Asked how he saw the Middle East in 10 years’ time, the UAE Ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba said: “What we would like to see is more secular, stable, prosperous, empowered, strong government.”
These ambitions, expressed on the Charlie Rose political talk show at the weekend, would have seemed entirely reasonable to his western audience.
For others it was seen as an opportunity to create divisions among the UAE and its friends and allies. For them, one word stood out: secular.
But as the ambassador said: “What we have seen Qatar do for the last 10 to 15 years is support groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Taliban, Islamist militias in Syria, Islamist militias in Libya – exactly the opposite direction we think our region needs to go.”
Mr Al Otaiba was speaking in English, but in Arabic translation the word for secular often carries a suggestion that means rejecting religion and excluding it from public life.
As he later explained: “Secular has a loaded meaning in Arabic and so it was taken out of context, because the Arabic translation is different from the word in English.
“I was speaking to a western audience, so the word secular is very easily understood in a western audience and it is not derogatory or negative.”
In discussions over secularism in western societies, the reference is often linked to the form of governance. But in the Arab world, the word is understood to mean completely disregarding religion.
In some countries, such as Iraq and Syria, the emergence of Communist parties calling for secular societies led to fears of states devoid of religion and was greatly rejected. In other parts of the Arab world, secularism was seen as questioning religious authorities and societal norms, rather than a form of governance.
Dr Albadr Alshateri, a professor of politics at the National Defence College in Abu Dhabi, says: “The idea of secularism is loaded and conjures up different images to various audiences in the Arab world.”
As word, secularism is barely 150 years old. It was coined in 1851 by George Holyoake, a British newspaper editor and agnostic, who believed that the idea was, “not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it”.
As a concept it is much older, expressed in the philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome, and in 18th century thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions.
Its definition has always been open to wide interpretation. What is certain is that secularism is not atheism, which denies the existence of God, but an idea that there should be a distinction between the part that government plays in the lives of people and that played by religion.
Nor does it mean the suppression of religion, as in the old Soviet Union. Many states regarded as secular have laws that specifically project the rights of religious minorities. Others have an officially adopted state religion, such as Norway and Greece.
On the other hand, the French definition of secularisation – Laïcité – aggressively suppresses expressions of religious faith in public life, including the “burqa ban”. For many, this version of secularism is nothing more than Islamophobia.
The US explicitly creates a legal divide between the state and organised religion through the first amendment of its constitution. Yet surveys show more than 90 per cent of Americans believe in God, and regular attendance at religious services is among the highest in the western world.
In the UK, the monarch, as head of state, must also be the head of the Church of England, or the Anglican faith. Senior members of what is known as the established church are automatically appointed to the House of Lords, a legislative branch of Parliament. Debates in Lords and the House of Commons, where MPs sit, begin with daily Christian prayers.
Children in British government schools are legally required to study religion. In the United States this is forbidden by the constitution. Yet both countries are widely regarded as secular.
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Dr Mohamad Habash, associate professor of Islamic studies at Abu Dhabi University, says “secular” in the context used by Mr Al Otaiba means that the country does not differentiate between citizens based on their religion, yet respects Islam and its traditions and values.
“So there is nothing new. This is the Emirates’ direction since its constitution has been declared and its laws are all moving in that direction,” Dr Habash says.
The Constitution of the UAE is very specific about the relationship between religion, government and the law.
Article 2 states that: “Islam is the official religion of the Union. The Islamic Sharia shall be a main source of legislation in the Union.”
Article 25 rules that: “All persons are equal before the law, without distinction between citizens of the Union in regard to race, nationality, religious belief or social status.”
Article 32 establishes: “Freedom to exercise religious worship shall be guaranteed in accordance with established customs, provided that it does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals.”
Dr Habash says: “While UAE laws, and those of 75 other Muslim countries, are inspired by Sharia they have taken a modern hybrid approach, where they don’t apply a rigid understanding of the Quran and hadith alone.
“I don’t think the article that says Sharia should be applied will change, because it is applied based on Sharia rules and it does not lead to the amputation of anyone’s hand or crucifying or stoning anyone.”
Dr Alshateri says: “For all the GCC states, religion represents an important dimension of governance.”
Their formation, he says, resulted from “social alliances between a medley of groups and the power balance of these groups gave rise to a consensus on a particular leadership that evolved to a polity, and later into a full-fledged state”.
“Political systems do not remain constant and they morph into something else if they are to survive,” Dr Alshateri says. “The GCC countries could chart a different path for development than Europe or America.
“A sharp break with religion is impossible in the foreseeable future. Secularism as in France in the Gulf is not only impossible but mind boggling.”
In the UAE, the notion of secularism can be expressed as tolerance, in which faiths other than Islam are guaranteed equal treatment under the law. Even before the Union of December 1971, Rulers set aside land for building of places of worship for non-Muslims.
This is a process that has expanded over the past five decades. There are Christian churches in all seven emirates, with more than a dozen from different branches in Dubai.
There are Hindu temples and a Sikh gurudwara. Four years ago, Mormons established their first meeting house in Mussaffah, where an Anglican church that can hold 4,000 worshippers is being built.
In an article for Foreign Affairs magazine last year, David Roberts, assistant professor at King’s College London, wrote: “Emirati decision-makers hold a deep belief in the importance of separating the church and state in the Arab world.”
As the Arabian Gulf and the wider Middle East continue to grapple with political and societal questions over governance and religion, ideas related to civic governance are often linked to the other end of the spectrum – political Islam.
“The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is perceived as an international group that seeks to incrementally and indelibly spread its influence across the Muslim world, exerting pressure on the political class using Islam itself,” Dr Roberts says.
The Brotherhood and its peers “seek power for their own ends, do not respect national boundaries, and inevitably stoke the slow but sure radicalisation of society”, he says.
He believes that while the UAE seeks to distinguish between politics and religion, it is able to emphasise the importance of Islam to the country with projects such as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Gulf states, says Dr Alshateri, “without exception carry many religious functions. They oversee mosques and imams. The various governments of the Gulf include a mandatory subject of Islam in public and private schools.
“The Islamic legal courts or Sharia Courts are part of state institutions and governments implement much of Sharia by the force of the law, especially, on family status matters.”
At the same time, Dr Habash says: “Many of the existing UAE laws are civic or secular, but they do not contravene with Islamic basic principles as defined by Islamic scholars."