Following on in the wake of the Year of Giving and the Year of Zayed, the UAE government has officially designated 2019 the Year of Tolerance.
This was done in order to honour founding father Sheikh Zayed’s belief that the UAE should welcome all nationalities and religions, and to strengthen the nation’s role of encouraging stability and prosperity in the region.
In this connection, the Ghaf tree was chosen as the official symbol of the Year of Tolerance because of the great significance it has as an indigenous tree – it symbolises the stability of the desert and acts as a witness to old customs.
A number of events have been planned for the year, and to find out more, CPH POST spoke to HE Fatema Khamis Almazrouei, the first UAE ambassador appointed to Denmark.
When announcing the Year of Tolerance, UAE President of the UAE Sheikh Khalifa said that “instilling values of tolerance carries on Sheikh Zayed’s legacy and teachings”. Can you elaborate on that a little?
As the founding father of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan left behind a legacy of noble values such as equality, tolerance and charity.
He said: ‘Tolerance and forgiveness are a duty. If The Almighty Creator forgives and we as human beings are His creation, then shall we not forgive?’
These are values that still play an important role in our society today, where acceptance and diversity are an integral part of the country’s identity and culture – and of its people, with more than 200 nationalities living together in peace.
The spirit of tolerance and respect with which the UAE treats all faiths and cultures is a fundamental aspect of its public policies. Led by Sheikh Zayed, this has been a central part of the country’s vision right from the beginning.
The Ghaf tree was chosen as the logo for the Year of Tolerance as it is the UAE’s authentic national tree – a source of life. It represents a great cultural value in the UAE and is associated with the Emirati identity and heritage of the country. It is a symbol of stability and resilience in the middle of the desert and stands as a witness to ancient customs. In the old days, ancestors and tribes gathered under the shadow of the Ghaf trees to discuss daily matters. A number of UAE rulers used to hold Majlis (or councils) under the shadows of these trees to meet their citizens and listen to their requests.
History – as well as these principles and values of Sheikh Zayed – has contributed to making Emirati society renowned for its inherent heritage of tolerance, peace, multiculturalism, openness and coexistence with others.
Why do you think it is especially important that we should concentrate on tolerance at this particular time?
Recently, we have seen many countries around the world struggle with integration and the challenge of building multicultural societies.
The UAE is a special case and a good example of a country that has managed to attract more than 9 million people from more than 200 nationalities around the world and still managed to build a peaceful and open society.
The Year of Tolerance reflects the approach adopted since the country’s establishment: to be a bridge of communication and convergence between the world’s peoples and cultures in an open environment based on respect, acceptance of others and rejection of extremism.
What made the Special Olympic games such a good fit for the Year of Tolerance?
The Special Olympics was an ideal opportunity to create a space for inclusion and community, where everyone involved is accepted and welcomed, regardless of ability or disability. In this way, the games empowers people with intellectual disabilities, and reduces discrimination, through participation in sports.
Furthermore, the gathering of delegations from 190 countries provides an ideal opportunity for participants, coaches and spectators to meet people of diverse cultural backgrounds, thereby increasing intercultural understanding, respect and acceptance. So in this way the Special Olympics games are a good fit for the Year of Tolerance in building bridges and community.
I know that back in January, you paid a visit to the Danish athletes who competed in the games. What message did you have for them?
My main message for the Danish delegation was the important role their participation in the Special Olympics plays in bringing people of different backgrounds together in inclusiveness and unity to make a better world and create hope. And of course I told them how proud I was to see the largest-ever Danish delegation with 86 athletes at a Special Olympics, and wished them good luck.
What would you like people to take away with them after having competed in the games?
As a representative of my country, I would like all participating athletes in the Special Olympics to take with them the spirit of unity and inclusion – to keep an open mind towards other people and cultures. I hope the Special Olympics participation has given the participants self-confidence and belief in their own capabilities and potential.
The Papal visit was a very visible sign of religious tolerance. How did it come about?
