x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

UAE offers tolerant society to discuss theological issues

The UAE is a great environment in which theology can be used to shape a more profound, nuanced and respectful understanding between different faiths.

The question hung in the air: "Is Allah the God of Islam the same as the God of the Jews and Christians?" The setting for the question was Cafe Arabia in Abu Dhabi, an increasingly popular meeting place and venue for authors, poets, musicians and artists, and a perfect environment for exploring such a question.

For many people, the answer is blindingly obvious. However, for others, the deep theological conviction that "the other" is worshipping a different deity, or even worse is godless, sets the stage for potential isolation from or conflict with neighbours.

Living in the UAE is a challenge for those who struggle to answer "yes" to that question. Yet the opportunity to explore that question has never been more urgent, and the UAE is a great environment in which theology can be used to shape a more profound, nuanced and respectful understanding between different faiths.

When I go home to the UK and people discover that I am a Christian priest living in the Middle East, their standard response is something along the lines of "Gosh, that must be incredibly difficult for you." Somehow they cannot imagine the Church being permitted to exist within a sea of Islam. I assure them the Church not only exists but is thriving.

In fact, I tell them it is easier to be a Christian in the UAE than it is to be a Christian at home in the UK.  Religion has become somewhat disenfranchised in UK culture and education. To even mention the word "God" in a public forum at home is to draw an embarrassed silence and discomfort. Occasionally, I note a similar awkwardness among expatriate British educators and business folks.

This is not the case for people who are native to the UAE and the Middle East. Speech about God permeate everyday conversation. For me as a person of faith, I exult in the opportunities to daily speak of God without having to enter into a defensive preamble as to why I think God exists in the first place.

For many western expatriates, living in the UAE is the first time where they have to really consider the role of religion in daily life. They hear the call to prayer five times a day, and are stunned when they see the sheer number of worshippers attending the mosques and churches.

Many have been indoctrinated with a secularism that insinuates that religion is evil at worse, irrelevant at best and needs to be relegated to the margins of society. To be fair to secularists, their views are strengthened by every media report of religious violence or bizarre behaviour. The academic musings of priests and other religious leaders during their weekly sermons fail to connect with their audiences, seeming to vindicate a secularism which prides itself on being pragmatic and utilitarian.

In a world where great value is given to those who can contribute in the fields of technology, medicine, economics and business - theologians do not naturally come to mind as making any profound contribution to society.

Think again.

As theology is not a subject one would normally read about in a daily newspaper, a quick definition is necessary. The Greek word "theology" literally means "words about God". That means when anyone mutters an opinion that "there might be something out there", they are engaging in theology. Theology shapes politics, economies and world events.

We only need to look at the Palestinian issue to see that the political philosophy of Zionism is essentially a theological construct - and that the resulting martyrdom of so many young people is rooted in a theology of salvation which rewards radical behaviour such as suicidal bombing. Theology can literally be a life or death matter.

Efforts by Islamic and Christian leaders in Iraq have revealed that where there is collaboration between theologians across a religious divide the level of sectarian violence drops.

It is true that religion is a source of much violence and misery in our world. Equally, it is also true that a mature and gracious theology can create tolerant societies. It is noteworthy that the UAE authorities have invested specifically in theological think tanks (the Tabah Foundation is one such organisation) in which academic theologians explore how Islam responds creatively and compassionately with the complexities of an increasingly diverse society.

It seems to me that the UAE is a great place in which theology can be articulated and applied at street level. For example there is a theology of co-belligerence. This is an interfaith approach in which issues such as poverty, child abuse, domestic violence and exploitation of the poor are addressed together. The synergy of an approach such as this could be truly transformational in a cosmopolitan society like the UAE

Yet before we get to that place of collaboration, we need to be grounded in our respective theologies. It begins with that most basic and fundamental question: "Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?"


The Reverend Canon Andy Thompson is the chaplain of St Andrew's Anglican Church in Abu Dhabi and author of Christianity in the UAE: Culture and Heritage