The UAE can overcome the post-9/11 fear and prejudice

We watched Al Qaeda's crimes, and the disastrous US response, in horror. Now the UAE has moved towards helping to repair damage.

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There are very rare moments in our lives when we bear witness to the unspeakable. Where our lives are abruptly brought to a standstill as we are forced to observe the darkest actions of humanity. In every record of every country, the unforeseen and unfathomable tragedy of September 11 will remain a black stain on the history of mankind.

In the UAE and around the globe, many of us can recall the exact moment when we watched the horrific events unfold. As I sat around with my fellow Emirati brothers in a mall in Sharjah, glued to an electronic shop's display televisions, what I remember most was the looks of confusion on the faces of those around me. What we thought was only possible in Hollywood studios was transformed into an unimaginable reality.

As the world searched for those responsible for the September 11 attacks, it was unthinkable to believe that Al Qaeda, a group of thugs as we in the UAE understood them to be, was capable of carrying out an operation of such horror and magnitude. The immediate belief of many Emiratis was that the Israeli government had staged these attacks to incite international hatred and aggression towards Muslims. When Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks, only then did we realise the true significance of the threat it posed not only to the United States, but to the reputation of Muslims all over the world, especially citizens from the GCC states. On an international level, we were now seen as a region that had produced the likes of Osama bin Laden.

The false portrayals of Islam and Arabs in general began to increase on the international stage, all the more painful because they were directly opposite to the truth. The word "jihad" was overused and abused, represented only by the militants' definition of "holy war" in the media's sensationalised coverage of the "war on terror" that followed September 11.

A more precise definition of jihad in Islam is a Muslim's efforts towards making his or her life and that of their society as just and decent as humanly possible. Jihad is a duty for all Muslims to commit themselves to a struggle on all fronts, be it spiritual, moral or political. Islam is a religion of peace that encourages all Muslims to end injustice, ensure peace and security and always struggle for a peaceful coexistence between Islam and all other faiths. Islam has brought millions of Muslim's worldwide to accept each other as true brothers and sisters, regardless of colour or nationality.

Yet after September 11, Islam was portrayed as a religion that believed in the destruction of another faith or society, directly contradicting its own teachings. Al Qaeda, with its terror tactics, encouraged this interpretation by justifying its actions as directed at weakening the oppression of Muslims by the West.

For Emiratis, the repercussions of September 11 were felt almost immediately. What used to be a few hours processing for UAE citizens to apply for a visa to the United States became a process of summary rejection. Student visas were declined and most Emiratis planning to study in America were redirected to Australia or the United Kingdom. More and more stories were heard about the wrongful persecution of Emiratis and many other Arabs by the US security organisations as well as airport immigration officials. More importantly, some Emiratis were targeted for hate crimes.

Even before September 11, relations between the United States and Muslims countries were disintegrating under the administration of President George W Bush. The new US foreign policy disaster in the Middle East was making the country a target for hatred. With the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, many people in the UAE and across the Muslim world understood the United States as a country that had publicly announced its support for oppressing Muslim states and people.

The September 11 attacks added fuel to that fire and many lost hope that this division between the Muslim world and the West would ever be healed. Yet it is countries such as the UAE that immediately took action after the attacks, not only to declare their support for the fight against terrorism but to communicate a commitment to the world through various international projects. The UAE has always opposed terrorism and done everything in its power to prevent violent extremism from being fostered or conducted within its borders.

The UAE and the Emirati people have always been mediators between conflicting parties as well as hosts who have encouraged the peaceful coexistence of almost every nationality and faith. In recent years, flagship projects such as the Masdar Initiative, Burj Khalifa tower and charitable projects like the famine-relief project in Somalia have all raised the UAE's profile on the international stage. Hand-in-hand with those efforts, tourism campaigns and the welcome extending to the growing number of guests in the country have communicated the depth and texture of Emirati culture, customs and traditions, particularly the deeply ingrained hospitality of the region.

The UAE has always called for a peaceful resolution to conflicts as has been evident in diplomatic efforts during this Arab spring. It was no different after September 11. As we look back, we realise that these good intentions were put into practice. The UAE's reputation across the world should be as a country of opportunity, prosperity and peace among all of its citizens and residents. We are well on our way.

Taryam Al Subaihi is an Emirati political and social commentator who specialises in corporate communications