On the occasion of the International Day of Human Fraternity, we reminisce with fondness the historic moment two years ago when the first ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula was made. The trip also involved the signing of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. After signing it, Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar Mosque in Egypt, together announced "the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual co-operation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard".
They exhorted world leaders to "spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood and bring an end to wars, conflicts, environmental decay and the moral and cultural decline that the world is presently experiencing". That the event happened in the UAE was of particular importance, given the fact that it is one of the few countries globally in which around 200 nationalities and almost all faiths, cultures and languages have co-existed harmoniously for decades.
The UAE's history of tolerance and cultural co-existence is comparable in many ways to the period of Convivencia in Spanish history. First proposed by the Spanish philologist Americo Castro, Convivencia refers to the period of Spanish history from the Muslim Umayyad conquest of Hispania in the early eighth century, to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. This period under enlightened Arab Muslim rulers was one of multi-faith harmony and symbiosis, which rarely existed anywhere else in Europe at the time.
The visit in 1951 of Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, to the Vatican – among several other religious centres in Europe – is worth remembering in our present context. It demonstrates that our respect and acceptance of others has deep historical roots. Our early commitment to religious freedom was also reflected when Sheikh Shakhbut, the then Ruler of Abu Dhabi, donated 11 acres of land for the construction of the first church in the emirate. When it was consecrated in 1965, both Sheikh Shakhbut and his brother Sheikh Zayed attended the historic opening. The UAE currently has more than 50 places of worship belonging to various faiths other than Islam. Our pluralism is distinctive in the sense that diverse identities live together here without any pressure for assimilation or self-effacement.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, once pointed out that “when the Arab world was tolerant and accepting of others, it led the world”. He explained that “from the civilisations of Damascus to Andalusia, Arab people provided beacons of science, knowledge, and civilisation, because humane values were the basis of our relationships with all civilisations, cultures, and religions”. Privileging human values, over narrow visions of the self, defined the culture of this land before and after the formation of the Union in 1971.
It is this same legacy that inspired us to partner with Unesco in February 2018 for the flagship initiative "Revive the Spirit of Mosul", which aims to rebuild the Iraqi city from the debris of terrorist vandalism. The project will restore the urban, social and cultural fabric of the Old City and seek to foster reconciliation and social cohesion. It involves the reconstruction of the Old City's historic landmarks, including Al Nouri Mosque, with its Al Hadba Minaret, and Al Sa'a and Al Tahira churches.
The message that we want to convey through our partnership in the project is that we resist the zealots who destroy the symbols of our harmonious heritage and cultural values. It is also part of our commitment to fight against the forces of extremism across the globe. Just as we spare no effort in keeping the UAE a pluralistic safe haven, we also contribute to global initiatives against extremism and terrorism. Our vision of tolerance and acceptance is also a central aspect of our humanitarian operations around the globe. We offer aid and support to suffering people anywhere, regardless of their creed, colour or ethnicity.
As we observe the International Day of Human Fraternity, we need to remember that we are in the middle of a global pandemic that has held humanity hostage for almost an entire year. If there is one lesson to learn from our experience of the virus, it is this: our safety and security as human beings can be ensured only if we set aside narrow, identity-obsessed obstinacies and embrace all humankind with humility and love. As a nation, we remain committed to the promotion of tolerance and pluralism, both in terms of ethical principles and pragmatic considerations.
Noura Al Kaabi is the UAE’s Minister of Culture and Youth