By Arab News
By Dr. Sulaiman Al Hattlan*
Pope Francis’ plan to visit the UAE in February was officially announced on Thursday. He will become the first pope to officially visit the Arabian Gulf. It is no surprise that Pope Francis has selected the UAE for his first trip. Starting years ago, the country’s leaders have launched a wide range of initiatives, institutions and events focused on religious tolerance, discussing theological ideas, interfaith dialogue, and promoting peace among Muslim communities and among people of all faiths.
The UAE is a famously diverse country. Millions of residents are from different nations, religious backgrounds and cultures, and events are regularly held that help to establish a culture of tolerance, coherence and coexistence between sects and religions. The most recent such event was the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. Its attendees, who came from all over the world and follow many different religions, are still in Abu Dhabi today.
A decade ago, who would have imagined all these different religious leaders with their diverse experiences and visions gathered in an Arab country to explore common ground and to promote the concepts of coexistence, citizenship, tolerance and fraternal bonds?
The timing of the Pope’s visit is important as, over the past few years, Daesh and other extremist groups have tried to impose their dark and horrifying vision as the “true” Islam, as if every Muslim in the world should share their views.
Some have argued that it will take decades of hard work to eradicate the dangerous ideologies and behaviors of Daesh and its like, and we certainly have a long way to go in that regard, but the “glass half-full” outlook is that the UAE has proved that practical steps can be taken to reduce that time period if intentions are clear and honest.
The UAE has never compromised its principles regarding tolerance. It has never given them up for a temporary political project or a passing interest, knowing that involving religion in political conflicts and schemes often leads to catastrophe.
The UAE has earned this show of respect and appreciation from the holder of the highest office in the Catholic Church. It has earned it for establishing a culture that advocates tolerance and respect for the beliefs and cultures of others, as long as they are consistent with UAE law.
This is the human and progressive way to look at ideologies: You are free in your beliefs as long as you do not seek to impose them on others and as long as you practice your religious views and rituals according to a mechanism that ensures others are not harmed.
Those who seek to occupy a leading role in the future cannot remain hostage to outdated concepts — which may be based on historical circumstances and justifications — about other religions or ideas.
States that seriously plan for the future place development at the forefront of those plans. A few days ago, during the UAE government’s annual meeting, a significant number of ministers revealed ambitious plans for their ministries — unsurprising for a government that seeks to surpass all others in all areas by 2071, in time to celebrate the UAE’s 100th anniversary.
The scheduled visit of Pope Francis will be an important event not just in UAE history, but also for the future of the whole region. It is a slap in the face of radical ideologues who strive to instill hatred and estrangement. It also carries an important message that the future belongs to those who seek peace — a message that has been established and reinforced by the UAE.
A leadership that has worked to turn the UAE passport into the world’s most powerful, and is diligently planning for the future of its grandchildren cannot reconcile with dark ideologies, hate speech or projects of destruction.
*Dr. Sulaiman Al-Hattlan is a well-known columnist and founder and CEO of Hattlan Media, a media company, based in Dubai. Twitter: @alHattlan