07/24/2015, 00.00
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A new anti-discrimination law is a step forward in terms of religious freedom

by Samir Khalil Samir
A well-known Islam expert looks at a new law adopted by the United Arab Emirates that outlaws “all forms of discrimination based on religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin”. Equality is foreign to Islam. The new law punishes anyone who promotes “religious hate” or funds organisations that spread hatred. In the highly educated UAE, "Christians are treated well."

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has adopted a new law that bans “all forms of discrimination based on religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin,” Fr Samir Khalil Samir told AsiaNews. This is a “step forward,” according to the Egyptian Jesuit, one that runs counter to what other countries do in the region, many of which  are still under the thumb of Islamic totalitarianism.

The UAE’s openness compared to other Muslim nations is further evinced by the presence of 24 churches on its territory, partially built with funds provided by local rulers. As a local bishop once said, “The UAE is the only country where Christians are well treated”. It is no accident that many Christians who live in Saudi Arabia travel to Abu Dhabi for Christmas and Easter celebrations (pictured).

The country’s openness is also rooted in demographics. Foreigners represent about 85 per cent of the resident population, 5 per cent Westerners. Others come from Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines and are employed mostly as labourers or domestic servants.

Christians are said to be 10 per cent, but none of them is an Emirati citizen. Muslims are mostly Sunni, but there are also local Shia communities, which make up 15 per cent of the Muslim population.

For Fr Samir, one of the main features of the country is its high level of literacy, 90 per cent, a very high figure for the Middle East. For females aged 15 to 24, the average is 97 per cent, and 93.6 per cent for young people. What follows are Fr Samir’s thoughts about the new law.

In the Arab and Islamic worlds, where discrimination is commonplace, a law against discrimination is a rare thing. In Arab and Muslim countries, Islam is the state religion and other faiths are at best tolerated. Equality is foreign to Islam. Yet, this anti-discrimination legislation does just that; it provides equality, replacing totalitarian notions.

As Christians living in the Islamic world, we do not ask for toleration; we want full citizenship. We insisted on it at the 2010 Synod on the Middle East. Christians ought to be equal citizens like everybody else. In Islamic countries, the various constitutions make several distinctions between Muslims and non-Muslims; between Muslims and dhimmis (protected people); between men and women; between Arabs and other ethnic groups.

Under the new law, all forms of discrimination based on religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin” are outlawed. This means that in the UAE, discrimination based on Islam is banned.

The Sunni-Shia divide has been a fault-line around which many wars have been fought in the Arab world. With the new law, equality will be guaranteed among people, largely inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a step forward.

It is important to note that another positive element is the fact that the laws anti-discrimination provisions will also cover written communication, broadcasting (TV) and social medial. UAE leaders are well aware of the ubiquitous presence of such media; hence, they have decided to deem "a criminal act" all forms of discrimination in them or hate spread by them.

No to religious hatred

With the new law, calling someone else ‘infidels’ (takfir) is punishable. Why? Because under Islamic law, someone who is an ‘infidel’ or an ‘unbeliever’ (kafir) could be put to death. Although the same law prohibits the killing of Christians and Jews because they are ‘dhimmi,’ protected, this does not apply to pagans, atheists or members of other religions. Under Islamic rule, infidels enjoy no protection. He or she can either convert to Islam or be killed. The Islamic State group has used this principle, and used it to kill Christians (even if it is against Islamic law).

The new legislation goes furthers and outlaws acts that promote ‘religious hatred’ even if no direct hateful action is undertake. Thus, anyone or any group that promotes hatred can expect heavy punishment.

In the past, hate crimes were not banned under the law. Now this is the case, and this is something a daring step to take. And we in the West might have a thing or two to learn. Consider all the contempt people have for migrants in Europe, or blacks in the United States. In your countries, hate is mostly racial in nature. In our region, in the Middle East, hate is always about religion.

The law also outlaws support for violent foreign groups, especially by making monetary donations. My guess is that this is a finger indirectly pointed at Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are known to finance radical Islamic groups.

By doing this, the UAE has taken a step forward with regard to religious freedom, still the exception to the rule in Muslim countries. I think we should support them as much as we can. It is crazy to criminalise someone only because he or she is different.

Such progress is just a first step, and it is mostly confined to the religious sphere. There is still a lot of work to do in the realm of political and in the justice system. In the UAE, human rights are upheld unevenly. Freedom of expression is limited (like in every country in the region). Prisoners are really badly treated. The courts are not fully independent.

Foreign workers are not guaranteed any rights. They are often treated like slaves, especially women working as domestics. This is really serious, considering the fact that foreigners represent 85 per cent of the resident population of the UAE.

Still, the new law is very modern. I have the impression that the UAE has decided not to stick to religious legalism, and that this is the result of better education. One of the most positive features of this country is its high literacy level. The average is 90 per cent, a record in the Middle East. Among females between 15 and 24, it is 97 per cent. Among young people, it is 93.6 per cent.

Let us hope that others will follow this first step, and that more Arab and Muslim countries will do the same.

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