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Sheiks of Abu Dhabi and Catholic Priests of Dubai at the St. Mary's Catholic Church Dubai for 'A Salute to Tolerant UAE', November 2019

What Africa can learn from religious tolerance in the UAE

A video clip, showing religious tolerance in Muslim-dominated United Arab Emirates, trended on social media at the festive season. Prof Jason Osai* contrasts the powerful images of the video with his experience growing up in the Nigeria of the 1950s and he explains why religious divisionism has become a powerful source of dichotomy and conflicts in many parts of Africa today.

A rather interesting video clip made the rounds in the social media during the Yuletide of 2019. What made it interesting and I would add instructive and outstanding is that it involved Sheikhs of Abu Dhabi, Catholic Priests of Dubai, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Budhists, Shiites  and so many everyday people from all sides of the religious divide and from all walks of life; they gathered and celebrated ‘The Year of Tolerance’ at St. Marys Church in Dubai (UAE). It sure was a welcome sight that soothed every heart that craves peace in humanity.

A Cardinal and a Sheikh met in a symbolic handshake, warm embrace and the courteous peck on both cheeks. Holding hands as they led other Clerics and Clergies, they stepped up the short staircase of the podium where they lit a big candle on a lectern bedecked with beautiful flowers. Behind them, stood the silhouette of a man saluting in military fashion and a background flex that blazoned  A SALUTE TO TOLERANT UAE.

The clergies took turns addressing the large motley crowd. On another podium, a six-man band with guitars, keyboard and drums hinting at rock genre or something contemporary did their thing. Endless rows of seats occupied by Arab princes clad in their immaculate white apparel with black head gears that accentuated the  contrast in colour, Buddhists, Christians and numerous dignitaries reflecting cultural diversity consistently caught the lenses of so many cameras, still and video.

In the very end, it was a celebration of the brotherhood of man underneath God’s Light, akin to what John Lennon imagined and Rare Earth sang about.

For me, the event is reminiscent of life in Alinso Okeanu of my birth and childhood. Sitting on the eastern bank of Orashi River, which was a major aquatic highway in the Niger Delta of Nigeria before macadamized roads and mammy wagons debuted as means of movement of goods and personnel, Alinso Okeanu, which is in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government Area of Rivers State, was a trading post for UAC, the veritable organizational foot soldier of British capitalism and imperialism.

Alinso Okeanu was, therefore, a cosmopolis with European quarters, UAC staff quarters and ethnic  quarters (ogbes) for the peoples of Aboh, Ijaw, Kalabari, Hausa, Mbieri (Igbo), Yoruba in the years before Nigerian independence in 1960.

There were two Churches and one Mosque in Alinso Okeanu. As children, we went to the Mosque  with our Hausa friends on Fridays and they joined us to the Church on Sundays. Also, the Hausas joined us in celebrating Christmas and Easter and we joined them in celebrating Sallah, which we referred to as “Hausa Christmas.”

In Alinso Okeanu, every name had a face and child upbringing was a collective responsibility that every adult lived up to; and this responsibility was dutifully performed religiously, completely devoid of the current ethno-religious bigotry that has sufficiently threatened the corporate existence of Nigeria as an entity and turned planet earth into a theatre of eternal conflict and war. For all intents and purposes, humanity is regressing to the Hobbesian state of nature, which was “nasty, brutish and short.”

What went wrong between the 1950s and now?

It is nothing other than the inordinate quest for materialism utilizing the instrumentality of power politics on the side of the leaders and the ignorance, docility and general inability of the masses to realize that the dividing line is neither religion nor ethnic, it is economic.

The symbolism of the SALUTE  event at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Dubai, is to drive home the point that tolerance and respect for each other’s beliefs are key to harmonious coexistence and the sustainable development of man’s  only known abode, and this is said with special regard  to the responsibility inherent in the essence of sustainable development.

Rather unfortunately, more and more countries have acquired sufficient annihilative capacity to blow the planet into smithereens just by the virtually effortless push of a tiny, little, seemingly inconsequential button from a great distance. Departing from the days of Cold War, man has regressed to a pervasive perpetual state of mutual suspicion. Not long ago, the world was on edge over the executive excesses bordering on recklessness and irresponsibility of two men (the “rocket man” and the “motor mouth”) who were at each others throat over international powerplay. Without tolerance, our planet, which is infinitesimal in cosmic comparison, is doomed and so are we, naturally.

UAE is where the culture of a conservative religion and modernity coexist in near perfect harmony; it is a modern variant of Alinso Okeanu where the multiplicity of Nigerian cultures melted into a beautiful mosaic that was highly harmonious and related closely from a courteous distance with European culture. Humanity has no choice than:

Transcend our differences
Tear down these manmade fences And live in brotherhood
For the good
Of our community
And humanity.

To do otherwise is to precipitate a cataclysmic end to the human race as we know it. After all, institutional religion, which is an instrument for searching for the face of God, is man made. A study of the scriptures of Abrahamic religions with special reference to Christianity and Islam shows their common root in the blood of Abraham and the firm belief in monotheism.

Noteworthy is the fact that the Noble Koran has one chapter on Maryam (Mary, mother of Jesus) and Islam has a very high place of honour for Jesus whose preaching was universal and who never ever arrogated exclusive sonhood of God to himself; he never did. Jesus it was who said what I have done you can do even more; sadly, the metaphors, fables, parables, allegories and other “dark sayings” of the Holy Bible obfuscate that fact and a Clergy desirous to perpetuate the spiritual stranglehold and blindness of humanity exploits this phenomenal gullibility in the interest of maintaining a humonguous, top-heavy, ecclesiastical bureaucratic structure.

All that needs to be done is study (not read) the Holy Book and the eternal truth contained therein will crystallize and liberate the true seeker from the golden cages and ossified creeds of institutional religion.

Here in Nigeria, the political class has keyed into the mass idiocy and capitalized on it to feather their personal nests to the detriment of the nation’s economy and harmonious coexistence akin to what was in Alinso Okeanu of this narrative.

Carlos Santana sang that “the whole world is one big family.” Yes, humanity is one big family: “we share the same biology, regardless of our geology” so sang Sting. The tragedy is that illiteracy, poverty and the lack of social security system in Nigeria have led to a situation where the masses are led to perceive every topic in the public domain from the prism of ethnicity and religion thereby creating a most effective field for politicians to have their way.

I have repeatedly said in every forum that touches on the topic of man’s search for his source and destination that “the greatest hoaxes in humanity are embedded in the creedal concretes and mortars of the obelisks, towers and domes of institutional religion.” For humanity to snap out of the psychological and spiritual stranglehold of the softly spoken spells from the altars requires reinventing the spirit of Alinso Okeanu and the SALUTE project is a move in the appropriate direction; it is the necessary new beginning.

Prof. Jason Osai is a professor of Development Studies and Head, Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, Rivers State University, Port Harcourt, Nigeria

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