September 21, 2020 3:21:45 am
As the world’s Jewish communities celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the traditional New Year, over the weekend, greetings came from an unexpected quarter — the Arab Gulf. The foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — which recently normalised ties with Israel under the so-called Abraham Accords — tweeted their best wishes in Hebrew and English. This simple gesture marks an important moment in the Middle East. The region’s tolerance of non-Islamic faiths has seen a sharp decline in recent decades amidst the rise of radical political Islam that threatened the Arab Gulf kingdoms. Many Gulf rulers appeased the Islamists by adopting part of their agenda at home, letting them export extremist ideology to the rest of the world, adopting an uncompromising attitude towards Israel and lending a religious dimension to conflicts around the world involving Muslims.
The Arab Gulf, however, has begun to send a very different message. Since the signing of the Abraham Accords last week in Washington, official Gulf media has been recalling the history of peaceful coexistence through the millennia between the Arabs and Jews. One of the most significant recent statements on religious tolerance came from the Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Earlier this month, Imam Abdul Rahman al-Sudais offered a discourse on the Islamic teachings that emphasised respect towards non-Muslims and dwelt on Prophet Mohammed’s positive engagement with the Jews. Many have read this sermon as signalling Saudi rethink on ties with Israel. Restrictions on religious freedom are the strongest in Saudi Arabia. A definitive change in Saudi Arabia may be some distance away, but the signs are more hopeful than at any time in recent memory.
The slow but certain shift towards religious tolerance had indeed preceded the Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, for example, has taken small steps at home to reduce the hold of religious orthodoxy. The most visible expression of the new thinking was in the UAE, where promoting religious tolerance has become an active state policy. It has allowed the construction of a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi, hosted the Pope, and is now letting the Jews practise their culture and faith. The UAE is constructing a complex in Abu Dhabi called the House of Abraham that will host a synagogue along with a church and a mosque. In recent decades, few regions have been as damaged by the extremist ideologies emanating out of Arabia as the Subcontinent. Once the exemplar of peaceful religious coexistence, the Subcontinent is now itself torn by religious and sectarian intolerance. Supporting the Arab turn to tolerance will hopefully help South Asia to reclaim its own tradition of religious coexistence and harmony.
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