The Pope’s visit builds on the positive relationship between the UAE and the Vatican, which have enjoyed diplomatic relations since 2007. Since that date, the relationship has developed through the diplomatic efforts of both sides.
In 2010 Pope Benedict welcomed the UAE’s ambassador and commended the UAE’s openness and the opportunities it offered for fruitful, positive encounters between the world’s great religions, cultures and peoples, praising its donation of public land for Catholic churches. Later on, in 2016, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, visited Pope Francis at the Vatican.
These diplomatic relations have thus laid the foundation for the Papal visit in Abu Dhabi. The visit reflects the UAE’s position as a global capital for tolerance, contributing to strengthening human fraternity and spreading world peace. The visit is considered an international event that unites human values and transcends differences and conflict. Finally, the Pope’s first visit to the Arabian Peninsula highlights the global nature of the UAE’s prominent role as an international leader in promoting religious coexistence.
What else does the UAE do towards establishing religious tolerance in the region?
During the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis, the UAE also welcomed His Eminence the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, who is considered a main Islamic reference at one of the leading Islamic institutions.
Together the two religious leaders signed the ‘Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together’, which sends a strong message for hope and peace in the entire world, but the presence of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar is a very strong signal to Muslims in the region to accept these values of tolerance.
Furthermore, combatting terrorism, eradicating extremism and reinforcing the values of tolerance is vital in discussions with regional leaders. This was emphasised by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, when he met Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President of Egypt, during their meeting at the Ras Al Teen Palace in Alexandria, Egypt.
Both sides highlighted the importance of strengthening regional and global efforts to eradicate extremism and terrorism, eliminating sources of terrorist funding and its social and cultural effects, as well as reinforcing the values of tolerance, coexistence, co-operation and peace around the world.
Additionally, the government of Dubai has launched the International Institute for Tolerance, aiming to promote the culture of tolerance regionally and globally, to provide solutions to the challenges of extremism and to promote the UAE as a role model for tolerance. The institute will particularly focus on encouraging open dialogue and highlighting the honest and peaceful essence of Islam against extremism, fanaticism and intellectual repression.
In 2012, the Hedayah Centre was launched in Abu Dhabi, which is the International Centre for Excellence in countering violent extremism. It serves as an international hub to increase understanding and share good practices in the area of Counter Violent Extremism, whilst promoting tolerance, stability and security – especially in the region.
Finally, what other events do you have lined up for 2019 under the tolerance umbrella?
At the UAE Embassy in Denmark, the Year of Tolerance will be a natural part of all of the embassy’s activities throughout 2019. We plan to host events and activities with an enhanced focus on tolerance, whilst taking on initiatives aimed at increasing cultural understanding and positive integration between the UAE and Denmark.
In the UAE one of the largest events in relation to the Year of Tolerance will be the World Tolerance Summit under the patronage of HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, which will gather government leaders, key figures from the public and private sectors, peacekeeping ambassadors and change-makers from around the world with the aim to discuss the great importance of tolerance, peace and equality, and to celebrate diversity amongst people from all walks of life, regardless of varying political views and cultural and religious backgrounds.
One of the events that has already taken place under the Year of Tolerance umbrella was the the Special Olympic World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi from March 14-21.
This was the first time that the games have been held in the Mena region, and over 7,000 athletes from 190 countries took part, along with more than 500,000 spectators.
The games took place at 11 venues in Abu Dhabi including Zayed Sports City, the National Exhibition Centre, the Yas Marina Circuit and the Abu Dhabi Yacht and Sailing Club. Other venues used were New York University Abu Dhabi, Khalifa International Bowling Centre and the Armed Forces Officers Club.
Earlier in the year, Pope Francis paid a visit to the UAE. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed had already met the Pope in Rome in September 2016 and the two were reunited in Abu Dhabi in February.
A mass was held at Zayed Sports City on February 5, where more than 100,000 people attended.
During his visit, Pope Francis also visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Founder’s Memorial.