The three days visit of Pope Francis to the UAE has attracted tremendous global attention, the kind of which has hardly been noticed in recent history. The event has been dominantly framed as a bold attempt to overcome the modern, binary framework of Islam/Arab vs Christian/West and therefore a welcoming step for contributing to the regional and global peace and stability. Though the narratives were built in the context of the fifth meeting of the Pope, the head of Universal Catholic community with Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad al Tayyib, the oldest Sunni theological seminary; the latter is not equivalent of the Pope, either in rank and authority or in exercising significant influence on the Sunni Muslim world. Hence the breaking of Islam vs West binary through this meeting does not hold much ground.
Rather there are four important reasons that underlie warm global reception to the Pope’s visit to the UAE. First, the visit came amid the rising authoritarian, nationalistic regimes and xenophobic voices, terrorism, sectarianism, religious-secular-ethnic divide across major parts of the world, particularly in the “matured” land of democracy. In short, the Pope’s visit kept the hope of togetherness, civility of life, of humanity as abiding values at a time when the world looks dangerous enough to slide into chaos and breakdown, particularly in the context of volatile Middle Eastern politics, including US-Israeli-Iran confrontation, UAE-Saudi Arabia vs Iran in Yemen and the possibility of regrouping of ISIS and other Islamic terrorist forces in view of Trump’s declaration of the withdrawal of American troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
Second, this was the Pope’s first visit to the land of Arabia. It is the Arabian Peninsula that continues to represent the cradle of Islam. However the visit is not without a context. The UAE being a close ally of Saudi Arabia, the visit has the blessing of Saudi Arabia and took place in the context of growing Israeli-Saudi bonhomie in view of checkmating the Iranian threat or keeping the USA remained in Gulf through Jewish lobby, visit of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Oman and gradual opening of Saudi Arabia to the idea of pluralism.
The Pope’s symbolic embrace of Arabia — its land, people, culture, civilisation, religion, language — is indeed momentous considering the fact that Europe’s Orientalism thrived and continue to thrive among some pockets of European citizenry on the construction of “Islamic Middle East” as “Other” of Christianised West. On the other hand, it also provided a good opportunity to the ruler of the UAE to showcase to the world of its experiment with relative openness and pluralism. The standing invitation of the UAE through Muslim Council of Elders headed by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayyib to celebrate UAE’s declaration of 2019 as “Year of Tolerance” signalled the Arabia’s readiness to embrace other and to welcome all those who had left the Arabia due to persecution or hardship. The unity of the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar mediated through the UAE gave voice to the largest section of humanity represented by two great monotheist traditions — Islam and Christianity — in isolating and delegitimising the voices of terror and extremism within the Christian Right and the Islamic Right.
Third, Pope Francis, raised as the son of an Italian migrant in Argentina, preferred to identify and speak on rights, duties and dignity of immigrant, emigrants and migrants, refugees, which is increasingly emerging as the vast pool of humanity in the age of globalisation. It is mostly people from this segment of population across the globe that has attracted toward the discourse of terror and terrorism.
In accepting the invitation of the UAE — a country of 9 million out of which 8 million is immigrant belonging to more than 200 nationalities — the Pope seemed to be guided by three objectives for the visit: (a) to identify with pathetic plight of millions of immigrants — legal, illegal, semi-legal all across the globe — to be treated with rights and dignity as they are emerging an important stakeholders in the development, security and stability of the globe. (b) Highlighting the “UAE model of governance” incorporating the principle of tolerance, moderation and religious freedom and its Islamic humane approach towards immigrant community, which insulated both its citizenry and immigrant population from falling into trap of radicalisation and terrorism. It may be noted here that the vision of federal, plural and multicultural UAE is the legacy of its founder, late His Highness Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan; as a result of which today the UAE boasts of having more than 70 places of worship for different faith communities, including more than 50 Christian Churches of various denominations with establishment of earliest church dated back to 1965 and a grand Hindu temple at Abhu Dhabi under construction.
Fourth, the Pope through the UAE assured his global Christian community that Islam represents a tradition of peace, compassion, dialogue, service, cooperation, togetherness, friendship, love, and thus an important partner in the addressing the challenges of global common.
While in the UAE, the Pope conducted an International Interfaith Meeting on Human Fraternity, and a Catholic Mass of more than 1.3 million Catholic Christians, mostly from India and Philippines and signed “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyib. The Document is indeed valuable for fostering human fraternity as it recognised the modern principle of human rights, equality, freedom, dialogue, pluralism, diversity, and mutual cooperation. It decisively rejects political manipulation of religion as anything to do with religion as well as of an understanding that terrorism and violence has no roots in religion.
Whether Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together will become a living reality in most parts of Muslim world in near future is questionable proposition, considering the fact that most of Muslim states are basically “rogue states”, what is important to underscore here is that the Pope’s visit has, by implication, recognised the growing stature of the UAE as “the leading moderate Islamic nation” in the Muslim world, a recognition that till recently was applied to Turkey. It is widely believed that Saudi Crown Prince MBS’ penchant for reforming the Saudi’s Islamic orthodoxy comes from the UAE model. Further, the Pope implicitly throws his weight behind the UAE and other emerging moderate Islamic voices such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain against the political Islamist regimes of Iran, Turkey and Qatar in the emerging fault lines of Middle East and Gulf. This partly explains the near knee-jerk responses from these countries to such a momentous event.
(The writer is Senior Fellow, Policy Perspectives Foundation, Delhi)