There are two ways to look at culture. One is to essentialise it as static and ancient. If we look at extremist imaginations across the spectrum, they all share a static notion about culture, religion, language, lifestyles and other markers of identity. For them, preserving culture basically means keeping it frozen in time. All extremists believe that people need protection from the times that they live in.
One word they all hate in equal measure is change, or reform. It is dreams of revival and rejection, and not hopes of renewal and rejuvenation, that inspire their skewed worldview. That is precisely why they define their own collective selves in contradistinction to “others”. They spend so much energy in talking about the “others” without ever attempting to tell us who they actually are. Moreover, they view the entirety of human history as a relentless and ongoing clash between irreconcilable identities.
The second view of culture defines it as dynamic and constantly evolving. While stressing that the wellsprings of the past are invaluable in terms of their values and wisdom, this view emphasises that a culture has a shelf life outside of museums only if it adapts to contemporaneity and grows with time.
In this view, culture is not defined in contrast to some supposed “others”, but as an organic force that helps to connect people with other peoples, a worldview with other worldviews and a lifestyle with other lifestyles. In this understanding of culture, it is not something that divides people, but a force that has rich potential to effect radical harmony among differences that appear irreconcilable in static modes of thinking. This view prioritises ethics over vested interests, long-term positive outcomes over short-term gains and the greater common good over narrow sectarian goals.
This is how the UAE approaches culture. It is a vision that privileges convergences over divergences. It is a vision that desperately seeks peace in a world that chooses to see conflict as inevitable. This vision is particularly uncommon because it is easy to stress on differences. It is more understandable, perhaps, and even populist to view a state of conflict as being more organic or intrinsic to human nature than harmony and peace.
But the UAE firmly believes that culture is a vehicle that has actually connected and harmonised peoples across history. Our own recent and ancient histories are full of instances where cultures and civilisations engaged with one another in constructive dialogue rather than in nihilistic hostility. That is precisely why and how the Arabs in the medieval centuries were able to not only resurrect the lost knowledge systems of the Greco-Roman heritage, but also substantially add to them across multiple disciplines, paving the way for the Reformation and Enlightenment in subsequent centuries.
The UAE is convinced that our world is in desperate need for visions that stress possibilities of harmony rather than the potential for conflict. This vision considers tolerance and acceptance of differences as innate human qualities; hate and violence are always cynically engineered for sinister purposes.
The UAE’s cultural vision seeks to promote dialogue across nations with a view to identifying the commonalities that bind humanity together. It has three primary components.
The first is to develop a cultural infrastructure within the country that displays the creative legacy of humanity in all its glory. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, Zayed National Museum, other museums, galleries and various other activities aim to disseminate the core message of peace and beauty.
Second, the UAE tries to play an active role in cultural preservation internationally. The support the UAE is giving to Unesco in renovating precious cultural heritage in Mosul, Iraq, is the most recent example of this. The project aims to foster reconciliation between the Muslims and Christians by restoring and reconstructing vandalised places of worship belonging to both religious groups. The UAE’s support to Aliph Foundation’s several restoration projects in Iraq, aimed at preserving Yazidi and Jewish heritage, is also worth mentioning here.
The third component of the UAE’s cultural vision is its commitment to promoting interreligious, intercultural and inter-civilisational dialogue. The visit to Abu Dhabi by His Holiness Pope Francis in 2019, the Year of Tolerance and the events held on that occasion were prime examples. Pope Francis joined Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Mosque and Chairman of the Muslim Council of Elders, in Abu Dhabi to sign the Human Fraternity Document, which calls for interfaith harmony and understanding.
While extremists burn the midnight oil looking for opportunities for friction and feud, the UAE believes that there is much in common between the diverse cultures of the world. These common traits must be embraced fully in order to foster a humane culture of harmony and peace.
All the three components mentioned above are more relevant in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world. The region has for decades had the disrepute of being the world’s most combustible and conflict-ridden place on earth. How long will we live down the ignominy of being the denizens of the world’s most dangerous region?
If we study the region’s multiple conflicts, we find that the root cause for all of them is intolerance, refusal to accept differences and a static view of religion and culture. In this context of utter negativity, the UAE is trying to make a difference by promoting culture as a vehicle of peace and harmony. While doing so, we are not claiming perfection in any way; we know we are a work in progress. We are determined to do whatever we possibly can to alter this lamentable status quo so that our future generations will lead better and more peaceful lives in the region.
This is not a theoretical posturing. Nor is it smug grandstanding devoid of substance. The UAE’s lived reality of the past few decades is a sterling confirmation of the validity of its capacious vision for culture. Multiple faiths, ethnicities, languages and cultures have coexisted peacefully and symbiotically in this country without a single instance of violent clashes among them. This is a unique, unprecedented experience that proves beyond any shadow of doubt that peaceful coexistence is not an unattainable daydream.
The world can have a better future if this model of harmony is emulated, and the vision behind it imbibed. As the UAE will celebrate next year the golden jubilee of its birth as a nation state, it looks forward to seeing a world less haunted by violence and more united by a vision of unity and fraternity.
Noura Al Kaabi is the UAE Minister of Culture and Youth