The United Arab Emirates refuses to stay silent as religion is “hijacked and politicized” by people around the world, said UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba on Tuesday, in a statement echoing the country’s founder.
“We feel that religion has been hijacked and politicized, dominated by extremism and radicalism, and basically been misinterpreted by so many people around the world,” Al Otaiba said during a webinar hosted by the Special Olympics, which is supported by the UAE.
The UAE’s leadership embarked on a public campaign for tolerance last year, which included a visit by Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi for the signing of a historic interfaith document and the construction of an interreligious complex that will house a Jewish synagogue, Christian church, and Islamic mosque.
“What we are trying to do here is to take the narrative back and recapture what our religion means, both to us and to the rest of the world," said Al Otaiba.
"I think our religion…was never about politics...was never about extremism...was never about violence,” he added.
“Our religion is being hijacked”
Al Otaiba’s remarks are consistent with those of UAE founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
According to his son, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Sheikh Zayed had said that religion was being hijacked following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
In an interview with the New York Times, the Crown Prince recalled how his father asked him whether he thought Osama bin Laden’s actions were in line with “what the Prophet wanted us to do?”
Not at all, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed answered.
“You’re right. Our religion is being hijacked,” responded the UAE founder.
Speaking out about tolerance
Al Otaiba is just one of many UAE officials to publicly emphasize the country’s commitment to religious tolerance.
UAE Assistant Minister for Cultural Affairs Omar Ghobash told Al Arabiya English last month that the country offers the freedom and space to practice religion without restrictions.
“The UAE consistently sends a message that diverse perspectives and life experiences matter greatly in strengthening the country’s plurality,” Ghobash said.
Last month UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash addressed the American Jewish Committee’s virtual global forum about his country’s growing Jewish community, which appointed its first Chief Rabbi last year.
“The DNA of our society is a very tolerant one” Gargash said.
The UAE has not only welcomed the establishment of a Jewish community, but a host of other religious communities, according to Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community of the Emirates Yehuda Sarna.
“Its commitment to tolerance is real, not only in word but also in deed,” Sarna said in an interview with Al Arabiya English.
Al Otaiba said that his country has always promoted tolerance but that “we have never been as vocal as we have in the last couple of years.”
The UAE’s public approach hopes to defy the stereotypes that the “entire region is violent and the religion here is radical,” he said.
“We are trying to present to the rest of the world that religion has absolutely nothing to do with extremism or politics. It has to do with faith and respect.”