inherit her husband’s property unless named as a beneficiary in his will.

"The law prohibits black magic, sorcery, and incantations, which are punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to three years and deportation."

The law also requires Muslims and non-Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking in public during fasting hours in the month of Ramadan. In Dubai, members of the public are officially encouraged to look out for anyone eating, drinking or smoking – even in the relative privacy of their own car – and report them to the police. According to Dubai police, 27 people were arrested for fast-breaking between 2005 and 2009, including a European non-Muslim. 


ISIS and the battle of ideas

Tony Blair's 'war of ideas'

Secularists' dilemma

ISIS and the war of ideas

ISIS bans evolution, patriotism and literature 

Islamic Kingdom versus Islamic State

Clarity over ISIS? You must be joking!

ISIS, the Middle East's do-gooders  

Obama's unholy alliance  

Bombs can't defeat ideas  

Battle over Mosul's schools  

Mosul’s first death by stoning

The sickness that gave birth to ISIS 

Veils, gloves and violence in Iraq 

Through the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (known as Awqaf), the government goes to some lengths to suppress "extremist" ideas in mosques. In 2013, according to the State Department, the Awqaf oversaw most issues related to Islamic affairs:

"It distributed weekly guidance to most Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of the weekly Friday Islamic sermons and published a Friday sermon script every week, and posted the guidance online on the Awqaf’s website. It also ensured that junior clergy did not deviate frequently or significantly from the approved sermons. The Awqaf continued a three-tier system in which junior imams followed the Awqaf Friday sermon script closely, mid-level imams prepared sermons according to the topic or subject matter selected by Awqaf authorities, and senior imams had the flexibility to choose their own subject and content for their Friday sermons."

Around 95% of Sunni mosques in the UAE are government funded or subsidised, and all Sunni imams are government employees.

It's worth mentioning that this system of promoting a government-approved version of Islam was not originally developed to combat "religious extremism" but, as Elham Manea points out, was mainly intended to counter leftist and pan-Arab ideologies which were seen as a threat to Gulf monarchies in the 1960s and 1970s.

But as far as countering the ideology of ISIS and similar groups is concerned, the UAE's policies are problematic. They legitimise the idea of governments or states meddling in religious affairs, they legitimise discrimination on religious grounds and they seek to suppress dangerous ideologies rather than challenging them.

One thing the UAE and the Islamic State have in common is that they both accept the principle of compulsion in religion, though they differ over the type of religion that should be imposed. The UAE believes it is enforcing a good kind of Islam but so does the Islamic State, since it regards Gulf rulers as having strayed from the sacred path. 

Thus, while the UAE may disagree with the Islamic State over many things, and may have many reasons for opposing it, the UAE is in no position to question the basis for its existence, since both of them claim to govern in the name of Islam. If the UAE and other Arab states seriously want to stop groups like ISIS from appearing they will have to extricate themselves from involvement in religious affairs – and stay out of them.

The UAE and other Arab governments are in a similar predicament when it comes to the Islamic State's treatment of religious minorities and non-conformists. ISIS may be more brutal in practice but, basically, they are all on the same ground – asserting the superiority of Islam and the legitimacy of religious discrimination.

The UAE, incidentally, is one of four Arab countries (the others are Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia) which have not signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Among other things, the Covenant asserts that everyone is free "to have or to adopt a religion or belief" of their choice and grants a right to opt out if the type of religious education provided by the state conflicts with parents’ beliefs.A further problem is the UAE's general approach (along with that of most Arab countries) to controlling religious thought and restricting debate. Extremist behaviour – violence and incitement to violence – can be dealt with through the law but suppressing extremist ideologies tends to drive them underground, where they fester. Denouncing them as "un-Islamic" or trying to ban them is no substitute for exposing them to the heat of free-ranging public scrutiny.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 22 October 2014