Because the UAE is in principle a theocratic state, the question of religion is a contentious one for anyone who doesn't happen to follow the one religion which receives state sanction--that, of course, being Islam. While one is free to practice his religion whatever it may be--in at least some form or other--he is not to proselytize any non-Islamic creed nor criticize Islam. There are accordingly churches, temples and shrines of various faiths and denominations, but they remain in large part hidden or disguised. In the six years that I have lived in the UAE I have never just happened upon a church or a temple, while every other day it seems I'll spot a mosque tucked away that I hadn't noticed before.
Fair enough. Islam is a very significant part of the UAE's heritage, just as say Christianity is for the US. Furthermore, Islam presupposes itself to be the ultimate authority in questions of morality and the law, without provision for a distinct secular code. (There is no give unto Caesar what is Ceasar's and give unto God what is his precept.) This is the reality that most are willing to accept here, whatever their religious conviction, and it is all the easier to do so as there is no pressure to adopt the officially sanctioned state religion or abandon one's own.
Is the UAE, perhaps, a secular Islamic state like Turkey, or a secular multi-relgious state like India?
No, it is neither. The state builds the mosques, pays salaries to the imams or prayer leaders, implements Islamic or Sharia law within its legal code and pays homage to any variety of Islamic traditions. It is clearly a non-secular, Islamic state. At the same time it differs dramatically from neighbors like Saudi Arabia or Iran in that it does not impose religion upon anyone--even as it welcomes a largely non-Islamic population of expatriate workers and tourists.
There is the reality of Islam that the non-Muslim must accept here. Likewise there are certain realities that the state itself must also conform to, which greatly influence the policies it implements with regard to issues of morality and religion.
It is like a juggling act--trying to honor one's Islamic traditions while keeping a large non-Islamic expat population and the hoards of tourists feeling largely free and unencumbered. What might seem contradictory or scandalous--like alcohol and other forms of liberalism--is this tension being played out.
I would argue that the government does a good job of walking the tight rope. It is no easy task to keep a devout Islamic population, expats of numerous faiths and tourists all relatively content with regard to the question of religion. Whether one talks about the state or an individual there is always a pronounced dualism when it comes to religion. That is the case in the UAE, as everywhere regardless of the predominant religious tradition. That seems to be the nature of the religious beast. At least in the UAE this form of dualism is a relatively benign one.
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If interested see further commentary at Religion, an earlier Word A Day post, and Religion, a more personal perspective.
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