The UAE’s Manipulative Utilization of Religion

The August announcement of normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has led to a backlash among Arabs and Muslims around the world. While activists and NGOs have denounced the UAE’s unilateral move toward Israel, various religious figures, leaders,1 and institutions endorsed the UAE-Israel deal and viewed it as a reflection of the Emirati leadership’s wisdom. This support is part of the UAE’s broader strategy of utilizing religion and religious institutions to justify and legitimize its controversial domestic and regional polices.

A Quietist and Neo-traditional Islam 

Over the past few years, and particularly after the Arab Spring, the UAE has attempted to embrace and propagate a new type of Islam that is quietist, submissive, and dismissive of revolutions against unjust rulers in the region. Fearful of the growing influence and rise of Islamist parties and movements across the Arab world—particularly in its most populous countries, such as Egypt—the UAE has fiercely sought to reclaim Islam from Islamists and introduce its own version that focuses mainly on spiritual, ritualistic, and traditional aspects of religion without much involvement in politics. Thus, the UAE has adopted a new definition of Islam as an apolitical religion that obeys oppressive rulers, justifies their actions, and delegitimizes their adversaries.

Scholars and observers describe such a brand of Islam as a neo-traditionalist interpretation that embraces Sufism as its prime ideology. Therefore, over the past few years, the UAE has embraced several Sufi figures and leaders, supported them financially, and promoted their message and activities globally. Among these figures are Sheikh al-Habib Ali al-Jifri, a Yemeni Sufi scholar who, in 2005, established the Tabah Foundation, an Abu Dhabi-based institution that focuses on spiritual and cultural activities; Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, a well-known Mauritanian scholar; and Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, a leading American scholar who, in 1996, co-founded and now heads Zaytuna College, the United States’ first accredited Muslim undergraduate college. To counter the Islamists’ appeal and influence and to prorogate its version of Islam, the UAE adopted a multifaceted and assertive strategy that follows three key tactics: creating a network of religious institutions to disseminate its version of Islam, co-opting religious leaders who tend to embrace and advance the Islamist vision, and positioning itself as the beacon of tolerance in the Muslim world.

Over the past few years, the UAE has embraced several Sufi figures and leaders, supported them financially, and promoted their message and activities globally.

Building a Religious Network

The UAE has established a network of religious institutions and initiatives in order to advance its religious and political agenda in the region and beyond. Some of these institutions are religiously driven such as the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS), which was established in 2013 and is led by Sheikh bin Bayyah. It includes religious scholars from around the Muslim world. Bin Bayyah has been co-opted and embraced by Abu Dhabi as a counterweight to the well-known Qatari-based Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who founded the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) in 2004 and headed it until 2018. Ironically, bin Bayyah was the vice president of IUMS until he resigned in September 2013. According to its mission,2 the FPPMS aims to promote values of peace, tolerance, solidarity, justice, and other neutral values to counter religious violence. The Forum’s vice president is Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and its board of trustees includes, among others, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawki Allam, a staunch defender and supporter of Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, and Sheikh Abdullah Al-Matouq, Kuwait’s former minister of justice, advisor to the royal court, and board chairman of the International Islamic Charitable Organization. He was also appointed as the UN’s humanitarian envoy for Kuwait in 2012.

Since its founding, the FPPMS has been active in spreading its message and expanding its activities beyond the UAE. It holds an annual convention, which is usually attended by hundreds of religious scholars from around the Arab and Muslim worlds, particularly by those who are in line with the UAE’s domestic and regional policies. The FPPMS is officially sponsored3 by UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

[The Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS)] holds an annual convention, which is usually attended by hundreds of religious scholars from around the Arab and Muslim worlds, particularly by those who are in line with the UAE’s domestic and regional policies.

Another religious institution is the Muslim Council of Elders (MCE), which was established in July 2014 and is based in Abu Dhabi. It is led by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb and includes many other eminent religious figures and scholars from around the Muslim world, including bin Bayyah; Sheikh Sharif Ibrahim Saleh Al-Hussaini, head of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA); and Muhammad Quraish Shihab, Indonesia’s former minister of religious affairs, among others. The MCE aims to “bring the Islamic nation together by extinguishing the fire that threatens Islam’s humanitarian values and principles of tolerance, and putting an end to the sectarianism and violence that have plagued the Muslim world for decades.” However, some observers believe that the MCE was created by the UAE as a counterweight to the IUMS and to compete with Qatari soft power in the Muslim world.

In addition to these religiously oriented organizations, the UAE has created other centers and institutions that focus on fighting radicalization and violent extremism. For example, in 2012, it established the International Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism, known as Hedayah. The center works as a forum that gathers experts from around the world who specialize in countering violent extremism (CVE). As stated on its website, the center works “to enhance understanding and share good practices to effectively build the capacity of CVE actors across the globe to promote tolerance, stability, and security.” It is chaired by Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, member of the UAE’s Federal National Council for the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and chairman of the Defense Affairs, Interior & Foreign Affairs Committee at the Council. Hedaya also includes fellows from other countries. The center has developed partnerships with other centers and think-tanks focused on counterterrorism. It also partnered with the UN’s Office of Counter-Terrorism to conduct workshops for civil society on countering extremism. Despite being founded in 2012, Hedayah became active once the UAE became involved in the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Similarly, in July 2015, in collaboration with the United States, the UAE launched Sawab, a center that the UAE embassy describes as a “a new digital communications hub to counter extremist propaganda.” It is a social media platform aiming to counterbalance extremists’ discourse and “correct the wrong ideas4 they propagate, particularly among Arab youth.

