Arabs and Emiratis put nationality first, UAE forum hears

The majority of Emiratis and Arabs identify themselves with their nation state over their religion or Arab identity.

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, president of Zaytuna University, speaks during the Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies forum at Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi. Christopher Pike / The National
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ABU DHABI // The majority of Emiratis and Arabs identify themselves by their nation state rather than their religion or Arab identity.

These were the results of a survey that were revealed at the Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies forum on Monday.

This is a major shift from the past decade when many polls suggested that Arabs saw themselves as “being Arab” more than anything else. The only exception was Lebanon, whose citizens had continually identified themselves as Lebanese in previous surveys, said Dr Jim Zogby, the author of the study and president of the Arab American Institute.

It interviewed 15,000 people over the age of 15 from seven Arab countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, on issues of identity and their insights on religion’s role in societies.

He believed the shift in perception of identity was positive because it indicated that people have more respect for their states.

“It is not a temporary thing, this is who you are — Saudi, Egyptian,” he said. “And the arena of your activity not some place else. This creates a sense of social contract with the people who lead you.”

He said the study’s findings showed that the majority had “moderate views of religion, they are very tolerant.”

For instance, when asked how important it is for Muslim societies to protect the rights of non-Muslim citizens or residents, the majority said it was very important. Only a small fraction said it was not important at all, while not one interviewee from the UAE believed that.

During the second day of the forum, more than 400 scholars, thinkers, politicians and diplomats continued to discuss the importance of empowering citizenship and loyalty towards one’s nation state, rather than the problematic idea of bringing back a single Islamic state that will govern all Muslim societies across the globe.

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, an American Muslim scholar and president of Zaytuna Univesity, said that the Prophet Mohammed’s priorities had been security and peace.

This was contrary to what revolutions against nation states aimed to achieve.

“Now in our history we see a spread of atheism, because many question where is God and how does he allow these [crises],” said Mr Yusuf.

What is absent from this thinking is that crises affect all kinds of people, both the good and the bad. “Our duty is to be patient,” said the scholar.

The habit of “complaining” that has spread in the Ummah (Muslim nation) increases the tendency for crises.

“So people are forgetting that they should be grateful for the blessings they have and patient during a crisis,” he said.

He said the Prophet Mohammed was patient in Mecca, when he was attacked by non-believers and “he did not form a cell”.

Today the problem was that religious heritage is “frozen” and so are many scholars’ thoughts, so there should be timely improvisation.

“So we should learn the historical fundamentals, but also activate them with wisdom.”

The solution he proposed was to establish strong Islamic universities that not only focus on religious teachings but also literature, maths, science and foreign languages.

Shahid Malik, a former British minister and member of parliament, said Muslims today should “reach out rather than retreat”.

Discussions such as the forum, and interfaith dialogues carried out by its organisers are an example of how Muslims should promote their true message.

“If we look around there too much fear of Islam,” said Mr Malik. “We need to be much more expressive. Why can’t we have a revolution in the understanding of Islam?”