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Saturday, July 1, 2017

What's in a name change - UAE’s Mariam Umm Eisa mosque

Most Malaysians know little or nothing about the United Arab Emirates.
What we know about the UAE as it is usually referred to is often a result of a stopover in Dubai or Abu Dhabi when flying on one of the Middle Eastern airlines. Emirates Airline, which is advertised prominently on Arsenal football shirts and which has the club's stadium named after it, and Etihad are both based in the UAE.
The UAE is among the Middle East nations which - thanks to oil and gas wealth - has risen to being among the richest nations in the world, just as these two commodities have made us among the wealthiest in the Asean region.
When news about the UAE makes the headlines, it is usually for two reasons. The first is its wealth. With a GDP per capita estimated at close to US$50,000 or five times ours, the wealth is conspicuously flaunted in its capital, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which stands at 828 metres, is the tallest building on the planet and soars well above the relatively short 452 metres of our Petronas Twin Towers.
Wealth is also highly concentrated in the country, with the Al Nahyan family, one of the six ruling families of the UAE, is reputed to have a fortune of US$150 billion collectively as a family.
The second reason why the UAE makes the news is due to its political system. The nation is often described as an "autocracy" which according to the New York Times has “the sheen of a progressive, modern state".
Despite all the trappings of modernity and gaudy superwealth, the UAE ranks poorly in freedom indices measuring civil liberties and political rights. According to Amnesty International, the authorities arbitrarily restrict the rights to freedom of expression and association, and regularly detain and prosecute government critics, opponents and foreign nationals under criminal defamation and anti-terrorism laws.
Enforced disappearances, unfair trials and torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remain common. Scores of people sentenced after unfair trials remain in prison; they include prisoners of conscience. Women continue to be discriminated against in law and in practice. Migrant workers face exploitation and abuse. The courts continue to impose death sentences.
All of this sounds very familiar to us here, including the way in which our oil wealth has been mismanaged and our human rights record has been going sideways, if not backwards.
MosqueMary, Jesus
It is therefore surprising that the latest news on the UAE carries the report that the Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Mosque in Al Mushrif area has been renamed to 'Mariam Umm Eisa' mosque, which translates from Arabic as 'Mary Mother of Jesus'.
The move was ordered by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, as a gesture to promote the social connections between the followers of different religions and to strengthen the common characteristics between the various monotheistic religions.
According to the reverend Yousuf Farajallah, pastor of the Evangelical Arab community in Abu Dhabi, the unprecedented act reflected the spirit of Christian and Muslim brotherhood, and the principles and values of interfaith coexistence in the UAE.
Similarly, reverend bishop Fakhri, pastor of the Cathedral Church in Abu Dhabi, stated, "The UAE sets a real example of tolerance, which transcends ideas and slogans to become a practical reality and reaching the stage of social harmony." Reverend Fakhri added that the move was a unique gesture and demonstrated the true image of Islam and of peaceful coexistence.
Lastly, reverend Ibrahim Farouk, patron of the Christian Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt in Abu Dhabi, noted that the UAE was leading the world in the field of religious tolerance, brotherhood and peace, strengthened through its laws. "Using the name of 'Mother Mary' on this mosque is a gesture of love and peace that we hope will be followed around the world," he added.
As God revealed
In fact, the Mariam Umm Eisa mosque is not the first recent instance of such interfaith tolerance. Two years ago the Syrian authorities inaugurated a mosque named after the Virgin Mary in the city of Tartus. According to the Syrian government's Minister of Islamic Trust, Muhamad Abd al-Sattar, the dedication of the mosque marked “the first time in the Arab and Islamic worlds that a mosque has been named after Lady Mary the Virgin Mother of Christ”.
He was also reported by Syria's state run news agency as saying, “The building of mosques is a clear expression of a call for good, love, mercy and brotherhood,” and that the mosque’s goal is to “teach Islam as God revealed it…removed from the mistakes of humanity, extremism and labeling apostates (takfir)”.
With religious conflicts and tension on the rise everywhere in the world, efforts which go beyond rhetoric and cement the interfaith dialogue in actions which can minimize the concerns and fears of religious minorities - whether Muslim or non-Muslim - are sorely needed.
The gesture can be as simple a one as renaming a mosque or church or it can be a longer term and complex process of fostering education for religious tolerance, beginning with the primary school level and extending to universities (this includes curriculum taught at religious schools).

Whatever it is, our policy makers and leaders need to think out of the box to push back the hard line and extremist groups that are advocating religious exclusivism, and preying on the primordial and existential sense of insecurity of the masses.
Since the authorities in Malaysia are so obsessed with name change to symbolise the dominance of the Malay power structure and government, perhaps a move following the example of Mariam Umm Eisa may break a little bit of the religious logjam that has thus far been created.

LIM TECK GHEE is a retired academic and currently public policy analyst.- Mkini

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