Co-opting Religious Scholars

The UAE has succeeded in co-opting several Muslim scholars in recent times. In addition to the aforementioned names, the UAE expanded its influence to include other scholars and figures such as Egypt’s former Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa, who has been a member of Tabah’s Senior Scholars Council since 2010 and is a strong Sisi supporter. Gomaa in 2013 instigated5 the Egyptian military to brutally attack, kill, and disperse supporters of the late President Mohamed Morsi after the coup of 2013. Another figure is the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb, who heads the MCE and won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s “Cultural Personality of the Year” prize in April 2013. Less than three weeks after he appeared next to Sisi in his announcement of the coup against Morsi, he was also awarded6 the Dubai International Holy Quran Award’s “Islamic Personality of the Year.”

The list of sheikhs sponsored and embraced by the UAE has included several other names such as Syria’s most known pro-regime scholar, the late Sheikh Said Ramadan al-Buti, who was killed in a bomb on March 21, 2013. Al-Buti was recognized7 as “the Islamic Personality of the Year” in 2004. Additionally, the UAE supports the new preachers and religious personalities on television such the Jordan-born preacher Waseem Yousef, who is a staunch advocate of the UAE’s foreign policy. He caused an outcry8 on social media because of  his comments endorsing the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel. Furthermore, conventions and conferences organized by FPPMS or MEC are attended by hundreds of Muslim scholars who condone the UAE’s policies.

It is worth noting that the UAE’s normalization with Israel has also impacted its support among religious scholars. For example, two key members of the FPPMS’s board have resigned in protest against the peace deal with Israel.

However, it is worth noting that the UAE’s normalization with Israel has also impacted its support among religious scholars. For example, two key members of the FPPMS’s board have resigned in protest against the peace deal with Israel after the organization publicly endorsed[9] it. These are the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, who considered normalization with Israel as “a stab in the back of Palestinians and Muslims, and a betrayal for Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.” In addition, the Muslim-American activist Aisha al-Adawiya said in a statement that the normalization with Israel was not discussed in the recent meeting of the FPPMS’s board and “there was no agreement on any kind of support for the UAE’s deal with Israel.” For his part, Hamza Yusuf did not approve the UAE’s normalization deal with Israel and distanced himself from the FPPMS statement; on his Facebook page, he emphasized that he “did not engage in or endorse geopolitical strategies or treaties” and that his “allegiance is and has always been with the oppressed peoples of Palestine, whether Muslim, Christian, or otherwise.” Similarly, Al-Matouq from the International Islamic Charitable Organization did not support the agreement with Israel and, like al-Adawiya, stressed that the FPPMS’s recent board meeting did not discuss any political initiatives regarding the Palestinian issue.

The Disguise of Tolerance

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the UAE has striven to present itself as a force of toleration and pluralism in the Middle East and as a bastion of moderation, peace, and openness in the Muslim world. It thus established the ministry of state for tolerance in 2016. Meanwhile, on December 15, 2018 the UAE declared 2019 as the year of tolerance, an initiative supervised by Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It also founded temples for Hindu and Sikh expatriates and announced the construction of the Abrahamic Family House, a massive complex encompassing a mosque, church, and synagogue. Furthermore, in February 2019, the UAE organized Pope Francis’s first ever trip to the Arabian Peninsula where he met with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb.

These efforts by the UAE to position itself as a “moderate” and “tolerant” force in the Middle East contradict its controversial domestic and foreign policy moves.

These efforts by the UAE to position itself as a “moderate” and “tolerant” force in the Middle East contradict its controversial domestic and foreign policy moves, however. They are viewed as an attempt to whitewash its brutal crackdown against political dissidents. They also run against the UAE’s heavy involvement in external wars such as those in Yemen and Libya, which have led to the killing and starvation of thousands. On August 2018, a UN report accused the UAE and Saudi Arabia of committing acts that amount to international crimes in Yemen. As the report notes, the “coalition air strikes have caused most direct civilian casualties. The airstrikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.” Furthermore, the UAE has been supporting the authoritarian and dictatorial regimes in Egypt and Syria. It embraced and financed Sisi’s coup in 2013 and encouraged his campaign to silence the opposition. It also supported Assad’s regime over the past few years and provided intelligence assistance to its forces.

The Manipulative Approach Will Continue

Despite its adoption and promotion of an apolitical and quietist Islam, the UAE is self-interestedly utilizing religion to legitimize and justify its controversial policies domestically and regionally. Not unlike other state leaders in the Arab region, UAE leaders know the political and social potency of religious scholars and authorities who control prominent institutions and perform necessary functions in Muslim and other societies. This opportunistic and manipulative approach is likely to continue for the foreseeable future and will allow the UAE to obscure its obviously contradictory behavior.

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. To learn more about him, click here.

1 Source is in Arabic.
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5 Source video is in Arabic with English translation.
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