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Living in a Muslim World

The example of the Arab city-state of Dubai shows that hope exists for change in Islam.
by Brother Sameer Advani, LC | Source:
The average CNN viewer has never seen an Arab street without bomb crackers or blood stains, or at minimum a march of ski-masked heavies waving Soviet-era assault weapons and shrieking incomprehensible menaces. For that matter, when’s the last time you saw an Arab smile on network television?

Infidel, the latest book to hit the New York Times bestseller list, confirms this grim impression. It tells the harrowing story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian Muslim woman who, born into a family of desert nomads and educated by radical imams in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, finally managed to escape first to the Netherlands and then to the United States. Ayaan has become an internationally renowned spokeswoman against not only jihadism, but also Islam which she believes is inseparable from it. Islam, she says quite categorically, “spreads a culture that is brutal, bigoted, … and that generates more backwardness with every generation.”

I was hardly surprised therefore when a friend recently asked me if there was any hope for change within Islam. I assured him that although I had lived fifteen years in Arabia, I was no expert on Islam and that my experience was limited to a single city. But he kept insisting until I finally responded with what must have seemed to him sheer madness. “The years I spent in Arabia,” I told him, “were some of the happiest years of my life.”

The city-state of Dubai which forms part of the United Arab Emirates, a tiny country squeezed in between Saudi Arabia, Oman and the Persian Gulf, is the place I called home for more than half my life. What immediately stands out about the city is its multiculturalism: citizens from more than 150 nations live and work together in an atmosphere extraordinarily free of ethnic conflict. Where else can you find, for instance, Egyptian-owned Italian restaurants with Indian cooks and Filipino waiters? Even Israelis are allowed to work in the city, although they are advised to avoid attracting too much attention. The incredible diversity and richness of different cultures within the city provide ample evidence that mutual respect and tolerance are possible within an Islamic setting.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the city has lost its distinctively Muslim identity. True tolerance does not mean forgetting one’s own beliefs, and the government of Dubai is not ashamed to call itself Muslim and to actively shape the city’s laws along Muslim lines. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. With respect to morality, for instance, it has actually resulted in a surprisingly ‘Christian’ city. Abortion, prostitution and pornography are all officially outlawed and provide a cultural environment devoid of many of the moral problems facing our traditionally Christian Western culture.

Muslim views, of course, don’t always square with natural law. Women’s rights and freedom of religion are repeatedly brought up in this context. The former actually provides a perfect example of where moderate Muslims are willing to dialogue precisely because they recognize that their traditional beliefs on the status of women are not fundamentally in accord with natural law. The city of Dubai grants almost equal job opportunities to both men and women, and there is a strong movement to allow women to occupy seats in parliament, something already achieved in the neighboring Gulf kingdom of Qatar.

The question of religious freedom is more complicated. On the one hand, Muslims are extremely proud of their faith. It is not without admiration that I remember, for example, the daily call to public prayer in Dubai. It echoed everywhere in the city: ‘Allah al-akbar’ – ‘God is great’ – and at its utterance the city virtually transformed itself. From every side men and women poured forth; deserting their ornate oriental souqs and simple road-side cafés, they all hurried to one of the many great-domed mosques calling them to worship. This type of public religious demonstration may surprise us in the West where faith is increasingly relegated to the private sphere, but the Muslims recognize that this is against the very nature of religion.

That’s all very good for Islam, but to what extent are Islamic states willing to accept the community aspect of other religions? Dubai allows freedom of worship to several religious groups, but on the strict condition that it takes place only within the particular community involved and not in the public square. For example, it was none other that the former ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid, who gifted the Catholic community with the property on which its church and school stand. The Church is allowed to carry out religious instruction and hold religious services within the confines of this property, but is absolutely forbidden to perform any type of missionary activity. This is obviously far from an ideal situation and shows that much still needs to be improved. Nevertheless religious freedom in Dubai is substantially better than in many other Muslim countries, such as neighboring Saudi Arabia, which limit non-Islamic religious services to just the family level.

What does all of this actually tell us? First, that Islam is not a monolithic unity. Life in Muslim countries varies widely from fundamentalist states like Iran or Pakistan on the one hand to more liberal states like Qatar and Dubai on the other. There is a wide spectrum of realities included between these extremes, and in light of this one simply cannot make unqualified statements about Islam’s universal ‘backwardness’ and inability to adapt to the West.

What the evidence does allow us to conclude, however, is that Islam’s encounter with the Western world, and particularly with its Christian values of freedom, respect and tolerance, is an ongoing process. Its dialogue with modernity is by no means complete, but neither is it impossible, or – and this is a key point – undesired. No one denies that real problems exist within Islam, but neither should we lose sight of the fact that there is a genuine and ongoing effort to address these problems by many Muslim groups and governments.

Islam is in fact, in a transition stage, and the violence in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East only confirm that change is painful. There will always be those who cling fanatically to the past and oppose those who dare to believe in the future. The war on terrorism is thus intimately linked to changing the Islamic culture, something which we cannot expect to happen overnight and which is bound to proceed at a different pace from country to country. Yet the example of cities like Dubai show that the desire for change is there. And this is a real source of hope for the future.

Which brings us back to Infidel and Hirsi Ali. Even “ordinary” Islam, she contends, is incompatible with modernity and democracy, and needs to “move from the world of faith to the world of reason.” I suggest Ms. Ali take a trip to Dubai. What she finds might surprise her.

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