The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is leading the way in implementing transformative cultural and legal changes that could shape a new type of Muslim identity in the 21st century.
Support for French President Macron’s Program Against Islamist Separatism
Last week, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash stepped away from the rhetoric of other Islamic nation-states by making a bold statement of support for French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron recently came under fire from Turkey, Pakistan and other Islamic countries for speaking out against Islamist separatism in France.
Macron laid out a plan that introduced legal steps to regulate how Islam is practiced in France. The steps were not designed to penalize France’s Muslim population or worshipers but instead to encourage integration and dissuade the politicization of faith, an ideology known as Islamism. In the context of Western states, Islamism is a separatist and often supremacist ideology seeking to set up parallel social and legal structures within a host nation.
Gargash rejected the accusations that Macron’s aims are to exclude Muslims living in France. Speaking with the German newspaper Die Welt, Gargash called on Muslims to accept Macron’s statements on the need for integration into Western societies “in a better way,” adding that:
“[Muslims] have to listen carefully to what Macron said in his speech. He doesn’t want to isolate Muslims in the West, and he is totally right … The French state has the right to search for ways to achieve this in parallel with combating extremism and societal closure … You should listen to what Macron really said in his speech: He doesn’t want the ghettoization of Muslims in the West, and he is absolutely right.”
The UAE minister’s remarks were made all the more powerful as they came after Macron’s defense of free speech in light of the recent Islamist terror attacks in France over the republication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The magazine republished the cartoons ahead of the trial of accomplices in the 2015 attack on the magazine’s headquarters by Islamist extremists. That killing spree resulted in the murder of 17 people, 12 of whom worked at the magazine.
In contrast, other Muslim nations, Muslim political leaders and Muslim interest groups weighed in on the French integration and free speech issues by calling for boycotts of France, accusing Macron of Islamophobia and even questioning Macron’s mental health.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a US-based Islamist organization, joined the above crowd and warned American Muslims against traveling to France. In short, the mainstream Muslim reaction has been one of, ironically, global separatism.
Changes in the UAE Legal Code
Meanwhile, news recently broke that the UAE was “relaxing” its Islamic laws on alcohol and cohabitation between genders. In addition, “honor killings” will now be criminalized and prosecuted like other crimes.
According to the state-run news agency WAM, the changes are motivated by economic and social standing while aiming to “consolidate the UAE’s principle of tolerance.”
UAE’s new legal changes mean:
- No more penalties for alcohol consumption, sales or possession for those 21 and over
- Cohabitation between unmarried couples is no longer illegal
- Removal of laws defending “honor crimes.” Honor crimes (often leading to honor killings) spring from a family member’s attempt to purify the family of the “shame” of promiscuity or disobeying cultural and religious norms by a family member.
Alcohol and cohabitation were privileges afforded only to foreigners and tourists in the UAE, though even foreigners were at risk of prosecution for these “crimes.” The new laws not only bring more equity in the region, they also discourage the perception of separatism between the UAE’s Muslim and non-Muslim populations. Of the UAE’s population of close to 9.8 million people, ex-pats and immigrants constitute 8.4 million. In addition, under the new laws, non-Muslims will not be subject to Islamic (shariah) courts in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance.
Peace With Israel
The latest UAE news follows a historic U.S.-brokered peace deal to normalize relations between Israel and the UAE. Bahrain also followed with a peace deal with Israel. With the presumptive election of Joe Biden to the U.S. presidency, speculation is rife that Saudi Arabia will also normalize relations with Israel before Biden takes office to present to a future Biden administration a united front with the UAE, Bahrain and Israel against Iran.
Biden has indicated he will reenter the flawed Iran nuclear deal, which may also entail easing sanctions against the Islamic Republic, and which poses a continual threat to the Saudis as well as the other Sunni Gulf States and Israel. Unlike other Arab countries, Saudi Arabia refrained from congratulating Biden until November 9.
Meanwhile, the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars recently called the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group that does not represent the true values of Islam. In addition to lambasting the Brotherhood for being a separatist group that only seeks power for itself under the cover of religion, the council said the group undermines coexistence within nations while stirring up sedition, violence and terrorism.
As Arab nations push reforms encouraging growth toward a more tolerant, integrated Muslim identity, the question is whether Western Muslims will adapt and adopt more open conversations of how Islam is practiced.