Behind the UAE temple, a legacy of pluralism - Hindustan Times
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Behind the UAE temple, a legacy of pluralism

Feb 20, 2024 10:08 PM IST

How do we frame the camaraderie between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled India and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a West Asian Arab Muslim nation?

Following the inauguration of the BAPS Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi last week, there is immense curiosity about what prompted the ruler of an Arab Muslim country, with hardly any non-Muslim citizenry, to not only donate land for a Hindu temple but also publicly associate with the momentous project. How do we frame the camaraderie between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled India and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a West Asian Arab Muslim nation?

A devotee blows a conch shell (Shankha) during preparations ahead of the arrival of the Indian prime minister for the inauguration of the BAPS Hindu Mandir, the largest Hindu temple in the Middle East, in Abu Dhabi on February 14, 2024. (Photo by RYAN LIM / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
A devotee blows a conch shell (Shankha) during preparations ahead of the arrival of the Indian prime minister for the inauguration of the BAPS Hindu Mandir, the largest Hindu temple in the Middle East, in Abu Dhabi on February 14, 2024. (Photo by RYAN LIM / AFP)(AFP)

The answer must be sought in the labyrinthine reality of the current socio-political churn within the Arab world. First and foremost is the chasm between the ideological States and the non-ideological States in the region, where the former such as Iran and Qatar (Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman has ceased to be an ideological State) have tried to define foreign policy in terms of their confessional priorities without jettisoning their national interests. Second, in a region gripped by a multitude of conflicts, internecine and inter-regional, sectarian and political, but defended in confessional, even theological idioms, a non-ideological State such as the UAE thought it opportune to choose a path that is simultaneously protective of self-interest and reflective of an internal culture of pluralism, pacifism, and economic pragmatism. Third, more so in the specific context of the UAE, the leadership of the country felt that its self-interest was almost antithetical to the conflictual hues and trends that mark the political reality of the wider West Asian region, where puritanical notions of the faith and exclusivist ideas of collective identity rule the roost.

Also important is to understand the UAE’s self-image and the way it wants to be seen and appreciated by the world. There are four characteristics by which the country defines itself and wants to be respected. It wants to set itself apart from most of its neighbours in terms of its tolerance and acceptance of diversities in its midst and outside. For instance, Saudi Arabia still does not allow any place of worship other than that of Islam on its soil, whereas the UAE has around 50 churches belonging to different denominations, a few temples (the first Hindu temple was established in Dubai in 1958), gurdwaras, and a synagogue.

The Abrahamic Family House, recently opened to the public, is home to Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, St Francis Church and Eminence Ahmed El-Tayeb Mosque. That this culture of accommodation predates the formation of the UAE is significant, as the first church in Abu Dhabi was consecrated in 1965 in the presence of the then ruler of Abu Dhabi, six years before the Union was born. This shows that the UAE’s rulers and people did not suddenly discover the virtues of cultural pluralism and coexistence as a domestic or foreign policy imperative but were deeply committed to the idea of pluralism beyond political and commercial expediencies.

The second characteristic that the UAE defines itself with is its determination to pursue policies, both domestic and global that are often bold and at odds with the regional mainstream. This is amply manifested in the decision to sign the Abraham Accords with the State of Israel and the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace with Pope Francis. The recent withdrawal of armed forces from Yemen could also be seen as part of this resolve to steer a path of self-interest and away from a herd mentality. The third characteristic that marks the UAE’s self-image is the care and concern that the leadership displays with regard to the millions of foreigners and economic immigrants living in the country. A telling example was the speech delivered by Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Expressing the government’s determination to fight the pandemic tooth and nail, the then Crown Prince and now President made a passionate statement that he and his government would protect both the citizens and the residents in equal measure. And he kept his word.

The fourth and perhaps the most salient aspect of the UAE’s policy of accommodation is its legal and social framework that not only decries but also criminalises any attempt at inter-religious strife within its borders. The law of the land protects the sanctities and sacred objects of all faiths without any hierarchisation among them. This was most exemplified in the Federal Decree Law No. 34 of 2023 concerning Combating Discrimination, Hatred and Extremism, which prohibits attacks and stipulates severe punishment on religious beliefs of all hues, damage and insult of holy books and disrespectful behaviour towards places of worship. That the law does not privilege Islam over other faiths being practised in the country is an eloquent testimony to the magnanimity of the UAE’s vision of tolerance and respect.

Of course, many of the policies mentioned above may be criticised while scrutinising them in specific detail, but it is incontrovertible that these represent a clear, ethical and moral commitment against zealotry, hate and division. This is the context in which a marvellous Hindu temple of exquisite architectural and civilisational value has come up in Abu Dhabi.

Shajahan Madampat is a writer and cultural commentator based in Abu Dhabi. The views expressed are personal

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