Pope Francis' visit to the United Arab Emirates earlier this week is path breaking, but it is only one of the unprecedented and audacious steps taken by Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to promote goodwill among diverse peoples. It got world-wide attention because of the international profile of the Catholic Church but the Crown Prince's earlier decisions to permit the open practice of different faiths in the emirate of Abu Dhabi—Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Christian– have been no less important in the local context.
Arab countries and their clerical orders have always been wary of permitting the entry of not only non-Islamic faiths but also the practice of any form of Islamic doctrine which is not officially recognised. These traditions got strengthened by the events of 1979. What Mohammed bin Zayed is doing in the UAE constitutes a major departure from the currents that flowed from that fateful year.
Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran after the departure of the Shah in January 1979. His arrival ushered in the Islamic Revolution which not only changed the geo-politics of the region but also contributed to a feeling of general empowerment in the ummah. At the same time, it made the governments of the Arab peninsula and those aligned with the United States, very nervous. This was because of the Iran's desire to spread revolutionary principles outside its territories.
Later that year, fundamentalists besieged the Grand Mosque at Mecca. They claimed that the Saudi Royal family had broken its compact with the Wahhabi doctrine and therefore had lost its legitimacy. The rebellion was suppressed but the Saudi monarchy responded to it by turning to greater public adherence to the Wahhabi mazhab and its world-wide propagation with the help of its enormous financial resources.
Three other major developments occurred in 1979 which made a profound and lasting impact on the region and the globe: The Soviet ingress into Afghanistan in December, the execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in April, and Saddam Hussein's becoming Iraq's President in July. However, the changes in Iran and the tighter embrace of the Wahhabi doctrine by the Saudis led to a push for more rigid and harder social and religious approaches in the Arab Peninsula even as ever larger number of diverse peoples arrived in all Peninsula countries to augment the work force. They were allowed to profitably work but were not permitted to publicly practice any non-Islamic religion. Thus, there were no real and open places of worship of these faiths. The Gulf Arabs were open and hospitable but their ulema were not tolerant of diversity.
Mohammed bin Zayed has challenged the strict orthodox approach by embarking on the road to tolerance. This is particularly so for he has allowed the construction of places of worship of Indic faiths. Some but not all rulers of the constituent states of the countries are animated by his approaches. Thus, Fujairah welcomed Sri Sri Ravi Shanker last year and permitted him to openly address his followers.
Clearly, the Pope's visit is the result of a long process of interaction between the Holy See and the UAE; diplomatic relations were established between them in 2007. Coinciding with the visit an interfaith conference called the Global Conference of Human Fraternity was organised by the Muslim Council of Elders. This organisation is based in and promoted by Abu Dhabi and consists of important mainly Arab Muslim scholars and led by the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed El Tayyeb. Al Azhar is one of the greatest centres of Islamic learning and its head is an authoritative voice on Islamic theology and learning. Spiritual leaders of many faiths took part in the conference to promote greater understanding among them.
Pope Francis was received at the Abu Dhabi palace by Mohammed bin Zayed along with Mohammad bin Rashid the Dubai ruler. This was a significant gesture on the part of the Dubai ruler who is the Prime Minister of the Federation and heads the second most important emirate of the country. It showed that he too was part of the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince's initiative. This is not surprising for he has made Dubai an open international city which, in the absence of oil, is the key to its prosperity.
The truly stunning part of the visit was Mohammad bin Zayed agreeing to the Pope conducting a mass at the Abu Dhabi stadium with the influential minister of tolerance Sheikh Nahayan present. This is perhaps the first time the leader of another faith has been allowed to hold a religious ceremony publicly in the Arab peninsula. The Pope and the Al-Azhar Grand Imam walked hand in hand to a session of the interfaith conference and more significantly visited the Sheikh Zayed mosque together.
It will be interesting to observe the reactions of the traditional ulema in the Arab world and the wider ummah to the Pope's visit. Former Iranian President Khatami had initiated a dialogue of civilizations and that too was important for a fractured world. It is doubtful though if the Grand Ayatollahs of Qom would have allowed a Papal visit, leave alone a mass in Iran, though Khatami had met Pope John Paul as President in Iran.
Mohammed bin Zayed is seeking to make history through his liberal and positive thinking and action. He needs to be encouraged and strengthened for his courage and farsightedness. It will be a pity if the saplings of tolerance now being planted in the desert do not become mighty trees.