Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 March 2018

Hardline clerics spewing hatred must be stopped

Spreading sectarian division is hate speech and the Gulf states have a responsibility to stop it

There are two worrying currents running at the same time in today’s Middle East. One is the number of small and large conflicts that are occurring at the same time: all the post-Arab Spring countries are still undergoing unrest of various degrees; Iraq is still precarious and other nations, like Lebanon, face deep internal divisions. These conflicts and these divisions are political, but too often expressed in sectarian terms.

The second is the tendency of fringe ideas to dominate religious discussion. Minor preachers with inflammatory messages easily have their voices heard both on- and offline. Sectarian messages are too easily spread. The discourse of Islam needs to be shifted back towards the moderate centre, as exemplified by the scholarship of Al Azhar in Cairo. Unfortunately, these fringe ideas lead people into very dangerous territory: dangerous for them and dangerous for others because it can sometimes lead them towards violent activities.

It is from that perspective that the latest decree from the Islamic affairs authority needs to be understood. Earlier this week, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice president and Ruler of Dubai, issued a decree regulating the behaviour of pilgrims during Hajj or when conducting Umrah in Saudi Arabia. Of particular note was the decree warning that any pilgrims preaching or handing out leaflets while on a trip must have approval from the UAE’s General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, or risk a Dh100,000 fine. The decree comes against a background in other Arab Gulf states at trying to rein in preachers who contribute to the rising extremism and sectarianism in the wider region. Last month, Kuwait resumed recording the sermons of clerics, while reports suggested that Saudi Arabia had suspended more than a dozen clerics.

From one perspective, these are worrying developments for the exercise of free speech. But the moves come at a critical juncture in the Arab world, and there is a difference between free-speech and hate-speech. Many of the ideas expressed by fringe figures are clearly hate-speech: targetting other Muslims because of their religious sect, or seeking to divide Muslims from one another, or suggesting that one way of being a Muslim is by attacking adherents of other religions, such as Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism. The Gulf states have a responsibility to tackle this hate speech, to try and stop these messages being disseminated, and heading off some of the chaos that too often follows.